The Gardening Series Part 3: In the weeds
The season is winding down in Shannon McCabe’s garden, which is actually a plot carved out of a field up at Payne Farm. When I arrived one Friday morning, her truck was there but no one seemed to be around. I wandered around, thinking she couldn’t be far. There was plenty to entertain me though. A fenced-in area contained sheep munching on the grass. It was all very quiet and idyllic.
I focused my camera through the fence to take a picture. Snap went the shutter. Then I noticed two small black pigs. Snap went the camera shutter again. Well, I must have disturbed something because suddenly I heard the pounding of hooves and a small striped donkey darted through my field of view and scattered those sheep and pigs, then rallied them up at what must have seemed a safe distance. Then it turned and stared. “Oh, it’s doing its job,” said Cathy Payne when she and Shannon arrived back from stocking up the farm stand.
“One day a man came up on a bicycle and the donkey chased it all the way back up the road. I whistled for it and it actually stopped and came back.” Donkeys: part guard-dog, part shepherd. Who knew?
Shannon’s crops are mostly of the early and mid-season variety, such as greens and radishes, and many are past producing. Even the cucumbers and zucchinis are pretty much spent.
One of her biggest challenges has been timing the plantings to satisfy the wishes of her customers, some of whom have become quite loyal. Multiple plantings are nice when they work, but sometimes (usually) Mother Nature has her own plans. Take, for instance, the case of the “Accidental Radish.”
One day earlier in the summer she told me a story about watermelon radishes. I had never heard of them. Neither had she — until recently, that is. Evidently they are the newest gourmet fad. So she tried planting them. After the 28 “days to harvest” the seed package promised, they didn’t seem quite ready. And then she forgot about them. She had an “Oh no!” moment about a week later and dug them all up. They were huge! Thinking that they must be over-grown, pithy and hard inside, they seemed a failure and destined for the “trash heap.” (That’s “compost,” Shannon.) But she sliced one open anyway and there, inside a white and green exterior, was a perfectly juicy and watermelon-red interior. She tasted it. It was sweet, like a fruit, not sharp, like most radishes. Interesting.
She took one into the Atlantic Inn and asked the chef: “What would you do with this?” “You have watermelon radishes?” he replied, with some astonishment. They would take them all and pay well. (Watermelon radishes are evidently an Asian heirloom and the Atlantic Inn chefs are pickling them for one of their tapas offerings.)
She went back to the store she bought the seeds at and snapped them all up. She didn’t plant them all at once though. The second planting went bust: “Straight to seed,” she said. On my visit to the farm, we headed to the radish patch to see how the third planting is coming along. While the jury is still out, they don’t look especially promising. You can’t fool Mother Nature.
Multiple plantings of the beets are faring much better and the Dino kale is flourishing. Its leaves are rumpled and a dark blue green. They float above the plants like headdresses on the tops of Vegas show-girls. At their feet are plenty of weeds, but they don’t seem to mind. Some of the weeds seem to be acting in a beneficial manner, shading the soil and some of the more tender plants from the sun.
One of the “weeds” is purslane and Shannon yanks a plant out of the ground and begins munching it. It’s a weed I instantly recognize from my own gardens. She tells me it is full of vitamins and antioxidants. I try some and it really is quite good. She is supplying Glen Pence with the plants and he is using them in the evenings at the restaurant, The Sisters.
Still, despite her customers’ lust for kale and beets, they still have not embraced the collards and bok choy, wonderful greens in their own right. “I’ll eat them myself.” She throws some bunches in the back of her truck. She’s going home to sauté them up for her own delicious lunch.
Later, at home, I look purslane up and learn that its scientific name is Portulaca oleracea. The stems, leaves and flower buds are all edible and it turns out they contain more omega-3 fatty acids (that’s a very good thing, folks) than any other leafy vegetable. I go out to our own vegetable garden and, finding plenty, vow to have some for dinner soon.
Irina and Robbie Murphy
I don’t have a hard time catching up with Irina and Robbie Murphy. They’re right across street. One recent evening, when I’m walking the dog down the driveway, Robbie rushes up to me saying “Look at this!” It’s their first ear of corn, and they will be sharing it for dinner.
The tops of the stalks are splayed open to examine the corn. If one were performing this common, albeit rather discouraged deed in a supermarket, one might reject one like this. But, as fans of organic produce know, perfection is in the freshness and flavor, not the uniformity of kernels lined up like players in the University of Michigan’s football marching band.
Six days later, when I catch up with Irina in her garden, she tells me they have already harvested about 10 ears. The corn is ripe when the silk turns brown, and she picks a particularly big one that looks ready. We open it up and there is a caterpillar in there munching away at the top kernels. Down below, though, is perfection. I get to take it home for dinner.
She tells me it’s her favorite time of year in the garden, what with all the good things to eat. And so the walking tour becomes an eating one. I’m invited to sample various tomatoes: the chocolate cherries, a small paste tomato called “Juliet,” and a yellow plum tomato. She has learned that the paler the color, the less lycopene (the pigment that gives them their red color) there is in the fruit, so she isn’t going to bother with the white and yellow ones next year.
I also get to try a chick pea. “They’re just like regular peas, when raw,” she says. I’ve never seen a chick pea growing before, so I’ve certainly never eaten one straight off the plant. There seems to be only one pea per pod, and sure enough it tastes like a pea, only not as sweet as a sugar-snap. She tells me she just buys a bag of organic, dried chick peas and plants them. It’s much more economical than buying the seeds, she’s found.
The Littlefield Family
I head down to Everett Littlefield’s garden on the same day — mainly to compare the corn. From my morning walks I can see from the street that the corn at least looks as tall as Irina’s. And then I get a lesson on corn sex. (Although he is too polite to say so, I inadvertently called the silks of the corn the “tassels” in my first article.) The tassels are at the top of the plants and are the male parts. The silks, emerging from the ears, are the female part. Corn is pollinated by wind, and the tassels release the corn pollen which falls down onto the silks. He tells me that the row on the outside often doesn’t produce much as the wind blows the pollen away into the rest of the patch. He helps it along by shaking the plants and sure enough, they release a shower of pollen.
Some of Everett’s crops are, like Shannon’s, past producing. His wife Verna tells me she has 38 zip-lock bags of delicious tomato soup in the freezer. She gave up buying Cambell’s soup long ago. Everett is about to harvest the last of the paste tomatoes. He’ll slice them up and layer them in the dehydrator on silicone mats to dry. He hopes the wind blows in the next few days. “Why?” I ask. “To get that windmill going. That dehydrator’s electric.”
Still to come is, of course, the corn. There’s also butternut and blue hubbard squash coming along and the okra is just starting to produce fruits. Here’s another vegetable I’m not used to seeing in the north and I’m impressed by the size and beauty of its flowers.
But despite all the veggies, I have to ask about the pigs. You see, a couple weeks ago my neighbor came back from his daily walk and said “There are pigs all over Old Town Road.” Well, that may have been somewhat of an exaggeration. According to Everett, they did get out but mainly stayed down near the pen. How did they get out? Well, the gate has a piece of rebar that gets inserted down into a pipe to hold it shut.
One day, the rebar didn’t get inserted far enough down, and when the pigs rubbed against the gate to scratch their backs, which they like to do, it opened. Everett said it wasn’t hard to catch them. He herded them back into the pen with his golf cart, assisted by sons Russell and Kirk. One pig though wasn’t cooperating and went trotting the other way. So Kirk dove for its tail and hung on for the ride.
Everett, chuckling, said it looked like Kirk was “skiing through the grass.”