Patchwork: Gardens are good for starting conversation

Something amazing is happening because of my garden, and it has nothing to do with weeding, thinning, pruning, watering, or harvesting vegetables. Instead, conversations are sprouting. Ideas are germinating. Something is taking root and it’s about people.
It started slowly. First, it was the older couple I ran into downtown: “I hope you don’t mind, but we went into your garden last week. You’ve got a huge crop of peas. What did you use for the trellis? And what made you decide to plant your lettuces that way? ”
Then another friend called. “Do you have any extra sorrel plants? I tried your soup recipe, and now I want to grow my own.”
Then another: “What are those silvery, spiky plants in the right corner of the front raised bed? I have never seen them before.” (Artichokes) At church: “I’m trying the lasagna method of preparing my soil this year, but if it doesn’t work, I’m going to build raised beds.” A different day, another location: “You are growing favas? I didn’t think they could be grown here.” (I am not growing favas beans, but my friend Barbara is — and they are not only growing, they are thriving. Who knew they would grow in the Champlain Valley?)
My tiny neighbor, Elizabeth, just two, arrived at the studio door last Friday morning; her mother announcing that breakfast had been summarily refused (there’s a new baby in the house, go figure). “Would you like to learn how to pick fresh peas?” I asked. “You can eat them for breakfast. Just like Peter Rabbit. ”She not only learned to pick (and immediately consume) peas, but when we thinned the carrots, she ate the thinnings.
Friends on Weybridge Street share a similar story: Since turning their front lawn into a flower garden (having removed a huge arborvitae), they’ve found that people now stop by to admire, to touch, to talk about the garden.
Meanwhile, traveling to Montpelier to work on a painting, I have discovered that everyone is talking about a beautiful vegetable garden on the Statehouse lawn. Conceived and planted in the spring of 2009 by APPLEcorps (Association for the Planting of edible Public Landscapes for Everyone), The Statehouse Garden boasts two 70-foot-by-three-foot beds planted symmetrically with chives, parsley, lettuces, onions, red cabbages, broccoli, early bush peas, scallions, mustard greens, carrots, beets and Swiss chard.
It is the first vegetable garden on a statehouse lawn in the country. The vegetables, planted, tended to, and harvested by volunteers, all go to the local food pantry. Seeds are donated by High Mowing Seeds and local high school students grow lettuce starts. The harvest is even tracked on line: go to vtstatehousegarden.wordpress.com and see how much food is harvested. Everyone who comes to visit the capitol building now witnesses a public project about growing healthy, organic food to be consumed locally.
Come to think of it, my cousin Andy is someone, who, like the volunteers at APPLEcorps, and unlike me, grows food in order to give it away: He raises a couple thousand pounds of root crops every year for the Haven Food Pantry in White River Junction and his local food shelf. Andy, a retired doctor, always gardened, but since he does not need much for himself and he loves to garden, several years ago he started growing food for other people.
Andy’s home is on a steep hill, so he borrows part of a field from a friend. The plot, which is 80 feet by 100 feet, is in full sun, and had been mown for years for hay, so there were soil preparation and fencing details to be worked out, in addition to finding storage. Then Andy spent a couple summers trying different seeds.
“At the moment, the seed potatoes come from Fedco in Maine, the carrot seed comes from Johnny’s and the onions are grown from seed by two local farms and I transplant them in early May.”
He plants mostly “Bolero” carrots (he has also tried “Danvers Long” and “Fancy Nantes”), Copra onions, and four kinds of potato: Kennebec, Yukon Gold, Norland and Superior.
It is no surprise that the garden turns out to be a lot of work, but as he says, “The whole thing is lots of fun and the work is mostly at the beginning and end of the summer.” On most days, friends and neighbors come by to help.
I contrast the tiny cosseted beds in my back yard that house varieties of lettuce, beets, tomatoes, herbs, beans, spinach, carrots, onions, and leeks, with Andy’s food shelf garden and the Statehouse Garden in Montpelier. Should I find a patch outside of my garden in town and plant it? Or should I plant extra rows in order to give some food away? Is there a group of us who could organize a garden and a storage facility to provide our food shelf with locally grown root crops during the fall and winter? What can we do in Addison County to bring homegrown food to the food pantry? What else can we grow in Addison County?
This is a conversation I’d like to nurture. Come by my garden patch sometime and let’s talk.
June vegetables are so young and tender they do not need embellishment. Rather, they can be simply savored for what they are. Young vegetables are excellent eaten raw, or lightly blanched.
Tuesday night’s supper consisted of:
Salad: Red lettuce, green lettuce, arugula, flat Italian parsley and young scallions, with flowers from the Johnny jump-ups that have self-sown all over the garden. Toss greens at the last minute with a quality olive oil, a few drops of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.
Fresh peas: Pick just before eating. Strip pods off of peas, and blanch peas for five minutes in boiling water, then toss with a tablespoon of olive oil or butter and a tablespoon of chopped fresh mint.
Beet greens (this time of year, beet thinnings): Wash thoroughly one or more pounds of tiny beets with their attached greens. Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan. Cut the baby beets and about an inch and a half of the greens and place in pan first. Toss. Cut remaining greens into one and a half inch long sections and smother the beets that are already cooking in the pan. Keep tossing till the greens cook down and baby beets are tender (7–10 minutes). Flavor with salt and pepper to taste.
Note on beets and beet greens: This is a vegetable that keeps on giving in different ways. In early spring, it is possible to harvest the young beet greens and eat them raw in salads. Then the beet thinnings can be cooked as in the above recipe, piquant and sweet all at once. Finally, there is the harvest of the beets themselves, later in the summer and fall.

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