Monday, September 22, 2014

Inconstant Gardener (or Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Gardening)

First official day of fall today, although we had our first hard frost a few nights ago, always a more definitive marker for the end of summer than a date on the calendar. It’s felt like fall for a few weeks now, though, with Isabel back at college and Faye absorbed in her busy high school life. Chris is back to teaching, and I’m trying to buckle down to a more productive work schedule myself. At the same time, September weather is usually the best of the year, with clear skies, crisp air, and a gentle sun. It drifts through the skylight above my desk, pulling me away from my computer and outside for a hike, bike, kayak or, so I can reassure myself I’m still being productive, to the garden.

It’s harvest time—time to collect the fruits of spring and summer labors—so being in the garden doesn’t feel like a chore in the way it can when battling weeds in mid-July. In actuality though, I’ve been harvesting since late spring when the first of the baby lettuces came in. But September is what most people consider to be The Harvest, and it carries metaphorical weight. As I gather tomatoes,

tomatillos, kale, and the last of the basil (which turns black if touched by frost), my mind wanders as it usually does when I’m in the garden. That’s probably one of the reasons I’m drawn to it. 

Maybe because everyone is back to school, I find myself thinking about what I’ve learned from gardening. Life Lessons, of a sort. Here are four to start: 

You get out of the garden what you put into it. Except when you don’t. This applies to most things in life, of course—relationships, parenting, friendships, work. In general with the garden, I find that the more I nourish the soil organically, and weed, and water, the more bountiful the produce is. 

But some years I put in a lot of effort and the returns are disappointing for reasons beyond my control, like the tainted compost that wrecked our soil two years ago, or too much rain, or an invasion of beetles. Sometimes, however, the opposite is true. I put in hardly any effort at all and the returns keep on coming. Raspberries are like this. We planted a row back when we bought the house over twenty years ago and have done nothing but sporadic pruning ever since. Yet every year we get a month-long supply of exquisite, plump berries. Go figure.

It’s nice to share. Not that I hadn’t learned that already, like most of us did back in kindergarten. But we have a way of forgetting that one, don’t we? My garden is small, only about 30 square feet, but it produces more than enough for my family. Giving away extra produce to my neighbors feels good. Inviting them to come over and help themselves while we’re away on vacation is so much better than coming home and finding fruit and vegetables rotting on the vine. I also welcome the wildlife that help themselves, like the bunny I regularly catch hopping stealthily out of the Swiss chard as I approach. I find partially chewed chard leaves strewn in the overgrown paths, but there’s plenty of chard for us both. 

 The same goes for the birds who devour our blueberries

and the squirrels who stand brazenly in the middle of the yard holding an apple in their delicate hands.

Perfectionism has no place in a garden. Except when it occurs naturally, that is, like a single, perfect Sun Gold tomato warm off the vine, 

or a gorgeous head of radicchio just waiting to be plucked. 

I get a certain satisfaction out of weedless, straight rows of seedlings in late May, I have to admit. But within a few weeks, it’s a losing battle with the weeds and somehow those straight rows have gone all crooked. That used to bother me and drive me out there to yank up the weeds until I’d give myself tendonitis in my elbow (twice). But over time I’ve learned that there are a lot of weedy, crooked things in life that you sometimes just have to accept. Instead of fighting it, I try to nurture the beneficial plants as best I can and strive to find the beauty in the whole plot.

Savor every season. We have a short growing season here in Vermont, and for that I’ve learned to be thankful. Even though every year I wish it would start about six weeks earlier, by the end of the season it feels like just the right amount of time. I’m the main gardener in the family, so it’s a lot of work. Chris helps out a bit with the heavy lifting, and when the girls were little they sometimes joined me to pick peas or dig for potatoes,

but now it’s usually just me out there (well, me and Callie) from seed planting to putting the garden to bed in early November.

