One of the magical, yet mundane, tricks of a beautiful and productive garden is this commonly repeated gardening rule.  It’s very direct, yet somehow mystical.  Feed the soil?  But what does soil eat?  How does it eat?  The fact is, soil is kind of a multi-species organism, a kind of meta-organism.  It’s kind of funny, because soil, otherwise known as dirt, has the aura of being inert.  After all, it just sits there under our feet.  It’s not unreasonable to think of it as just the medium that holds plants in place.  But when you get right down into it, examine it and get to know it intimately, you start to bond with your dirt.  I once took a class at the New York Botanical Gardens called Soil Science I.  Yes, there was a Soil Science II.  As a matter of fact, I just looked it up and there are 63 colleges in the US that offer majors in soil science.  There is even a Soil Science Society of America.  You’ll take my word, then, that caring for your soil is serious business.  Okay, so how do you feed your soil?  It’s a simple practice that can become a somewhat arduous, occasionally all consuming, enterprise.  Once you start feeding your soil organically you begin to understand the appeal of Miracle Grow, electric kool-aid for plants.  For those of us who want to garden organically, but need an instant boost, we have Fish and Seaweed Extract.  If you’ve never used this, trust me, you are in for a treat.

Basically, the way you feed your soil is to add compost.  Every gardening book under the sun will tell you to do this, and how to do it, ad infinitum.  So just do it, you’ll be glad you did.  We were afraid of rats when we started gardening here, so we started just making leaf mold, basically taking all our fall leaves, putting them in a bin and waiting about a year and a half.  Well-rotted leaf mold is pretty sweet.  But a couple of years ago, we just couldn’t bear to throw away our kitchen scraps anymore.  We bought a couple of plastic compost bins from our town, got a good intro to town composting from our town’s environmental affairs officer, and away we went.  At first, the most satisfying part of starting to compost our kitchen waste was seeing how much we were reducing our contribution to the landfill.  When composted, veggie scraps just seem to melt away.  And then, after about 9 months, jackpot!  Nice brown food for our garden.  There are probably about as many ways to compost as there are gardeners, so you’ll have to create your own system.  There’s even a very informative book, dedicated to composting, called Let It Rot.

One of my organic gardening gurus, Steve Solomon, says in his book Gardening When It Counts:  Growing Food in Hard Times,  that simply using compost from your own garden and kitchen will not return enough nutrients to the soil to grow the most nutritious food.  Why?  Well, for one, if we eat out of our garden, we remove nutrients from the soil and don’t return them.  Crudely, we pee and poop the nutrients from our garden into the sewer system.  Steve says “I compost only to recycle garden and kitchen waste.” (p. 180)  In addition to his own compost, he adds well decomposed feedlot manure as well as small amounts of what he calls COF, complete organic fertilizer, an organic soil amendment that he formulated to increase the nutritional content of homegrown vegetables.  I won’t print the formula here, but it is on page 21 of his book, go check it out at the library, surreptitiously copy it at the bookstore, or even buy his book, which is awesome.  Steve Solomon is the slightly cantankerous garden gramps that many of us don’t have, but could sure use.  In addition to his gardening books, he started a cool website, called the Soil and Health Library.  I use Steve’s COF, my own leaf mold and compost, Fish and Seaweed Extract, and more recently, Vermont Compost Company’s Manure Compost , which Richfield Farms in Clifton carries. Since I don’t have access to manure, nor am I really interested in finding one, this is one way that I can add manure to my garden.  It’s not cheap, though, so when the Hard Times that Steve predicts come, I’ll have to find another system.  Maybe Humanure will become more appealing then.

About a month ago, I had a friend over to see my garden.  She wants to garden and I was trying to get her to just go for it.  As I was showing her my main veggie bed, which at that point I had not started planting out and was absolutely covered in weeds, she turned to me and asked, but what do you do about the weeds?  I responded, I sit on my little weeding stool and pull them out.  But what struck me most about her query was the expression on her face.  She seemed so dismayed at the thought of weeding.  At that moment I decided to write a post about weeding, with the intention of telling her, and other gardeners, do not fear the weeds!  I planned to call the post something like, the zen of weeding, or the weeds are not out to get you, or the joy of weeding.  Then, this week, as I approached my burgeoning weed problem on a hot humid sunny day, I changed my mind. Weeding sucks!  The truth is, weeding can be the most satisfying of gardening experiences, and the biggest ordeal.  The time and weather conditions of your chosen time of weeding can have a huge effect on your experience, as well as the growth phase of the weeds.  I had chosen the worst possible weather to confront my weeds, just sitting out there was killing me, forget about the added torture of bending and pulling weeds.  A cooler, cloudy day would have found me enjoying the same activity.  Also, had I not neglected the duty, or had the weeds not turned so quickly from tiny little motes to aggressive green monsters, it would not have been such a chore.

