With magnificent beneficence I handed off my 35-year-old flat garden to Leo this summer, while I took on some rather unattractive black plastic bins in which to plant my new garden. It’s the newest – and most severe – transition in my garden since thirty-five years ago when we came here to build a life in this shabby old brick house and its bare – except for a couple of lilacs and three maple saplings – half-acre corner-lot-that-(now)-thinks-it’s-a-farm.
Then, we created a vegetable garden in the southwest corner of the lot. It flourished, over the years, from a flat square to raised beds held in check with cinder blocks, rocks and this-and-that-and-various-other-shards –and-detritus to serve as walls and dividing points. Fifteen years ago, when Tomato Imperative! was published, I spent much time being photographed among my jungle of tomato plants out there. But since then I have spent many-too-many hours cursing my neighbor’s Box Elder tree that has increasingly encroached on my garden’s space, until now it blots out any speck of afternoon sun from 2 or 3 o’clock on. It gives the owners a sense of privacy, though, and they’re not about to cut it down on accounta my garden!
Well Damn! Aren’t vegetables, isn’t food, more important than the shade of a shallow-rooted junk tree that grows like a weed? But wait! At the same time – somehow ignored by me – an oak tree grew midway on the southern perimeter of my yard that, when he planted it, Leo told me would be a small tree. It grew inexorably, with a shadow that progressively ate into my morning sun time until, these last couple of years, my vegetable garden transformed into a shade garden. Hostas, anyone?
These things happen so slowly, so incrementally, that it renders us stupid! Perhaps, I thought, the downward spiral of my vegetable garden was directly connected to my developing a black thumb! I decided to test that hypothesis last summer when I placed a leaf-composting bin – a round black heavy-plastic thing about 2.5 feet high and 2.5 feet in diameter, with 1 inch perforations all through it – that I’d got at East Creek Plaza at the Rutland County Solid Waste facility – in one of the only spots in the entire yard that got full sun most of the day. That happened to be on the very northwest corner of the lot, on the side street, behind the boatshed, about as far away from the kitchen and from my casual view – and therefore, enjoyment – as it could be.
I filled it half-full with the previous year’s chopped leaves, then added well-composted horse manure, my screened vegetable compost, and soil from the shaded garden. In it I planted a sungold and a brandywine tomato, nasturtiums, Serrano peppers, and a butternut squash, parsley, ad infinitum, and let ‘er rip! She did beautifully well – that is, before the dreaded late blight turned my tomatoes into nasty monsters. But the peppers lasted us all year, the nasty urtiums were vibrant, and the squash fed us till Christmas.
This was early season last year with my first experimental container
So it wasn’t my thumb, I thought, as I stood on the porch and looked out at my shaded yard: It was the damned tree! But, I said to myself, Which tree? I had no control over my neighbor’s tree, but I DID have control over that ‘small’ oak that towered 50 feet in the air (or was it 100? In my mind it was Redwood-sized) that shaded the entire yard. That and the white pine on the southeast corner that had grown from a throw-away sapling from the Vermont State Fair 25 years ago into the towering and not very attractive thing that it was now. A call to ‘tree-flyer’ Barker to take them down , and I could move my vegetable garden to the middle of the yard!
“Cutting down two perfectly healthy trees?” my daughter chided. I flinched – how could I justify that? Easy! Vegetables were more important than trees. So was light! And sun! “Well you’d better get your arse in gear, then,” she said threateningly, “and make sure there’s a garden there next summer!”
In the fall I had my young yard-worker – Kyle LaMothe – chip up all the leaves with the mower, then rake and move and heave them (“You’ve got more leaves than a forest,” he panted) into the center of the yard, thickly layered (a foot deep) over a large section of forgettable perennials, and the rest were layered over the beds in the existing garden. In November Tree Flier did, indeed, show up to take down those two trees. A few days later we got the first substantial snow and, as a result my yard looked like a war zone all winter.
Come spring, I was out straight with work and had only time to glance askance at my new ‘garden’ and the wreckage in the yard. Imperceptibly, though, the wreckage declined, and that was because Leo was solidly and stolidly spending any free moment using a come-along and a splitter (maul and wedge), punctuated by the occasional rasp of a chain-saw, to clean up the mess.
Below, the first photo looks southeast -- the pine tree gone; second photo south -- the oak tree, too!
So. Now it was up to me. It occurred to me that I’d had such good luck planting in that plastic leaf composter last summer that I should utilize the remaining ones right in the front yard, and determine from the results what contours exactly the permanent garden should take. At the end of the season, if they were placed correctly, we could just put up some retaining walls, pull up the cylinders and rake out the soil into beds.
So that’s what I did – I filled four composters, right in the middle of the yard, with the chopped leaves, compost, and soil, then added some Winterwood Farm shellfish compost that I got from a Farmers’ Market vendor last winter. In them I planted tomatoes – Sun Gold, Celebrity, Brandywine, Striped German, and Pratico; as well as French filet beans and eggplant; peppers – Hungarian wax, Serrano, and early Jalapeno; Crookneck yellow squash; and some very long, very prickly Japanese cucumbers. In smaller containers set in full sun I planted basil, okra, and Rosemary.
Below a Sungold Tomato, eggplant, and peppers are just planted.
Okra is a member of the hibiscus family, as shown by its blossom
I weed standing up. I harvest standing up, which is particularly nice when it comes to the beans.
In the old, flat garden – which now, too, gets much more light – Leo tilled in that thick layer of chopped leaves and planted greens and carrots and brassica. My self-seeding herbs still grow themselves there. The peas loved the leaf-lightened soil. Never have we had such a bountiful harvest.
Dear Reader! Please join us in paying obeisance to the absent oak tree (thank you for your life), the absent pine (good riddance), and the omnipresent sun and sufficient rain of this lovely summer, because our gardens do extremely well! And I’ve had zero angst stemming from the neighbor’s tree all summer, for I believe I’ve learned the true lesson of changing what I CAN change and disregarding the rest!
These gorgeous things aren't mine but those of Alchemy Garden at the Farmers' Market.
Thanks, Lindsay and Scott
The tomatoes hung in thick green clumps for the longest time. First to ripen were the Sun Golds – several hands full every day; next was one Celebrity, which is no surprise, but what is a surprise are the enormous Brandywines and Striped Germans, and even the Praticos – ripening faster and faster every day. Which puts me in mind of tomato soups, especially this one from Tomato Imperative!.
Chilled North African SoupWe wanted an uncooked tomato soup with a Moroccan flavor. The spices are mellowed in oil and broth over heat, then added to the uncooked tomatoes to make a very striking soup. The flavors flower, gorgeous and unexpected.
• 1 cup rich chicken broth
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon honey
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 thin lemon slices
• ½ teaspoon crushed caraway seeds
• ½ teaspoon cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon hot paprika
• ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
• 3 large, ripe, juicy tomatoes (1 ½ pounds) crushed
• 1 tablespoon each minced fresh cilantro and Italian parsley
• thin lemon slices
In a small pot place the broth, oil, honey, salt, lemon slices, caraway, cinnamon, hot paprika, and ground cumin. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook for 15 minutes. Place tomatoes, cilantro, and parsley in a serving bowl or small tureen. Strain and stir the hot flavored broth into the tomatoes. Chill several hours to allow flavors to marry and serve garnished with thin lemon slices.
Slit these spicy Hungarian wax peppers from stem to tip, take out the seeds, stuff them with Stilton, sprinkle with bread crumbs, put them into a cold oven and turn it to 450° and when it has reached that number the peppers will be done. And delicious!