"I grow plants for many reasons: to please my eye or to please my soul, to challenge the elements or to challenge my patience, for novelty or nostalgia, but mostly for the joy in seeing them grow." ~ David Hobson
Few memories of the last twenty years stand out as brightly for me as the spring and summer months that I dedicated myself to a garden. As we draw toward the longest day—the summer solstice—I was given a gift of fava beans that plunged me headlong into my recollections of a plot of land that became mine to plant and tend for a single season. When my friend Jennie handed me a heavy bag of fava beans this past week, picked just an hour before, I opened it to take a look at the bounty from her garden. Not only did the vibrant green bounce off my retinas and fill my eyes with the verdant hue, but in Marcel Proust fashion, my nose took in the delicious scent of the just picked beans, and in the fraction of a second that it took the fragrance to travel from my nose to my cerebral cortex—I was instantly transported to the center of a garden that I planted fifteen years ago.
I am a gardener now, and will always be, but in that singular year I had just moved in the fall into a small treehouse-style studio cottage that happened to be adjacent to a very large undeveloped lot in a residential area. It was sitting there, this lot, quite empty—with nothing on it but a weedy cover crop of malva and thistles. In that time of my life, it just happened that my work duties were lighter and more flexible than they have been before or since, and as I gazed at the weed-covered earth over the winter months, the piece of ground began calling to me. With my mind's eye, I could imagine the abundant and green space that it could become if I was allowed to work it. When spring approached, I asked my landlords for permission to plant a garden in the spot, and happily for me, they agreed.
When we were four young girls growing up on a small farm in Lompoc
, California, my dad and mom grew a large vegetable garden on part of our five acres that was very close to our house. The space of fecund land (because dad built that soil with aged animal manure that he would pick up from other farms in the trailer that he built) was located on the other side of a retaining wall that bordered our circular driveway which looped a path all the way around our house. On the edge of that garden space near the wall grew a short and bushy lemon tree that was mature and seemed to produce fruit year round—a marvel that I took for granted in my childhood. Dad was the chief designer of our garden plot, and the space was planted each spring with a variety of lettuces, several kinds of summer squash including his favorite—green scalloped squash and yellow crookneck. Green beans twined on twisty vines, and corn grew tall and played host to worms that we farm girls would squish between our bare fingers when shucking the succulent yellow ears in the summer. Dad also planted strawberry and asparagus beds, outward signs of his intention to commit to this garden plot, because it would be several years before those beds would produce significant crops. Our flock of chickens had the run of this garden patch and could be seen on a daily basis pecking and scratching contentedly among the beds and rows. At the entrance to the large garden, dad knowingly gave each of us girls our own little garden space to plant. In those days
one of my favorite novels was Little Women
, and I imagined then that we were just like the four sisters in the famous book who each had their own proprietary space in which Marmee allowed the girls to choose the plants in their own individual gardens:
Meg’s had roses and heliotrope, myrtle, and a little orange tree in it. Jo’s bed was never alike two seasons, for she was always trying experiments. This year it was to be a plantation of sun flowers, the seeds of which cheerful land aspiring plants were to feed Aunt Cockle-top and her family of chicks. Beth had old-fashioned fragrant flowers in her garden, sweet peas and mignonette, larkspur, pinks, pansies, and southernwood, with chickweed for the birds and catnip for the pussies. Amy had a bower in hers, rather small and earwiggy, but very pretty to look at, with honeysuckle and morning-glories hanging their colored horns and bells in graceful wreaths all over it, tall white lilies, delicate ferns, and as many brilliant, picturesque plants as would consent to blossom there.
To be sure, our own dad was no Marmee—so there were no exotic choices for our garden plots like heliotrope or larkspur to choose from, but we were each given free reign to pick from the family seed collection for that year of what we would plant in our own little plots. Even Michelle who was only about four at the time we began gardening, wanted her own space, and I can remember helping her poke seeds into the damp soil with her stubby little fingers. I now know that this is where my life-long passion for plants and gardening was born—even though I didn't realize it at the time. What I understand now, that my dad already knew then, is that we would each take more of an interest in the garden space that was our very own. Such is our human nature.
So, many years later, when I approached this large and square piece of land on which I would plant a garden (I imagine that it was about a third of an acre), I began with the foundation of the knowledge acquired from my childhood. First things first. I commenced with the essential and primary step I learned from dad—one needs to build the soil. Since it is a living organism and must be healthy and rich to support a garden it needs to be enriched with compost. I began with aged manure. Once I had my big pile of fertilizer, which I was able to obtain for free from a local horse ranch, I was ready to start. Armed with only a pick, shovel, hoe, sturdy leather gloves, a wide-brimmed woven hat and my passion—I set out to create the vegetable and flower garden of my dreams.