However, in many ways, aside from the bad weather conditions, it was a good time to weed.  It was before the weeds had completely taken over, overwhelming all of my veggie plants, but after they had gotten big enough to easily grasp and pull.  I will pull itty bitty weeds, if there are not too many of them, but I like them to be at least an inch or more in size, to give me more to grasp.  Weeding tiny seedlings feels like combing lice out of a child’s hair.  I have at times used a technique similar to hoeing when I have a big area with teeny weeds, scaping the edge of my trowel.  This technique only works in certain areas of my garden though, because I have been gardening with self-sowers for many years now, and some of the “weeds” are actually the seedlings of annual flowers that I like to have in the garden.  Cleome, Verberna boriensis and hastata, Echinacea, corydalis are my main self-sowers, but there are a number of other “weeds” that I like to keep around.  Last year I planted borage, as a beneficial plant, and this year it came back gangbusters.  I also have some volunteer sunflowers this year.  One challenge of weeding when you have self-sowers is that you have to know what each of these self-sowers look like.  You have to be able to selectively weed, leaving some seedlings but removing most.  You have to thin the self-sowers or else they get too crowded.  They add a delightful aspect to weeding, though, a kind of treasure hunt.

Before I had a garden, I was an amateur naturalist, and spent many hours pouring over wildflower guidebooks.  I bring that attitude to my weeding efforts, too, trying to really identify every “wild” plant that I encounter in my tame garden.  In my early years of gardening, if I wasn’t sure if some plant was a “weed” or something more interesting, I would allow it to grow until it flowered.  I have had some dramatic failures with this system, such as when I let a patch of pokeweed have it’s way.  By the time I realized what I had unleashed in my garden, I had created a problem that took years to defeat.  Pokeweed is a native plant, and birds love it, but it’s bad in the veggie and ornamental garden, because established pokeweed has a deep root that’s hard to remove and the berries are poisonous for people. This is just one example of a weed that needs to be dealt with alacrity.  Tree weeds are important to stay on top of, because once they’ve become established, you will not be able to pull them out. Bindweed, bittersweet and wild wisteria vines must be dealt with aggressively, but the worst in the book is poison ivy.  If you don’t know what poison ivy looks like, school yourself.  If you are attracting birds to your garden, you will get it because they eat the berries and then poop out the seeds.  It won’t become a problem if you stay on top of it, but you must be vigilant.

When I was a kid, we never ate chard.  But while working on a fishing boat owned by the Moonies (long story), I was introduced to this delicious green.  It’s such a beautiful vegetable, especially red chard, that when I finally started vegetable gardening, I had to try it.  Unfortunately, for some reason, I couldn’t get the red variety to grow.  Oh, it would grow, sort of, but never the glorious bunches shown in all the catalogues and vegetable gardening books.  So even though I have a decent plot, I’d find myself buying swiss chard at the market.  Then a few years ago the store started carrying a white stemmed green chard that always looked way better than the red chard, and I thought I might be able to figure out what variety it was and grow it.  And I did, and I have been having amazing success with chard ever since.  This vigorous variety is Fordhook Giant, an oldie but goodie. I usually harvest the outer leaves regularly throughout the growing season, and it just keeps growing and growing, from early spring until after the first frost of fall.  I’ve read that in more mild climates it will grow all through the winter, and I wonder if with some protection I could keep it going.

I’ve been starting my chard indoors in February, with my onions and lettuce, to get the earliest jump on the season.  However, last fall while experimenting with my cold frame, I planted swiss chard seeds.  They never germinated and I forgot all about them.  Then in early March, while checking things out, I noticed the chard growing.  At first I thought, what the heck is that and how did it get there?  But then my creaky middle-aged brain finally kicked in and a vague recollection of planting chard seeds appeared.  I continued to plant my planned patch this spring, but let those fall sown plants grow.  I have to say, they are bigger and more vigorous than the ones I started indoors.  I also found a couple of “spontaneously generated” chard plants in my other bed.  Did I plant them or are they self-sown?  We will never know, but they, too are very strong.  So I think that chard is probably better directly sown in the soil, although I did do that my first year growing Fordhook Giant, and the reverse seemed to be true.  Maybe the answer is that chard seeds like to sit in the soil all winter, and then germinate?  That seems like leaving your chard production up to a lot of chance, and I don’t know if I have the courage for that.  If I tried that system, I’d probably still start them indoors to hedge my bets, and then wind up with even more chard than I have now, (which is 20 plants).  DH says, do we really need that much chard?  Maybe not, but I’m sure my friends and family will be happy in about a month or two.

