This batch of broccoli came from the community garden I planted with my pal Dave. Since I haven’t been on top of my game lately, he did all the work and I still get to enjoy the harvest. Smothered in cheese. That’s a great friend.
Next door to my church is a huge open lot. They’ve made a couple of attempts at some organized gardening, but this year they just left it open for a giant free for all. So my friend Dave and I pounced on it.
This is a perfect summation of everything I love about living in Modesto. Available, fertile land; a temperature that allows you to grow things in January (sometimes); and experts nearby eager and willing to pass on their knowledge. Dave is a super expert agronomist, spending decades working on breeding fungus resistant garlic, and he also happens to be just a nice man I go to church with who has become my friend. When we found out that he has this background and I’m desperate to learn, we thought our friendship must have been destiny.
We’ve been taking this season to lay the infrastructure, so I’ve been learning all kinds of things about watering, compost, mulch, and fertilizer. Just last night I went out and harvested some broccoli to eat with dinner and I felt like a cavewoman bringing back sustenance. This self-sufficiency thing is seriously powerful.
Never in my life have I been successful at starting seedlings. Well, I take that back. One time I was successful, but it was the great poppy explosion of ’08 that resulted from my dumping an entire package of seedlings on the ground and them sprouting up like little firework explosions. Anytime I’ve tried to actually do it in an orderly fashion. Total dud.
When we moved into this house, the gardens were pristine and there was a beautiful kitchen windowsill just begging for plant life. I never managed to get an herb garden going in the last place, and my cooking was suffering for it. I thought I was ready to try again. Of course, I made this decision just as every nursery was done with selling their summer herbs. My only choice was to try seeds.
I bought some beautiful pots, I read my garden books, I took a deep breath and prepared to try again. And this time? I did it. I got seedlings up from every kind of seed I planted. And they sprouted, and they grew, and they kept growing, weak and spindly little things reaching for the sun like a man in the desert stretching for an oasis mirage. Apparently my sweet little kitchen windowsill does not get very much direct sunlight. And my seedlings were starving.
I’ve been spending time with a sweet friend of mine, an older man I go to church with. He and I became fast friends when I first moved back to Modesto. He just gets me. After years of being friends with him, I discovered he has a PhD in horticulture. Although he now works in sales, he spent most of his career performing in vitro fertilization on garlic strains to breed a variety more resistant to fungus. He is literally an expert on growing food. So every Wednesday, he’s been coming over to give me little lessons. He was the one who explained why my seedlings were so leggy and what I needed to do to save them. He picked a spot in my backyard for a compost pile and told me how to manage it. We went back to my old house where he talked the new renters into letting us in the backyard to cut some roses, and then he showed me how to propagate them. We have big plans for building elevated grow boxes where they’d get the most sun, propagating new grape vines from some existing in the backyard, and growing berries in the tiniest of spaces.
Some day I’ll have a farm where I grow every kind of food. My first step was to take those sad little seedlings out of the windowsill and plant them in a sunny spot. Hopefully they’ll take off and I can add a new skill in preparation for my big future.
Atti’s beloved teacher has quite a green thumb, and since he knows I’m a canner and has been the recipient of many of my goodies, he brings me all kinds of wonderful things. This time I got a huge tub of blackberries, a cabbage that was bigger than my butt, some onions and an enormous bag of lemons. I was hard at work all weekend playing mad scientist and making them into all kinds of wonderful things. Harvest season has only begun.
I am a snacker. My favorite meals consist of variety – an abundance of appetizers, a plentiful cheese plate – and when I’m writing I am a nearly compulsive snacker. I’ve been working away on a project behind the scenes, and have been needing a whole lot more snacks. At a fancy grocery store I bought a back of roasted peas, crunchy and covered in herbs. I thought I might try to make my own version. One with my favorite flavors and not so rock hard they threaten your fillings.
Roasted Snacking Peas
1 small bag frozen peas
3 T olive oil
3 T balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp garlic powder
Defrost the peas in the microwave, then toss with the rest of the ingredients. Spread out on a parchment lined cookie sheet until the peas lie just one layer deep. Back at 325 for about an hour, or until chewy.
There is a thin line between done and burnt, so when in doubt turn the heat down and err towards the chewy end. I really prefer them chewy – like little drops of savory fruit leather – over the peas you buy at the store that are like little green pebbles. This is a great opportunity to use any flavored oils or vinegars since the roasting concentrates the flavors even more. I used a basil infused olive oil, but if you’re using a regular one I’d add some dried herbs to up the flavor.
You could add any of your favorite flavorings to make your own healthy snack. I’m thinking a lemon pepper version will be next. This should keep me happily writing until my project is finished.
Spring has hit me with a bang and I am absolutely starving to get my hands in some dirt. But, since we’re renting and have no idea how long we’ll be renting, there’s not much I can do about that. Instead I’ve been turning my attention to chopping things.
