Kitchen Garden Adventures

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

marmande-081404crThis time each year, I start something I’ve never planted before.  One year, because my kid sister told me that they clean out your arteries like a Roto-Rooter, I planted green chilies.  The result was something less than rewarding: three, maybe four chilies graced our plants.  I never did figure out what went wrong — soil composition, too little or too much water, I don’t know.  I’m not a very scientific gardener. I plant, thin, water, weed, and hope.  We (usually) get what we need, and that’s good enough for me.

One year we built an arbor and tried to grow kiwifruit.  We got none.  Zip.  Nada.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Kiwis come from New Zealand and we’re in New England.  We didn’t find out until later, after we’d pulled down the arbor, but kiwis take two years to produce fruit and our vines died in the winter freeze.

Our attempt at growing stevia was a huge success.  Stevia, in case you’ve missed it, is a low-growing plant with leaves 100 times as sweet as sugar.  I don’t use sugar, and buy stevia extract by the bottle. Six drops are enough to sweeten a 10-ounce cup of tea.  When people tell me stevia has a bitter aftertaste, I know they’re using too much.  It’s a great non-nutritive sweetener when you figure out the right proportion for what you’re putting it in.  But it’s not cheap, so I thought it might be cool to grow it and make our own extract.

To make an extract you need grain alcohol.  White lightning. It’s illegal in Massachusetts. Package stores can’t sell it. Distributors won’t ship it here. It’s legal in Vermont.  We’re 19 miles from the Vermont border.  We have friends in Vermont. One of them bought us a bottle, and we smuggled it across the border. I know I just incriminated myself. The statute of limitations has run out several times over.  We never got a straight answer from anyone about how to make the extract.  The white lightning is long gone.  So are the stevia leaves.  They left separately. We still buy stevia extract.

Last year I tried okra. Northerners don’t eat okra.  I’m weird that way.  I happen to like it.  What’s more, it’s a great thickener for stews and gravies and you don’t have to stir and stir and worry about lumps.  Or carbohydrates. Okra starts with lovely flowers that look like nasturtiums.  Then come the little pods.  Then, in my garden, came nothing.  Recently, someone who knows tons more about gardening than I do told me you can’t grow okra in New England.  So much for thickening stew.

This year I’m going for vegetables that store well.  I’m planting the usual carrots, squash (summer and winter), onions, garlic, lettuce (several types), spinach, and so forth, but if we run out there are two farmers’ markets within ten minutes’ drive.  So I’m devoting about half our garden space to celeriac and storage tomatoes.

Celeriac, also known as celery root, tastes like its name and is said to last through the winter.  It takes 95 days to mature, which is about the length of our growing season, so I started it in peat pellets last month and today I put it in the ground.

Golden Treasure storage tomatoes are news to me.  I found them in the Abundant Life seed catalog.  (This is not an advertisement.  I don’t have a stake in the company; I just like using heirloom seeds and like how generous the company is with information about what it sells.) The description says you pick them while they’re still green, and they ripen win the next six weeks or so, and can be kept for up to three more months.  “Why buy store bought tomatoes in the winter when you can have your own?” the catalog asks.  Why, indeed? I figure we’ll have garden tomatoes for Thanksgiving dinner at least, maybe Christmas.  It’s long been a dream of mine to eat real tomatoes when everyone else is forced to settle for the plastic ones that come from the supermarket, the ones that get gassed on the vine so they don’t ripen too fast and then, actually, never do ripen.

This time of year when I’m coming home from the place I go on Sunday mornings, I pass a sign pointing left that says “Heirloom tomato plants.”  Normally, I’ve got my own seedlings well established by now, but this year I didn’t start regular late-summer tomatoes, so I turned left, and that’s how I met Sven, a hugely tall, enormously enthusiastic Swede with a great Minnesota accent and a smile as big as the midwestern sky.

Sven grows about two hundred varieties of heirloom tomatoes, apparently about one-third of what exists.  I came there thinking I’d get my usual Brandywines, the variety we grew in my family’s victory garden during World War II.  But looking at Sven’s list, I knew I couldn’t stop at one variety.

So yesterday (Thursday)  I planted one red Brandywine plant; one black Brandywine (it’s not actually black, but the shoulders — the part nearest the stem – are a greenish black in the picture Sven showed me); a Garden Peach, a yellow, less acidic tomato with a tiny ruff of peach fuzz on its skin, which Sven said is his wife’s favorite; and a French variety called Marmande. It caught my fancy  because it is ribbed (see the photo above) and funny-looking.

Wednesday was May 20, the latest we’ve ever had a real snowstorm around here as far as I know — 18 inches that killed off all the apple blossoms on our four Macintosh trees in 2003.  This year the apple blossoms have gone by, there was no snow, and I decided to be brave.  So, even though it’s not yet Memorial Day weekend, and Memorial Day weekend is unnaturally early itself — Memorial Day used to be May 30, no matter what day of the week it fell on, until somebody decided America needed another three-day weekend — I’ve taken the plunge.

Yeah, I know.  We still could have a hard frost next week and then I’ll be crying the blues all the way back to Sven’s, but I’m brave.  And eager.  And impatient.  And, perhaps, impetuous.

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6 Responses to “Kitchen Garden Adventures”

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  2. I am an ambitious canner but my husband’s green thumb more often than not leaves me running off to Ace Hardware for extra jars. He keeps growing fewer plants and they just seem to make up for their lesser number by producing larger numbers of fruit.

    Last year, we tried yellow and purple tomatoes — attractive in salads but not so appetizing for canning.  So this morning he planted only 9 — nothing exotic. 4 Early Girls, 4 Plum and 1 cherry (not part of the canning equation). 

    We’ll have to wait and see how they grow.

  3. Hi, nice posts there 🙂 thank’s for the interesting and fun information on gardening — who would guess how many kinds of tomatoes there are to choose from!

  4. Tom-A-to or Tom-ahh-to? All I could think of was that song as I read of the Heirloom varieties. So now I decided to try a few Tom-ahh-to plants in my garden too. Just for summer growing fun and I hope good eating as well!

  5. […] starters, take my kitchen garden.  Please.  Last May I gave you a joyous description of what I’d planted. The rains came that night, washing away […]

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