The biggest problem I have with chard is those pernicious leaf miners.  They have destroyed a lot of lovely leaves with their tunnels.  I bought some floating row covers this year, thinking I would cover my plants to protect them from this pest, but when it came down to it I’d rather see the plants than the covers, and take my chances with the bugs.  I read somewhere that the best way to defeat the leaf miners (other than row covers) is to be really vigilant about removing infested leaves, and throwing them out in the garbage (not composting).  I’d hate to jinx myself, but that’s what I’ve been doing this year and it seems to be working.  I just had my first big harvest this week, and it was delicious.  I cooked it with onions and garlic in olive oil, and then threw in some capers and chicken broth at the end and served it over pasta with some parmesan.   I like it to be completely wilted because the leaves can sometimes be a bit bitter, but that’s tamed if you cook it thoroughly.  Last year I discovered that it is especially good if you with shitakes, but it is also good just cooked with garlic and oil.  For anyone who wants to read even more about this leafy green, I recommend the following post on the blog, In My Kitchen Garden, which has pretty much everything you need to know about chard.

http://inmykitchengarden.blogspot.com/2007/09/how-to-grow-swiss-chard-from-seed-why.html

Finally, when harvesting the chard I use the same technique I talked about in my broccoli raab post.  I harvest the leaves in the morning and stand them up in a bowl of water.  They will keep this way for at least 3 days, maybe more, and instead of languishing in the fridge, will be an active reminder for you to cook it.

“The garden is calling to me” is a phrase I repeat often in the time I refer to as “pre-spring”, otherwise known as “winter” by everyone else.  But it is the tail-end of winter!  The time when you can feel the life force beginning to surge in the great outdoors, when the sun’s presence reasserts itself.  The plants begin to grow, albeit slowly.  When people compliment me on my garden, I feel bashful.  I am not responsible for the beauty revealed in my garden.   Mother Nature (whatever THAT means) is primarily responsible.  I feel that I am actually the servant of the garden. There is an often cited quote, “The gardener’s shadow is the best fertilizer.”  All that is truly required to have a great garden is your presence.   As I wander around, enjoying the garden, I check on the growth of my plants, and make a mental list of the various tasks at hand, from great to small.  Some may seem critical, if you don’t do it soon, the plant will die.  Others, not so much, but grander.  A new tree!  More shrubs!  And some are neither critical, nor grand, but entirely pleasant and relaxing.  Some tasks do not require your entire attention, and so you can relax, do a little something and enjoy the natural world.  There are some views of my garden that are glorious, if seen from a small stool.  No one ever has that view except me, it is one of the small rewards of weeding.

I am reading a fascinating book right now called Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  You may have heard of the concept of Flow, which is known as being “in the groove” or “in the zone”.  It is the state of absorption in an activity where “you” cease to be aware of your self, and are simply the doer.  You can reach this deep state of consciousness through many activities, from yoga and meditation, to athletics, music, deep reading, or painting, really any activity that engages you completely.  Flow is optimal experience, and brings with it a deep feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction.  Dr. Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist who spent 30 years of his career studying flow, came up with 8 components of flow that are often mentioned by people who have experienced it.  Of these 8, I feel that the ones most relevant to the flow of gardening are that the experience involves tasks that we can complete, the tasks have clear goals and provide feedback, and in doing the tasks, one is so involved that the worries and frustrations of everyday life fade away.  Flow is the deep enjoyment we gain from our gardens, from our experience of learning and growing with them.

