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Patchwork: A profligate gardener reforms her ways

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Posted on July 14, 2011 |
By Abi Sessions



Abi's Garden.1.jpeg

Editor’s note: Guest writer Abi Sessions of Cornwall has co-raised three strapping children on the products of her vegetable garden and has taught in local schools for 37 years.

Kate Gridley and Barbara Ganley, the regular authors of this column, have been expanding their gardens — Kate by claiming more square footage, and Barbara by capturing more days. We’re moving in the opposite direction — deliberately downsizing, reining in our desire to add a new spot of color here or try a new perennial there or grow pumpkins for the grandkids. We aspire to a more disciplined garden now, and more time on our bicycles and in our kayaks and at the beach with those pumpkin-less grandkids.

Pickled Beets

The recipe I use for pickled beets is from “Putting Food By” by Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughn and Janet Greene (published by Stephen Greene Press, copyright 1973, with a price of $3.95 printed on the back!).

Leave tap root and a bit of stem. Boil until tender (how long depends on size). Dunk in cold water to handle; trim, peel off skins, slice. While beets are cooking, make a pickling syrup of 2 parts vinegar (1/4 of this may be water if you like it weaker) to 2 parts sugar, and bring it to a boil.

Fill clean hot jars with hot beet slices, leaving a 1/2 inch of headroom. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt to pints, 1 teaspoon of salt to quarts. Add boiling pickling syrup, leaving 1/2 inch of headroom; adjust lids. Process in a boiling water bath for 30 minutes for either pint or quart jars. Remove jars.

My husband, Bill, and I purchased a formerly grand old brick farmhouse on Route 30 in Cornwall 38 years ago. I think Flora and Leo Defresne, the former owners, must have given up raising vegetables, but Flora left us with the most basic bones of a Vermont farmhouse garden: a row of lush old-fashioned pink and white peonies, a patch of rhubarb, a gnarled lilac bush next to the garage and two apple trees. They’re all still with us. 

In the early years Bill wasn’t much interested in growing things, but I’ve been sticking plants or seeds in the soil for all 38 years, teaching myself about gardening mostly by watching what happened. It was easy: dig up the sod from a patch of the loamy soil of our Cornwall ridge, go to Agway and pay a couple of dollars for a phlox or a Shasta daisy or a daylily, plant it, and watch. Instant success, and so gratifying! For vegetables we needed our neighbor Joe Dapsis’s Rototiller, and away we went with corn, cucumbers, peas, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini and lettuce — the basic bones of the Vermont vegetable garden.

It all happened so naturally: chickens for eggs (and for a few years for meat), goats for milk, turkeys named Thanksgiving and Christmas, two sheep brought home from summer camp, a pony for the kids to ride, and the ever-expanding garden to grow much of our own food. I’m sure the kids all groan with remembering my nightly recitation of what foods on the table came from our own garden. It gave me tremendous pleasure to step outside to gather ingredients for dinner. And I loved the feeling of self-reliance I got from what we had “put up”: canned tomatoes, peaches, pears, jams and pickles, our own potatoes and beets and squash in the root cellar, and corn, broccoli, and peppers in the freezer. (I never could get the knack of wintering carrots — all those lovely radiant orange cones usually turned to stinky brown mush by November.)

And so the garden grew — perennial divisions need new homes — and grew — gotta try growing those blue potatoes! — and grew — let’s plant more cabbage for sauerkraut and a whole lot of corn to freeze! By this time Bill had taken a big interest in gardening, so checks and balances were out the window; instead we just egged each other on. “More! More! More!”

Now we’re mending our profligate ways, and saying “Less! Less! Less!” We’ve already given up growing shell peas and switched totally to edible pods. This year we’ll be eating all our potatoes fresh, and only storing enough squash to get us through the fall. (Those four butternut squashes still in the drawer don’t look very appealing right now.) We won’t be canning tomatoes or freezing peppers, as we have plenty left from last year. We won’t be composting so much bolted lettuce or overgrown green beans. We won’t be leaving zucchini or summer squash on friends’ doorsteps.

I will braid a few strings of onions, one for our daughter in Boston. I’m only going to put up what gives me the greatest satisfaction, both in the accomplishment and in the actual eating: pickled beets, bread and butter pickles, dilly beans and raspberry jam. I’ll be taking dilly bean lessons from our friend Jim Olivier, whose dillies are far better than mine.

So we’re ruthlessly uprooting raspberry bushes, digging up the most neglected patches of perennials, and shortening the vegetable patch. We put plants at the roadside with a “FREE” sign, and elves come in the night and take them away. We’re planting grass seed by the 10-pound bag. Don’t look for us in the garden every weekend any more, but do watch for us in our kayaks. See you at the lake!

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