To begin, I devoted a large rectangle to planting what I referred to as the meadow
, in hopes of attracting a variety of birds. Even though this lot was residential, the surrounding houses were mostly hidden from view. Down a slope and to the back of my future garden, there was a thick line of very tall and dense pines that bordered the back of one neighbor's property. To my delight, I discovered when gardening at dusk, that white barn owls roosted in these trees. They would fly in and out of the branches—screeching the shrill cries that they are known for, while they began searching for that evening's meal. The house to the back on the other side was shaded with a large sycamore and was screened from view by dense shrubs, so my garden space felt protected and private at the top of the little plateau. I worked the soil in earnest—hacking out all the stubborn weeds with my sharp hoe—who knew that malva roots grow so deep? Then I began the process of working the manure into the compacted soil with my pick and shovel. After that was accomplished, I scattered a wild bird seed mix on the freshly tilled soil in my meadow that would turn out to be mostly purple amaranth when the plants matured. Next I planted sunflowers seeds of different varieties around the border of the rest of the far side of the space, and then I began work on creating the big mounds in which I would plant seeds of zucchini, yellow crookneck and green scalloped squashes. I followed this with the planting of butternut and banana squash seeds, and I simply had to grow pumpkins. I am enamored of pumpkins. By that time in my life I had discovered what I call Cinderella
pumpkins—the French variety known as Rouge Vif d'Etampes, and those seeds were deposited in the freshly created mounds of soil along with seeds which would grow into small sugar pumpkins—perfect for baking.
The formation of the rows began next. I rose early each morning, trying to beat the heat, and began with the ritual of braiding my waist-length hair. I would then don a clean V-necked white men's T-shirt (choosing to forego wearing a bra) and pulled on a pair of jeans. Then placing my straw hat on my head, I slipped my feet into my gardening loafers, and headed out into the evolving landscape. Each morning, I attacked the ground anew, forming it to my creative will. I planted whatever my heart desired. Rows of corn backed up to the sunflower border. I planted several kinds of lettuce, daikon radishes, Chiogga beets, rainbow carrots, Kentucky Wonder bush beans, eggplants, bell peppers, cucumbers, melons and several kinds of tomatoes. During those thankless days of manure spreading, weed pulling and seed planting, I kept a vision in my mind of what this barren piece of ground would become during the proceeding months as my seeds sprouted and the plants grew—maintaing my faith that they would all germinate and grow into an appealing riot of color, shapes and textures, as well as become host to pollinators and other fauna. After that I would entertain myself by imagining what delicious dishes that I would be creating with all of that fresh produce. And just because I wanted flowers, I planted a row of cosmos in addition to the sunflower border and added a row of jewel-toned nasturtiums which I thought I might add to my salads
. One of the last things that I planted as I worked my way from the back to the front of the lot was a small row of fava beans at the entrance to the garden. I didn't know what to expect from this plant, because I hadn't grown them before, and this was at least a full five years before I would be routinely doing research on the internet.
And just as I had envisioned—my garden did grow. I tended it carefully each day, steadfastly watering and weeding. I staked if necessary and even became skilled at trapping the wily and voracious gophers who decided that my garden was indeed a mecca of deliciousness. I unceremoniously relocated hungry caterpillars, encouraged lady bugs and reveled among the burgeoning plants that attracted swarms of dancing butterflies and determined bees. My hard work paid off with bumper crops of just about everything.
When the garden was approaching its zenith, I celebrated the bounty of the season by throwing an outdoor party on the first of July. By that time there was summer squash, and the tomatoes and cucumbers were coming on strong. There were green pumpkins on the ground, and even a few small watermelons were nearing ripeness. The corn stalks were tall and full of ears from which corn silk protruded out and glistened in the sun—browning slightly on the ends. The giant sunflower heads were drooping and heavy with seeds, and there were purple eggplants and beautiful green peppers. I was able to borrow a couple of large picnic tables that I placed at the entrance to the garden. I covered them with bright tablecloths and set vases of cosmos cut from the garden on them. I made piles of food that included grilled chili-rubbed chicken with a freshly prepared barbecue sauce, homemade onion rings, cucumber and tomato salad in a tangy vinaigrette with a chiffonade of fresh basil sprinkled on top, our family's potato salad
, grilled corn on the cob from the garden, summer squash gratin
and garlic bread
. For dessert, I baked my famous chocolate chip cookies
, and made a fresh nectarine cobbler that we devoured with our family's homemade lemon ice cream
. When my friends arrived, they were able to walk through the garden before the meal. Then we ate—all of us thankful for the abundance of summer. We partied on into the evening when we finally lit the lanterns and continued talking, laughing and drinking the wine that my friends brought with them on into the candlelit night with the stars shining over our heads.
So the memory of my garden from long ago instantly formed in my mind as I looked at and sniffed the pile of fava beans that Jennie had placed in my hands. They glowed with a soft luster within the interior of the bag reminding me of the delight and bounty of just such a summer. I thought of those fava bean bushes in my garden which I planted all those years ago during that magical season. The ones that I had tended for no special reason, other than to see them grow. Fava bean bushes as it turns out are beautiful. Not only does this legume fix the soil with much needed nitrogen, but the plant itself is most satisfactory. The ones that I grew were about three feet tall, bushy with round leaves, and the cream-colored flowers with dark centers that form the beans are really lovely, which was something I didn't expect when I planted them.
So thank you Jennie for my gift of fava beans. As Mark and I removed the beans from the long and thick pods that evening before dinner to prepare them for a quick blanch in salted boiling water, I shared the story of my special garden from years past. After we blanched the beans, and rinsed them in cold water, the beans still require that you peel off the tough outer skin which, once accomplished, will reveal the tender and brilliant green inner bean. Quite a bit of effort, but well worth doing—just like growing a garden.
"A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them."
~ Liberty Hyde Bailey
|For a simple and delicious recipe for fresh fava beans click here. One of Michelle favorite |
week night dishes includes fava beans, and that link is available by clicking here.