Over the years as I have been gardening I have observed many people become gardeners.  It is a slow unfolding process, becoming a gardener sets your sense of time over the long term, weeks, months, years.  Gardening engages all the senses, we can all relate to the taste of a homegrown tomato, the scent of roses wafting through the air, the beautiful colors of flowers, the sound of summer insects and bird song, the texture of dirt.  Through our gardens we also access our intellectual curiosity, about science, history, food, art, our own memories.  Gardening is so satisfying because any effort reaps rewards.  Just plant one pot, put good dirt in it, remember to water it.  You will become attached to that plant as it grows.  As nutty as it may sound to the non-gardener, I have a personal relationship with each plant in my garden.  So much of what needs to be done in the garden is not terribly time dependent and is also broken down into simple tasks.  No matter how challenging it can be sometimes, to fit it into my busy schedule, to solve the pesky little problems that may arise, ultimately I get nothing but joy, a joy of the purest kind, from my gardening.  I think the potential for this passion and love of gardening is in everyone.  It is life affirming, relaxing, fascinating, uplifting, and just down-right fun to garden.

When I went to check on the robin chicks yesterday morning I discovered that the nest was empty. After our sad loss last week, I feared the worst.  I immediately went outside and searched the entire area around the nest, but found nothing.  A little later in the morning, as I was refilling the bird bath, I looked up and there they were, in our Mulberry tree.  I hadn’t realize that they were that close to flying, because because their tail and wing feathers weren’t grown in yet.  But I guess they were ready, since their parents couldn’t have carried them.  That must have been quite a journey for them all, from the arbor on one side of our house, to the Mulberry Tree all the way back near our garage on the other side of our lot.  It’s got to be at least 75 feet, as the bird flies, so to speak.  What amazes me is how good Hector and Heloise’s timing was.  The Mulberry tree just ripened a couple of days before their chicks fledged.  Between the nest building, the courting, the incubation, the hatching and the fledging, about 6 weeks to 2 months must have passed.  It just leaves me in total awe of how the natural world flows in synchronicity.

That Mulberry tree is such an asset to the wildlife in our community.   It’s a weed tree and its existence entirely due to serendipity.  When we bought this house about 11 years ago, it was as tall as the forsythia border between our driveway and the property line.  I have fond memories of Mulberry trees, there were a few in the neighborhood where I grew up in the Bronx, so I just let it grow.  My neighbor wasn’t crazy about it because it cast too much shade on her border on the other side, so every spring I tried to prune it to keep it on our side.  In those days, it was too young to fruit though, and remembering the purple stained sidewalks of my childhood, I wasn’t sure that we’d want to keep the tree once it started to fruit.  But it was a fun project for me to hone my pruning skills on (as is forsythia).  The side benefit of that early pruning is a really cool branch structure, perfect for tree climbing.  Both my kids and the neighbor kids love getting up in there.  Fortunately it turned out to be a white mulberry tree, so although it does make a mess at this time of the year, the berries don’t stain.  And the wildlife LOVE it.  It’s absolutely insane how active that tree is at this time of the year.

In addition to our two beloved baby Robins, I’ve noticed several (2 – 4) newly fledged starlings in the tree.  It’s hard to differentiate fledglings from their parents, because they are almost the same size, but I’ve observed that they definitely don’t fly as well as the adults, they look like they have to work really hard at it.  The mulberries are a great food source for all kinds of birds, I’ve seen cardinals, sparrows, catbirds, mockingbirds, grackles, and mourning doves.  Song sparrows and gold finches are around too.  Mulberries are somewhat sweet, and have tons of seeds, which are a great source of protein.   I don’t like them much, they’re a bit bland, but my neighbors’ mom likes them.  They seem to be a new health food, too, I’ve seen packets of them dried in our local Whole Foods.  I just looked them up online and they are going for $7 to a whopping $15 a pound!  They are supposed to be a great source of vitamin C, iron, calcium, and protein.  I’ve read that cherry orchards plant mulberry trees because they fruit at the same time as cherries, but the birds like mulberries better, so they stay away from the cherries.  I have a young cherry tree, but the mulberries didn’t protect my cherries last year.  Maybe birds prefer the black mulberry.

What kind of monster do you think I am?  After researching catapults this evening with my 9 year old, the title of this post does sound like a dish that would be served at a European medieval banquet.  The idea of braised lettuce reared it’s ugly head again after I harvested all of my lettuce because of the threat of hot weather.  There was no way we’d be able to eat all of it as salads before it went bad.  So, I mentioned it to my Mom this morning and she told me that her Dad had made braised lettuce with peas, once, years ago, but the flavor was so amazing she’s never forgotten it.  I then turned to the helpful internet, first epicurious, and then a general google search for inspiration.  I had some aging leeks, so I sautéed them in oil and butter, then added the lettuces, 2 bibbs, quartered, plus some chicken broth, and cooked coverede at a low heat for about 20 minutes.  Even though I wasn’t convinced about the peas, I added them (frozen) at the end of cooking.  And the results?  Eh.  The first few bites were good, but then, I was quite hungry.  And they went well with the quick veal stroganoff I made to accompany it.  But after it sat on the plate for a while it lost something.  I think the lettuces might have started bolting before I picked them, and so the centers were bitter.  It definitely did not make me want to repeat the experiment.

