The Block Island Times

The Gardening Series Part V: Canning it

By Renée Meyer | Nov 08, 2013
Photo by: Renée Meyer Canned goods at Shannon McCabe's — some of the fruits of this year's growing season.

When we arrive at Rustic Rides on Columbus Day to see Shannon McCabe’s “other garden,” she is in the kitchen preparing breakfast. “I’ve just harvested the last from the garden,” she says, and there is an array of vegetables on the counter. Eggplants, some peppers, a carrot, a beet and a few late tomatoes.

In actuality, there’s more out there. Under a pink-blooming blanket of Lady’s Thumb (an invasive but not unattractive weed) we find a few more eggplants and lots of parsley. There would still be Swiss Chard and kale if the pony hadn’t worked his way through the fence and eaten most everything in sight. Fortunately, there is plenty more kale still in the field up at Payne Farm.

As we talk she’s chopping and dicing some of the vegetables that then get sautéed quickly on the stove. A couple of “farm fresh” Rustic Rides Farm eggs get scrambled and thrown into the pan. Voila: brunch!

She eats at the counter. The table is covered with bags of apples gleaned from various old trees on the island. She’s been harvesting beyond the borders of the garden fence. There are already jars of applesauce in the pantry. Some have blackberries mixed in. There is also blackberry jam (by most reports it was a great year for the wild blackberries) and rose-hip jam.

Sometimes you live for the moment: snacking on raw beans in the garden. Sometimes you put them in a jar. Shannon’s been learning the old world ways of canning and she has put up both dilly beans and cucumber pickles.

In reflecting on her first year of supplying produce to restaurants and the Farmer’s Market, she says she has learned a lot and that she will certainly make some changes for next year. One of those will include taking on a partner. Her most fervent wish though, and I’ve heard her repeat this a few times over the summer, is that people would learn more about how to eat seasonally and that they had a better knowledge of when various items are naturally available, and therefore at their best.

For now, though, next spring and summer seem a distant dream and Shannon is feeling unfettered and free in a way she never has. She is done with college and her job at the Atlantic Inn is over for the season. When I visited her she had no concrete plans as to what would come next. Perhaps some travelling, perhaps moving to Providence for the winter. (Rumor has it she is doing the latter.)

Wandering over to Irina Murphy’s garden on Oct. 28, I find her busy moving strawberry plants from their current bed to another. She is preparing to plant garlic there. Irina wasn’t the only one inhabiting the garden when I arrived though. They acquired some chickens in mid-September and she has to shoo one out of the garden before we can begin our tour.

Inspired by a visit to a friend’s garden, she is rearranging things. Irina says her friend’s garden has straight rows with paths covered in hay to keep out the weeds. Currently the style of Irina’s garden could best be described as haphazard. Things get planted wherever they will fit. Lacking formal beds or rows, one must hop from here to there. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Jerry Seinfeld would say, but she is vowing to enforce some order into her exuberantly planted plot.

Raspberry canes are taking over from the center outward and so those also will be moved. There’s an area already cleared for them just outside the fence but they can’t be moved just yet — they are producing a second crop of berries.

Also on the to-do list is spreading the mounds of horse manure she has collected. But that too must wait because there are so many things still to eat: late planted beans, red bell peppers, a few tomatoes and a variety of herbs.

One of those herbs is pineapple sage and it is magnificent. She started out with this in the spring as a small three-inch plant she got from the University of Rhode Island’s East Farm, where she volunteered in the green-house. Now it has grown to almost three feet in height and circumference. Long stalks end in brilliant, bright red flowers. She’s not sure what to do with this plant, and I’m not either, but I suggest perhaps making a tea, or a tea that can be turned into jelly.

Knowing that this will be the last part of the series, she thanks me. She’s gotten a lot of positive comments, and says that being part of the project has motivated her to work harder at it. And that motivation has certainly paid off. What’s the next step for Irina? Possibly investing in a freezer.

The next day when I catch up with Everett Littlefield, I find his large garden practically barren. Spent plants have been removed. The corn is all gone. The sweet potatoes have been harvested and cured. There’s not even a Brussel sprout left. (“We got sick of eating them,” he says.) Almost all that remains are some butternut squash. Most have already been brought in and only those with their vines still alive remain.

In the back corner there are some broccoli and basil plants that have been left to go to seed. Everett says that he has collected quite a lot of seed this year.

Over all, it’s been a good year in Everett’s garden. He has harvested four bushels of potatoes, and had “more peppers than he’s seen in his life.” Verna’s been making lots of pickled peppers and they’ve been eating them up — even the hot ones.

The corn was doing quite well, and then one day the birds came. He didn’t notice at first, and by the time he had discovered them, they had devoured about half the corn. Half of each ear that is. The bottom halves were still in possession of their kernels, so he did what any enterprising gardener would do: he cut off the bottom halves and froze them for later eating.

There is one remaining crop to be harvested though, besides the approximately 50 turkeys (if one considers those a crop): the Jerusalem artichokes. Jerusalem artichokes are a native species of sunflower and they used to grow all over the island. Everett tells me that “everyone used to have them. They got us through the Depression: cod, potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes.” What was not all over the island then were the deer, and sure enough they have nibbled away at the leaves that dared to reach through the fence. The plants produce tubers that can be boiled and mashed just like potatoes and he says they are delicious.

Next year’s season is already underway as garlic has been planted recently under a floating plant cover. The garlic will be ready to be harvested around the Fourth of July, just in time to plant something else. Earlier this summer, Verna has told me that next year the garden will be smaller, so when I ask him if that will come true, he hesitates. “Well, Kirk and Russell want me to put up a hoop greenhouse. They’ve become interested in growing food.” So, I guess the answer is “No.”

And they are planning to raise fewer pigs: only three instead of this year’s six. Still, someone who arrived to visit just before me was already requesting a fresh ham for next year — even volunteering to help with the “dirty stuff.”

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