I can’t even guess how long it’s been since this yard had regular attention. Years. The backyard is lined with those rosebushes that, after my efforts, look like a collection of sticks, but once stretched higher than the fence and were a tangled bramble of crisscrossed stems snaking behind the trees and choking on each other. I read that roses love a good pruning, so I tried to not be afraid and just do what needed to be done.
Along with these junipers in front of some kind of a bulb plant, there were three more planted in the middle of the lawn. I really hate junipers, but even if you loved them, why would you put them in the middle of the lawn? I pulled those ones out without a second thought about our security deposit and sent them off to the city compost.
The ones closer to the house I tried to salvage, but they had been let go for so long that it would take years of careful pruning to get them back into the shape and size they needed to be for the house. After a couple of afternoons of research and pruning, I just decided that they couldn’t be saved and pulled them out too.
Look at how much better it looks already! Those bulb plants desperately need to be divided, and I still have more pruning to do of the shrubs that are staying, and please don’t even get me started on this lawn, but definitely an improvement. I imagine that the person who bought the house was impatient to let the plants grow into the space, so instead they crammed it way too full and didn’t allow anywhere for the plants to go.
I’ve been so aggressive with this poor neglected yard that part of me was afraid I had gone too far. But not even a week after I finished my assault on the roses I saw the backyard decorated with all these beautiful burgundy leaves of new growth. It’s like the roses were craving a little pruning so they could sprout off in new directions. Maybe that’s something I need to keep in mind with the way this year is going.
When I was whining about leaving my garden behind, my friend Tona asked me if there was a community garden that I could participate in so I could feed my gardening addiction. I really didn’t expect to find one. Around here people aren’t usually looking for an opportunity to garden when they either do it for a living or can just buy from the people who do.
Imagine my surprise to discover that not only is there a community garden, but it’s run and funded by my church, and I can just show up and harvest whatever I want.
I don’t know all the details behind it, but it’s common for us LDSaints to have big projects like this so that the people accepting financial help from the church have a way to contribute in return. Right next to the building I attend we have a pavilion and a ballfield, and then about an acre of farmland currently growing onions, potatoes, corn and tomatoes.
I met my friend Amber out in the field and she helped me get set up, holding Atti while I built him some shade and showing me how to harvest the potatoes. Atti’s always been super cooperative with my gardening efforts, so I thought it would be no big deal to toss him on a blanket while I got to work.
But I was totally wrong about that.
I really failed to take into account just how unbelievably hot it can get around here. I brought a big basket full of toys, our jumbo picnic blanket and a tent for shade, plus my camera, some bags for produce and Mr. Atti himself, and between the hauling everything back and forth, wrestling with the canopy, and rushing to get him settled, I had totally exhausted myself before I even thought about a potato.
I managed to make enough of a harvest to still make it worth the time, and Amber went across the field to pick my onions for me, so I left with a ton of good stuff. But man was it hard work in that heat. By the time I finished pulling potatoes, I still had to make five trips across an acre of dirt to load everything into the car. When I was so hot I could barely stand on my feet. I made the first load and had to lie down under a shady tree while Atti was still across the field in his tent. I have to confess, I was getting a little worried.
Remember last summer when I kept going from one doctor to another? Their final determination was that I have a heart murmur, but not the scary kind. The kind that is totally no big deal, I’d live my whole life and not notice, nothing to worry about unless I exert myself in the heat. Oh yeah.
Luckily I just needed that little rest and I was able to get us all loaded and back home none the worse for the wear, but I realized that taking Atti along on my little farm adventures is probably not such a good idea. Next time I’ll leave Atti with a friend in exchange for farm fresh produce.
In a couple of weeks the corn will be ready, and then a few weeks after that we’ll have tomatoes. I plan on canning so many of them my fingers will turn red. I want to can them whole and diced and turned into marinara. I can’t wait.
I wrote about how leaving my garden was hard for me, but this is making it a lot easier.
My new backyard has the most gloriously flowering rose bushes lining the fence. Plus we have a patch of grass for Atti to play on, so that’s another bonus. Once I get my herbs going in pots, I’ll be able to get by without whining.
I have about five of these rose bushes peppered through the back with other rose varieties, but this kind is my favorite by far. I always thought that either a rose was big and beautiful or it was fragrant, but this John Paul variety proves that to be a lie. The blossoms get just massive and the aroma is the sweetest. When I bring in a few of these it makes the whole house smell beautiful.
I started this herb garden just under two years ago and it’s taken off like a wild thing. I use it every single time I cook.
Since we’ll be renting, I can’t really do any gardening in the new place. I’ll get some herbs started in some containers, maybe next year I’ll reclaim the bulbs currently in the ground and get those started in pots too, but no fresh tomatoes this year. No more little lemon tree. Oh sigh, it’s so sad.
The good news is that since land is plentiful and affordable in Modesto, very much different from San Diego, my dream of a farm is suddenly worth working towards. So now I’ll just have to hang on to that day and think about orchards just outside my backdoor.