It's a melancholy thing, putting the garden to bed. Never mind the heartbreak of hacking back, uprooting, burning, and composting plants that were so lovingly nurtured. I can think of no more poignant herald of the long, cold months to come.
But gardeners are optimists by nature, and no sooner have I finished tearing down a season's effort than I've begun preparing and planning for another round. Maybe it's just a sophisticated form of denial.
In the 20-plus years I've been gardening, I don't think I've been through a more challenging season than this past ‘summer’. While it got off to a promising start, with very warm temperatures in May, it quickly turned inhospitable. June and July were both cold, grey, and rainy, and at no time through the summer did we get the hot sunny weather that a garden really needs. None of my plants had a startling growth spurt, there was never a time when I ogled the fabulous lushness of it all.
Early in the season, I did battle with cutworms that kept mowing down my seedlings. Spraying with nematodes seemed to help. My Savoy cabbage was infested with cabbage worms, and I just couldn't find a long enough dry stretch to spray with Bt (bacillus thurengiensis) to try and defeat them. I ended up composting 10 heads of holey wormy cabbage. Heads of lettuce bolted if you looked at them sidelong, and the carpets of baby greens were sticky with slugs. There was a plague of crickets and grasshoppers (they must have liked the wet weather) that fed on everything leafy, and would spring from nowhere to pop me in the face. And then there was my little dog, happily poaching almost-ready vegetables straight from the vine.
But mostly, there was just a lot of rain and, because of it, a lot of rot. I was spared the late blight that spread like the flu in the pervasive damp. Many farmers in the northeast had to destroy entire fields of tomatoes and potatoes because of the blight. That represents an enormous loss of income for farmers already struggling in a down economy. My complaints are a minor annoyance by comparison.
And in spite of the challenges, my garden still rewarded us with treasure. We had beautiful sweet peas, tender salad greens, bumper crops of cucumbers and winter squash, perfect green filet beans, huge potent heads of garlic, and plenty of onions, beets and carrots. I even got 4 or 5 sweet perfumed Charentais melons to ripen just before killing frost hit. Eggplants were a struggle, but the tiny, slender ones finally matured by the end of August. And while my jalapeños were uncharacteristically stingy, I had enough hot cherry peppers to pickle 3 quarts, and still had a basketful to roast for salsa.
It was a crap year for tomatoes, though. I don't think you'll find anyone around these parts that can tell you they had even a single luscious tomato. Even if plants weren't hammered by blight, there just wasn't enough heat and sun to make a tomato with brilliant flavor and sweetness. And all the rain made them kind of bloated and mealy. Plus they were very slow to mature and ripen. To put it in perspective: I generally get my first ripe cherry tomato around the middle of July. I tasted my first cherry tomato here this year on August 20th. Sun Golds are usually the garden's snack bar, sweet as candy and impossible to resist. This year's crop had an unpleasant note of decay, even as they just came ripe.
My Jaune Flammée plants produced enough fruit with decent enough flavor to make several pints of salsa to can for keeping (and one of my farmers' market pals kicked in a few giant specimens that were too cracked and ugly to sell but fine for making salsa). But my 6 paste tomato plants were a bust – shriveled brown vines hung with mostly green fruit. Those that bothered to ripen were pocked with rot by the time they turned red. I ended up buying a case of tomatoes from a local farm stand, and put up 6 quarts of sauce.
Pictured below are some of my triumphs. Clockwise from top left: a clutch of ‘Nickel’ haricots verts; a ripe Charentais melon; roasted ‘Cherry Bomb’ peppers; a bowl of ‘Jaune Flammée’ tomatoes; ‘Happy Mouth’ pork with eggplant (recipe follows); a few jars of canned tomato salsa and sauce; a haul of the first-crop carrots and beets; ‘Hansel’ eggplant.
