While it hasn’t seemed very adventurous around here lately (other than the mystical yet physical act of growing, birthing and loving a new baby), someone suggested that I blog about the food happenings at 502 Meade Ave this summer.
But to speak of summer, we have to remember the seasons before it, because a single season cannot be examined on its own. Last winter I pored over the catalog from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (a ‘local’ business, being situated in Louisa) which specializes in heirloom seeds and contributes to a nationwide seed saving network. With some help from my gardening guru (and handsome, papa-type partner) I arranged for potting trays, sterile soil mix, wooden labels – the Sharpie and the squirt bottle were already important parts of the homestead.
After much deliberation, I selected an array of perennial herb seeds, with an eye toward handsome, flowering plants that would also attract beneficial insects. As a cook-gardener, herbs magically link gardening with cooking, and over the years I have appreciated the presence of herbs more than anything else in my garden. I use them whole to garnish professional plates, I dry them and scatter them in musty drawers to dispel spirits (or whatever), in particularly desperate cooking situations I put herbs in my hair to ‘lighten up’ and to crack up my co-workers, and throughout the year I crush fresh herbs and add them to nearly everything in the kitchen. In addition to perennial herb seeds, I also ordered various vegetables and annual herbs, trying to balance enthusiasm with the certain knowledge that, come August, everyone has tomatoes. So I only ordered six types?
I took the temperature of various rooms in the house, factoring in perches near and on radiators, in full sun, in part sun, and even scoping a closet for valerian seeds (which require darkness to germinate). When the seeds arrived, I created a spreadsheet with all their attributes, their needs, and the dates of sowing, hardening off, and transplanting. Each day I duly checked the seeds in the office, in the guest room, in the closet, rotating them, shoving my fingers in the soil to determine dampness, and elbowing the curious dogs away from the precarious trays. As the weather warmed, I carried trays outdoors to take advantage of a very sunny yard (and to kick start the daily indigestion), then carried them in again in the evening so that I wouldn’t feel like a bad mommy (more indigestion).
I’ll save you most of the details, but suffice it to say that I was totally surprised at how predictable the results were. Huh? That is, some successes and some failures, and if I had it to do all over again I could get much better results. Major victories were the tomatoes, which gamely sprouted and duly bore a lot of fruit in a first-year garden; I even gave some plants away, and people tell me that they thrived. Other success stories: Potomac greenbeans bore for nearly 8 weeks with excellent flavor and an admirable growth habit – they held up the tomatoes! Our squash was sufficient, lettuces good, ‘Everona’ tomatillos are ripening now, and last year’s find of ground cherries have proved delightful (if smaller than those we bought at the market). I’m told we’ll have ground cherries forever!
Failures — o, why didn’t I listen? A Wise Woman (OK, Rachel Willis) told me that perennial medicinal herbs are notoriously difficult to cultivate – as if they know they have all the time in the world, they don’t really try very hard the first year. Hyssop, bee balm, valerian, lovage, rosemary from New Zealand…you limped along, I nursed you, and then when transplanted you…disappeared into the soil. Perhaps you’ll come back next year? In my hope that something would reappear, I grew a terrific pokeweed (!) and allowed a few volunteer sunflowers to mature – they were worth it – but I still don’t know what valerian looks like. So, for 2010, I’ll sprout the same seeds in moderate numbers, and then I will transplant them to small pots, then larger pots, and maybe they’ll see the soil in the fall. Or I’ll dig some up at a Wise Woman’s house…
On the bright side, we have eaten at home all summer, and into the fall, based largely on our CSA from Roundabout Farm but also delighting in our tomatoes, greenbeans, squash, lettuces, and basil. I have a freezer full of pesto, so no worries there (although the basil plants melted into the soil as well – I augmented with $1 Genovese plants from Double H Farm, certainly the best buy going). The herb garden looks better than it ever has, and I predict that trend continues next year. Our first year garden, measuring 5 feet by 30 feet and carved out of the side yard in one day (I napped while Geoff took advantage of the sunny day) was surprisingly prolific, and I hope to treat it with some good ole horse manure this fall to give thanks for all the food. In fact, I credit all this good food when I report that we welcomed a healthy baby boy on July 17th. Announcing Lincoln Woodward Shaw, whose arrival coincided PRECISELY with our first ripe tomatoes, just as I predicted. Next year I’ll have a toddler to look after…but I won’t have indigestion, so I have high hopes.