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2013.07.03 With silver bells and cockle shells 2013.07.03

By HEATHER WALKER

A few months ago we and our neighbors decided to plant a “communal” garden. If I recall correctly, the idea was hatched when Eileen, my neighbor friend, and I were having a “girls’ night out” at a local Mexican restaurant. Our neighbors have the yard space and a pool, while we have…almost nothing to offer. Nonetheless, at the time it seemed like a perfect plan—Eileen would do the research, create the plot design and figure out our start-up needs; then, when summer break arrived, I would help with the weeding and harvesting, while she completed orders for her home business of making custom party favors. This would all take place in the mornings. In the afternoons we would sip drinks and bask in the sun by the pool, while our delicious, nutritious food stuff did their thing. We had grand plans for how this would look—a beautifully maintained organic garden (in my mind a tidy 10’ x 10’ plot), flanked by two healthy, youthful moms in Jackie O. sunglasses watching their perfectly bronzed children play happily (albeit quietly) in the pool.

Reality check. Eileen’s husband envisioned a slightly more ambitious garden project. The section of yard we ultimately tilled up was more like 10’ x 45’ with an additional 15’x 20’ for good measure. Having very little to go on, Eileen and I bought a dozen heirloom tomato plants, pepper plants representing the entire gamut of the heat continuum, four kinds of herbs, seeds for carrots, beets, lettuce, beans, okra, cucumber, watermelon…the list goes on. This is gardening on a scale I haven’t seen since spending summers at my Grandma Rosie’s. My idea of growing vegetables is container gardening. Two cherry tomato plants, a basil plant—occasionally the experimental pepper or fruit. I was optimistic, but slightly frightened. 

This week marks the end of the first month of summer vacation and my contribution to the “weeding and harvesting” portion of the project has basically amounted to cutting a handful of basil and cilantro sprigs and spending about an hour weeding. Fortunately, the Michigan monsoon season has alleviated most of Eileen’s watering duties, but we’re just starting to grasp the enormity of harvesting a bumper crop of perishable food stuff in the coming days. Eileen’s goal for this week is to dry and freeze some of the basil before it challenges the equally behemoth tomato plants in a fight to the death. 

It’s amazing, really, how most plants will thrive, even when you have no idea how to raise them. We’ve faced several threats (real and imagined) already in the growing season and have fortunately come out with very little collateral damage. There was the 17-Year Cicada Armageddon (apparently not coming soon to a back yard near you) and the bean plant infestation, which solved itself when the pests attacking the beans started eating the weeds growing next to the beans rather than the beans themselves. We’ve wondered how we will deal with larger pests (e.g. rabbits, moles, neighborhood cats) if they begin terrorizing our plants. So far the marigolds, fenced-in yard and idle threats of air-soft guns have kept them at bay. 

To date, we’ve harvested a few radishes and a banana pepper, along with the basil. The bean plants are blossoming and there are tiny, adorable tomatoes hiding in their cages. We lost most of the cilantro to seed already (beginner’s mistake), but we’ve heard it’s now coriander—we just wish we knew how to use it. All in all, the potential for delicious, nutritious, “free” food is astounding—the dilemma is in how to harness the power before it’s gone. We’re talking a lot of vegetables. Of course, we idealistically imagine all the salsa and spaghetti sauce we will can, in addition to the drying and freezing, but, yikes…in the famous words of Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” (Or at least, ain’t nobody want to make time for that.)

Canning is a lot like cake decorating (another hobby I dabbled in for about 30 seconds a few years ago). It seems like fun in theory, and the first hour or so of the project it is fun. But then when the second or third hour goes by, and the kitchen counters fill up with dirty dishes and spilled ingredients, and the floors get sticky and marked, and the sweat from your forehead begins pooling and mixing with remnants of powdered sugar and butter…it becomes work. Yeah, that’s how I imagine the canning will go. 

Ultimately I think there are two kinds of people in the world. The 10’ x 10’ gardener who sips drinks by the pool, rising occasionally to pluck a ripe tomato for today’s lunch of caprese salad and the 45’ x a million’ gardener who finds enjoyment in “putting up” a storehouse of food for the winter. It’s a lifestyle choice, and while I get it, I’m not sure I like it. Nonetheless, we’re going to have bushels of vegetables to process before this is over. To get through it, I may have to channel Grandma Rosie’s spirit for strength. I just hope she’s wearing Jackie O’s.