There's not much left in the garden now. Some beets and carrots, a late planting of broccoli rabe, a few heads of lettuce, the last of the cilantro. We didn't get the root cellar built after all. The workshop we signed up for was postponed until next spring, and the projects that started stacking up in September threatened to overwhelm us. We decided to lighten the load, and so took the root cellar off the table. As it is, the old tumble-down shed has been demolished, and two handsome new ones (three, if we count the wood shed) have sprung up in its stead. And this weekend, TJ built a solid cold frame in the lea of the house. It faces due south and is protected from snow; I'll be planting it full of salad greens in the next day or so, and I expect we'll be eating homegrown salad at least into January.
Yesterday, I planted two beds full of garlic. By spacing them tighter – 6" x 6" instead of 8" x 8" – I fit almost as many in two beds as I did in three beds last year. So you see, I've already gotten a start on next year's garden.
• • • • • • •Happy Mouth Pork
When my little eggplants finally matured, I started craving a dish that, it turns out, was a figment of my imagination. I was sure I'd seen it in one of my Asian cookbooks – soft steamed eggplant with minced pork and ginger. But I checked them all, and twice, to no avail. I'd say I had it at a restaurant somewhere in my travels, but I think that would be a lie. Regardless, I could see, taste, smell, and feel it in my imagination. So I made it up as I went along. And it was exactly what I wanted it to be. Spicy, fragrant, and salty, with chewy browned bits of pork. I made it again last night, and my friend Syd happened by just in time for dinner. She was so taken with it, she christened it ‘Happy Mouth’ pork.
4 small, slender Japanese eggplants
3 large garlic cloves
2-inch piece fresh ginger root
1 hot green chile
1 bunch scallions
1 lb. dark fatty pork (shoulder is best; buy shoulder chops for a small quantity)
2 tbsp. peanut or canola oil
1 1/2 tbsp. dark soy sauce (3 tbsp. if using regular light soy sauce)
1 tbsp. fish sauce
2 cups jasmine rice, uncooked
Heat oven to 350°F. Slice the eggplants in half lengthwise and place them cut side down on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment (the lining is just to make clean-up easier – feel free to skip it). Bake in the oven until soft (about half an hour).
Remove the eggplant from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle. Then carefully strip off the peel and slice the eggplants crosswise at an angle into 1/2" pieces. Set aside.
Peel the garlic cloves and mince finely. Peel the ginger and mince finely. Mince the chile finely (including seeds and membrane). Combine together in a small bowl and set aside.
Slice the scallions (whites and some of the green) thinly on the bias. Scrape into a small bowl and set aside.
Cut the lime in half and set aside.
Use a very sharp knife to mince the pork into 1/4" bits. Don't be tempted to substitute ground pork – it's not the same. Scrape into a small bowl and set aside.
Cook the rice.
Heat a wok or medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl it briefly, then add the garlic/ginger/chile and stir-fry for about a minute. Add the pork and stir-fry until cooked through, then raise the heat to high and continue cooking until the pork is browned, but not burned. Lower the heat and add the soy and fish sauces and squeeze in the juice from the lime. Stir to combine, then add the eggplant and stir to coat with sauce. Remove from heat.
Mound the rice on a serving platter, pour the pork over, and scatter the sliced scallions over the top.
• • • • • • •
Roasted Beet Soup
Some of the beets from my first planting grew as big as softballs, and I thought they'd be ideal for soup.
Makes about 5 quarts of soup.
6 very large beets (about 4" across), or 10 medium beets (2 1/2 – 3" across), with skins still on
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
2 medium shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
1 large bay leaf
6 cups chicken broth
4 cups water
1 3-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced into 1/8" coins
salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
Heat the oven to 350°F.
Wrap the beets in foil and roast until tender (up to an hour and a half for very large beets). Remove from oven and let sit until cool enough to handle. Slip peels off and cut beets into large chunks.
Heat the oil in an 8-qt. soup pot over medium heat, then sauté the aromatics (garlic – celery) until soft. Add the beets, bay leaf, chicken broth, and water, and bring slowly to a low boil, then reduce heat and simmer until all the vegetables are very soft (about an hour). Add the ginger and simmer until soft (about 15 minutes). Season with salt and pepper, remove from heat, and let cool slightly. Purée the soup in batches in a blender or right in the pot using a stick blender. Reheat soup and adjust seasonings before serving.