The Gardening Series: Enduring the heat wave
Welcome to part 2 of The Block Island Times’ series on three local island gardeners. This summer we’re following along with their dirty adventures as they battle Mother Nature. She’s brought on a fair amount of challenges, including a couple of weeks of fog and rain. As if that weren’t enough, she then threw in a week of 90-plus degree days and is now threatening to throw some squash vine borers into the mix. So, how did the gardeners do? Read on.
On the morning of July 16, I received a phone call from an excited Irina Murphy. She was harvesting potatoes. Would I like to come over and see? You bet. When I arrived five minutes later, there was already a heaping colander full of red spuds on the deck, and Irina was stooped in the back corner of her garden, pulling more of the pink nuggets out of the soil. There were all different sizes, from those tiny ones we associate with the first harvest in spring and commonly known as “new potatoes” to a full one-per-person size. But they all had one thing in common. They were all perfect: smooth, thin skins and an absence of dimples and eyes. Perfect!
I ask her how she fertilizes them. This is, after all, in a newly expanded area of the garden, so it’s the first crop to go in there. She says she doesn’t fertilize, she amends the soil instead. This particular area got composted horse manure and seaweed. And then a conversation on the wonders of seaweed ensues. I somehow missed last fall’s annual Block Island seaweed dump, in fact I thought there wasn’t one, but Irina caught it. She and friend Jess got two loads with the pick-up truck. No wonder it’s so lush around here.
Of course, when it comes to all good things, I want to know her source. Of all places, she buys her seed potatoes at Wal-Mart.
Digging as we talk, pulling one after the other out of the soil, she offers a lesson on “curing” the potatoes for storage. She says to leave dirt on them and let them dry in an airy place for two days. Then the dirt should be rubbed off. Dry them for another two days and then they can be stored in a “cool, dry place.”
As the temperature nears 90 on this July day, I wish I too could be in a cool dry place. But in the middle of the garden, arching raspberry canes are loaded with ripe berries, and I have been invited to eat all the ones I want.
I’m also fascinated with all the little native bees that are also visiting. They are especially interested in the dill, which has flower heads similar to Queen Anne’s lace, although the flowers are green. Many of the native bees are surprisingly small, easily mistaken for small iridescent flies. There are so many about, the dill flowers seem to be shimmering.
There are plenty of honey bees about as well. Irina has taken up beekeeping this year, and the two hives she and husband Rob started in April have just turned into three. A few days earlier one of the hives swarmed (usually a sign that the honey combs are full and the bees need more space). Fortunately Rob was around when the bees swarmed and was able to catch them and introduce them into a third hive that was luckily waiting in the wings in case just such a thing happened.
What impresses me most about Irina’s garden though is the corn. Just 15 days earlier it had been about a foot tall. Now it is five, and there are even some ears forming. One has bright pink tassels emerging from the top, not the standard pale yellow we are used to seeing on supermarket corn. She isn’t sure which corn plants are which, so I am curious to see what will form inside.
And now let’s head over to Everett Littlefield’s garden to see how his corn is doing.
When I arrived on a recent Sunday morning, the family was erecting a canopy shelter on the concrete slab behind an out-building. They are hoping for a little relief from the blistering heat that has plagued the island, but first they need to see if all the tent poles and other parts are there. Everett’s wife Verna suggests they put the shelter over the turkey coop to give the birds some shade. “Forget the turkeys,” “Who cares about the turkeys,” and “Damn turkeys,” are amongst the phrases uttered by Everett and son, Russell. (They already have some shade, someone assures me.)
Verna then tells me how they just moved the turkey incubator out from the dining room table. “It stunk” she told me. Inside are at least a hundred small birds of varying sizes. That’s a lot of turkeys, and not everyone seems to be happy about them, or maybe it’s just the heat.
I ask how the garden has been affected by two weeks of rain and fog, followed by a heat wave. Everett seems unfazed, and indeed they have all been busy harvesting and putting up food. Dakota has just dug a basket of red potatoes, lovely and perfect, and they’ve just picked pickling cucumbers and a foot-long zucchini. The overgrown squash will be turned into zucchini relish. Cabbages have been dispatched to a crock to turn into sauerkraut and already in the pantry are two batches of pickled beets and some canned green beans.
Russell also requested dilly beans, something that Verna and Everett have never had before. She told Russell she would make them if he helped. “So did he?” I asked. “No” says Verna, but she did make them anyway.
And with that we head out into the garden to see the corn. Even though it’s five days later than when I visited Irina, Everett’s plants are only about 18 inches high. As he poses for a picture in the corn patch, he jokes about how maybe he should squat down a bit so it looks taller.
Verna shows me the purple tomatoes ripening on the vine. “Johno at the store told me they’re delicious, so we planted them.” While I’m sure it would be heavenly to eat a fresh, ripe garden tomato, I have to admit that the color is kind of... ugly. They’re not a true purple like a Barney; however if Johno says they are delicious, I believe him.
Our third gardener, Shannon McCabe, is playing hard-to-get this week, what with her busy schedule and a string of 90-degree days. She’s a sitting duck at the Farmers Market, though, so off I go Saturday morning to see her.
Among her offerings this week are kale — both curly and lance-leaved. There are also collard greens, Swiss chard and some lovely Bok choy. The kale is very popular but the collards and Bok choy aren’t selling particularly well. She attributes this to people seeming to not really know how to cook with them. Evidently collards don’t need to be boiled for hours with a ham-hock as they do in the South. They may be lightly sautéed like any other green. And Bok choy, of course, being a staple in Asian cooking, may be included in stir fries, but can also be cooked like other greens.
But there are no beets. People are asking for them and one customer is clearly very disappointed. Recipes are described and swapped. (“Here’s how I make borscht.” “Sautéed collards are great in omelets.”) Shannon eventually promises to save the woman a couple bunches of beets and bring them to the next market.
It’s not that the beets aren’t thriving. They are — so much so that the chefs at the Atlantic Inn, where Shannon also works, have snapped them all up. She feels a bit guilty about not having them at the market, but the inn pays her a good price. I tell her not to feel badly. She is after all, following her “farm-to-table” mission.
One day I met up with Shannon as she delivered her bounty of beets to the Atlantic’s restaurant. She also brought a variety of greens for them to sample and we all stand around munching on stalks of Bok choy as we discuss how they prepare the beets.
The chefs at the Atlantic are using the beets in an appetizer of pan-seared sea scallops from Block Island Sound. Chef Bobby Will tells me they are poached in a mixture of red wine, citrus and spices. The poaching liquid is then reduced to a fine puree which adorns the plate. Then the beets are sliced, sautéed and added to the scallops. The plate is finished with shaved baby carrots, a wild mushroom broth and a tarragon aioli. The dish is so popular that Bobby estimates it accounts for about half of the appetizers coming off the line.
So that’s part 2. It turns out that Mother Nature hasn’t pulled any punches the gardeners haven’t been able to block. But please come back and join us next time for part 3 when we’ll explore the case of the accidental radish and when pigs fly.