This experience has reminded me of some of the challenges of learning how to be a good kitchen gardener.  The obvious one is learning how to plant so you have the right amount of produce that you like at the right time.  But honestly I think there will always be surpluses.  I’ve had some other “failed successes” over the years, and the failure is usually due to a kitchen failure  (i.e. my screw up).  Last year I tried snow peas, since I’ve found regular peas to be too much trouble, and take up too much room, for too long, for what you get.  I had a bumper crop.  However, I totally messed up cooking them.  I made a huge batch of shrimp with snow peas, but didn’t realize that you have to string the pods.  Yeah.  Disgusting.  The year before that I had a bumper crop of these beautiful Japanese eggplant, Fairy Tale.  But I had heard that you don’t need to salt Japanese eggplant to get rid of their bitterness, so I didn’t.  Mistake.  The sad thing is that I was totally turned off to both of these veggies because of my kitchen errors. I haven’t given up trying new stuff, although I have given up on snow peas and eggplant.  It’ll be a while before I try those again.

Finally I have to give all of you bird lovers out there an update on how our little darlings are doing.  They are great!  They’re getting their “big boy” feathers in, their wing and tail feathers are coming in, too, and they look like real birds now.  I tried to sneak over from the other side, off the patio, to get a shot, and got totally dive bombed by one of the parents.  Plus the little guys are so alert, they saw me coming and hunkered down into their nest for protection.  The best views of them are still from our sunroom window.  They are starting to stretch their wings and are constantly grooming themselves (they look itchy).  They are getting crowded in that nest too, I am primarily worried about one of them falling out.  Fortunately the nest is in a protected area, so the dog can’t get them if they do.  You’ve got to figure that they will be learning to fly by the end of the week.  It’s so exciting!

Today I spent the day watching my beans emerge.  Not the whole day, non-stop, I have of course been in the throes of May madness.  Since May 15th, our last frost date, I have been planting, planting, planting, all the tender annuals that I have been collecting from the nurseries over the past few weeks, and all the ones I have been caring for in the basement.  When I went out this morning to get started, I noticed a few beans were cracking the soil.  I planted them last Sunday, but had feared that the birds had gotten them.  By the end of the day the beans were (almost) all up, with their first true leaves unfolding.  Such a miracle, this transformation from hard dry seed to lush green plant.  Such faith needed, to wait patiently (or not) for the natural processes to do their thing.  This week I have been contemplating the similarities between mothering and gardening, and the anticipated appearance of these bean plants struck me as a poetic symbol of that relationship.

Last week while wandering around the internet, looking for other gardeners blogging about kitchen and wildlife gardening, I found a great website (but sadly forgot to bookmark it!).  The blogger had just had her first baby in December and it made me think about the challenges of mothering and gardening.  And that led me to a revelation about what the garden has to teach mothers.  Mothering and gardening both require patience and faith, to allow the being in question, whether plant or child, to develop naturally.  Most of our time is spent waiting and observing, filling our time cleaning up or feeding.  But then comes the moment when a corrective action needs to be taken, a branch pruned, floppy stems tied up, a bandaid applied to a cut knee, hurt feelings assuaged, and we have to be present, to attend to the need for nurturance.  To allow the natural processes to unfold, while being prepared for a timely intervention to coax into a more civilized form.

Now obviously the child needs constant care, whereas the garden can take care of itself.  If something goes wrong in the garden, a dry spell or an aphid infestation, and you cannot tend to it, the garden will survive.  Not so much with the child, especially a small one. But still, there are some powerful similarities.  Working with the natural form and inclinations, patiently guiding their development.  Adapting to the conditions that are presented to you, whether it is a child’s personality or a certain soil type.  Ultimately you are on your own, because no one has ever been in this time and place, with these conditions, before.  You have to develop your own philosophy and your own methods for coping with the vagaries of your situation.  You can only learn how to garden, and to mother, by doing it.  You have to get your hands dirty, you have to make mistakes, in order to learn how to do it.  At first it may seem daunting, overwhelming even, but at a certain point, you somehow know the right thing to do at the right moment.  And all the while you experience the joy of nurturing something, or someone, inherently beautiful.