Even with a repeat of near drought conditions this summer, my own Eve has coaxed more out of our gardens than last season. She has the touch.
|Vicki's pea patch|
One of my great pleasures on Shuddering Squirrel Acres is to look out and see Vicki babying our crops, to see her ash-gold hair tousled and glimmering among the tops of staked cukes and beans and tomatillos and sweet peas, to admire her lovely and graceful form, to see her deftly manipulating plants as though born to the garden. A bit of copper dust here to fight fungus and blight, some Epsom salts there to encourage healthy tomatoes (sadly a losing cause this season), gently nestling seeds into peat pots inside the greenhouse – her botanical “nervous hospital" – for late season crops, tucking worm castings into the potting soil around a collection of experimental container plantings on our deck.
Vicki’s grandmother was an Englishwoman who found herself married to an American farmer and leading the life of a farm wife. As though to defy the hot, hardscrabble work, she always wore heels and a dress, even while working outside. She taught her granddaughter more about husbanding plants than Vicki realized, until we found our own place in the sun where she could exercise those long unused skills.
I have a spotty history of growing, or attempting to grow, vegetables and other edibles. Until now, all my life has been spent living in the city in small places on small lots with small dirt patches that were hardly ideal for gardening. Maybe I’d get a handful of bush beans, a tomato or two, a few herbs, some chile peppers.
Now our division of labor has me preparing the soil with various enrichments, especially two-year composted horse manure bought on the cheap from a nearby mom-and-pop nursery situated beside a horse farm, some bone meal, mulched leaves and chopped straw. Vicki does the planting and growing, although I managed to get a few pounds of potatoes – Yukon gold, purple Peruvian, fingerlings, russet – out of one of our garden boxes, and plenty of chiles, which love this arid, stifling heat.
I also dug a new garden patch this year, removing the densely rocky soil with my backhoe, and filling it with the good, black, composted manure. Initially it was to be a nursery where I’d plant reedy tree saplings ordered from the Arbor Day Foundation big enough to transplant around our wooded property. But I waited too long to get them in the ground, and only a single sugar maple has survived.
I also planted the same patch with a few pie pumpkin plants and some ornamental gourds, and they have flourished with almost no care. The plants are free of the myriad pests that hector our other gardens, the vines have overgrown their boundaries and now snake outward in all directions, and I already have a big batch of pumpkin puree in the freezer. The gourds aren’t doing quite as well, but we’ll get a few for crafts.
|Cuban black chiles|
Yesterday I made my first batch of hot sauce from a combination of takanotsume (“Hawk’s talons”) chiles, green and red serranos, and Cuban black chiles, which ripen to a deep red. These were crushed and mixed with garlic, onions, cider vinegar, water, honey, salt, pepper and thyme, simmered together for a while, then pureed and strained. The resulting orange sauce is fiery with enough sweetness for temper, and is now aging for a couple of weeks in the fridge before bottling.
|Takanotsume chile peppers|
I also enjoy canning, and have put up a few jars of bread-and-butter pickles, clementine marmalade, and spring strawberry sauce from juicy, sugary Tennessee strawberries grown about 30 miles from here.
The season is winding down, but Vicki is already working on extending it with plantings of fall vegetables and some hothouse projects. We don’t yet reap all that we sow, but we’re getting the hang of this new climate and the bugs that are without question the most populous things on our farm. This year, as I said, was better than last.
Wait 'til next year.