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Patchwork: Of seeds and seedlings: A gardener's rocky start

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Posted on May 17, 2012 |
By Barbara Ganley



garden.jpg
Will the garden look like this in three weeks?

I had a bad dream the other night. A classic gardener’s nightmare.

In the dream I awoke to a soft, sunny morning: a perfect gardening day. Robins were working the lawn, orioles were singing cascades of silver notes from the treetops and swallows were darting above the field, black shooting stars against a deep blue sky.

Tomatillo seeds waiting to be planted

 

What’s up (in Kate’s Garden mostly)

In the ground: Peas, lettuces, spinach, radicchio, carrots, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, broccoli raab, hyssop, cilantro, dill, chamomile, mint, arugula, tarragon, oregano, beets, radishes, Brussels sprouts, rhubarb, strawberries, asparagus

In flats: zucchini, butternut squash, cucumbers, many varieties of tomatoes, eggplants, cutting flowers

Read more Patchwork columns here.

Get the recipe: Pasta with Pistachios, Arugula, Lemon and Goat Cheese

I put on my trusty gardening gear, gathered my gleaming tools and headed outside to check on the peas and favas, the lettuces and herbs, the brassicas. I would transplant seedlings that had been hardening off on the porch. No harm in sneaking a few tomato plants in a week early, maybe even a basil seedling or two and lemongrass since it needs a long season. I could snug them under a tunnel if frost threatened.

But all that awaited was the detritus of last year’s garden: tangles of weeds and snarls of mint, the skeletons of potato plants and tomatoes, bean vines still snaked around their poles, corn stalks atilt. In short, it was a jungle, but not of a verdant sort.

Panicked, I jumped into the car and zoomed around to garden centers and farm greenhouses looking for seedlings, from Shoreham to Bristol and back again — but everyone was out of everything. Sorry, try again next year. I drove to Kate’s, to every gardener’s house in town — nope, sorry. Their gardens were all neatly planted, full of a season’s promise, and all out of reach.

When I awoke from the dream, I laughed, then sighed because it was largely true. I have nothing planted. Nothing cleaned up from last season. It looks pretty bad out there.

Oh I have seeds, but no beds ready. Seedlings? Not a one from my own seeds because I was away during the plant-under-grow-lights time. Right now, those seedlings should be about bursting out of their little containers. Out in the garden, the peas should be reaching for their trellises; salads should be pouring out of the beds just as they do at Kate’s. Should be.

Yes, it’s unnerving, but I’ve learned something. This slow start supports an ecological garden that serves the wildlife as it serves me. The birds, for one, are keen on it — all the easy nesting materials. No wonder robins and phoebes have ringed the house with nests — at last count, we had five active nests on the house, made of bits of twig and grass I haven’t yet cleared away.

And beneath last fall’s clutter, stalwart perennial herbs and vegetables flourish. The berries look great. They didn’t let me down even though I neglected them mightily. We are gathering salads from the wild arugula hedge that comes back every year and tastes far better than any I have had outside Italy, mixed with sorrel and chervil and mint and oregano, and lettuces that self-sowed last fall. It also means I’m getting creative with recipes because, well, there is so much arugula and so little else.

But there’s bad news, too. All those heirloom seeds I saved are still sitting in the seed box. No 16 varieties of hot peppers this year. No magic tomato, that colossal two-pounder I wrote about last year. None of the many heirloom varieties that fellow seed savers gifted me with or that I tracked down. I feel terrible about that, especially after seeing the recent infographic by John Tomanio for National Geographic (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/07/food-ark/food-variety-graphic). The graph showing the decreasing number of varieties of vegetables is a stunning reminder of just how many food varieties we’ve lost. Take those tomatoes — in 1903 commercial seed houses in this country carried 408 varieties of tomato. Today? 79. Cabbage has gone from 544 varieties to 28. And here’s the truly staggering statistic: of the 66 crops surveyed, 93 percent of the varieties have gone extinct.

No wonder I’m having bad dreams about my garden. No wonder the guilt.

Fortunately, when I went out to Golden Russet for seedlings, they not only had the usual suspects, but a nice number of heirlooms, even ones rescued by locals, including the meaty paste tomato named after the Barreras, who brought the seeds back from Italy. I chose eight different kinds of tomatoes and three hot peppers. I’ll also look at the greenmarket in New York during an upcoming business trip and in Massachusetts at a family reunion. I’ll search the farmers’ market in Middlebury for heirlooms new to me. I’ll make do.

But I’m writing a note in next year’s calendar right now: Do not be out of the country when you’re supposed to be planting those seeds you so carefully saved. Do save those seeds. And make sure you swap seeds with friends, are on the look-out for varieties you’ve never heard of, plant more perennial vegetables to ensure the fullness of the kitchen no matter what dumb thing you do with the garden next year.

And then I’ll head out to the garden to tackle all those vines and weeds, plant things on time instead of early for a change, admire the tenacity of the returnees and take good care of those few heirlooms, making sure that my next dream isn’t one in which we no longer have any seeds at all.


Patchwork Recipe

Pasta with Pistachios, Arugula, Lemon and Goat Cheese

This delicious pasta is super easy to make, and combines the tastes of Italy (where I was when I should have been planting seeds) with those of spring in Vermont.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound long pasta of your choice
  • 1 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios, ground coarsely
  • 2 cups arugula (if you grow the wild kind — sylvetta — all the better)
  • 1/2 cup soft fresh goat cheese
  • 1 organic lemon
  • 1/2 clove of garlic
  • olive oil
  • parmesan for grating
  • salt & pepper

 

1.  In a small skillet, toast the ground pistachios until they begin to release their scent (a minute or two). Watch carefully as they’ll burn!

2.  Wash and dry the arugula and chop it into three-inch lengths.

3.  Zest the lemon, squeeze the juice.

4.  Mince the half clove of garlic. TIP: Remove the core of the garlic to remove any trace of bitterness.

5.  Heat pasta water to a boil. (You can salt it if you like.) Add the pasta.

6.  While it is cooking, mix the pistachios, arugula, lemon zest, lemon juice and garlic in a large serving bowl.

7.  Place the goat cheese in a small bowl. Mix in 1-2 tablespoons olive oil. Just before the pasta is ready, ladle out spoonfuls of the cooking water, one by one, into the goat cheese/olive oil mixture and mix until very smooth and almost liquid-y. Add the goat cheese mixture to the serving bowl and stir.

8.  Add the drained pasta (do not rinse!) to the bowl and toss all the ingredients together. Add more cooking water if need be for a creamy consistency. Grate some parmesan on top, add a few grinds of pepper, and serve!

 

 

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