This past summer, though, Isabel needed to earn some extra money to bring back with her to New York, so I hired her as my assistant. What a brilliant idea this turned out to be. She’s a diligent worker—between the two of us we got an enormous amount accomplished and even dug up and replanted two flower beds that have been on my list of things to do for several years now. Plus I got to spend a lot of low-key time with her when we had nothing else to focus on but thinning radishes or picking green beans.

More than once I had flashbacks to her dancing around in her bathing suit tossing dirt in the air while “helping” me prep the soil for planting, or Faye delighting in finding earthworms and carrying them around by the fistful. I smiled in recalling those times, and I smiled this summer while Isabel worked beside me. 

There are many recipes I could share that celebrate the bounty of the garden, but I’ve chosen a simple one: Raspberry Vinegar. The fruit is a family favorite, and whenever I taste its incomparable flavor I think of the girls when they were babies in front packs. With each of them, I used to stand in front of the raspberries, pulling off a berry and holding it for them to take. They’d stuff the berries in their mouths, little legs kicking with glee. Soon enough, they were reaching for their own. Raspberry season is short, but so very sweet. Preserving the berries’ vivid color and flavor in a mild vinegar that you can keep through the winter and drizzle on salads and other dishes is one way to make them last. 

Raspberry Vinegar
Makes 2 cups

2 cups mild vinegar (preferably white wine or champagne)
½ cup fresh raspberries, washed (you could use fresh herbs or herb blossoms instead)

Sterilize a 16 ounce glass container and its lid (canning jars work well with two-piece lids). Insert the raspberries into the jar and pour the vinegar over them so they’re completely covered. Seal the jar and store in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 weeks. 

Using cheesecloth (or a paper coffee filter) strain the vinegar and discard the berries. Pour the strained vinegar into a clean glass container. If stored in a cool, dark place, the vinegar should keep its flavor and color for 3 months. To double the length of time, store it in the refrigerator.

*Avoid using any metal utensils or containers while making or storing the vinegar.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Island Time

When most people think of Vermont, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Green Mountains, thanks to their popular ski slopes and hiking trails. But an equally notable natural resource, and a highlight of the state for me, is Lake Champlain. Friends from out of state are often surprised to hear that it’s the sixth largest freshwater lake in the country, after the five Great Lakes. Spanning 120 miles along Vermont’s western side, it’s flanked by New York’s Adirondack Mountains and also offers spectacular views of the Greens.

We live about 20 minutes due east of Lake Champlain, so in the summer it’s a big draw for swimming, kayaking, and sunset viewing. Learning to sail on the lake is at the top of my bucket list. It’s home to 70 islands, the largest of which are ideal for biking, so last weekend Chris and I decided to explore the southern part of Grand Isle, an area known as South Hero. To get there, we biked across the Island Line Trail, a narrow causeway that crosses the lake, joining a suburb of Burlington with South Hero. The ride across is a spectacular four-mile trek over the water, with sweeping views in all directions.

The Island Line Trail used to be a railroad line with a swing bridge that allowed boats to pass through. Since the swing bridge is no longer there, a 20-passenger bike ferry now transports cyclists and pedestrians across the 200-foot gap. 

The ferry’s affable captain told me that he makes the crossing around 50 times on a typical day. Chris and I hopped aboard with a handful of other people--locals, Québécois, and out-of-staters--and were on the other side in less than 10 minutes.

Grand Isle County lays claim to the state’s longest growing season, which makes for a thriving agricultural region and good food and drink to be had. We pedaled along dirt and two-lane roads, past orchards, 


and small-scale farms,

never far from a glimpse of the lake. For lunch, we stopped at the Accidental Farmer Cafe, a modest roadside stand tucked in between an orchard and a farm.

The Accidental Farmer himself, Mike, hand rolled some local, grass-fed burgers for us as he talked about life on the island.

Although he’s not an actual farmer, he says he “cultivates the farmers” by using as much of their produce, meat, cheese, and other products as he can in the tasty fare he serves up. We couldn’t resist ordering one of his juicy cheeseburgers, but his other more creative, global offerings—such as nachos served not on chips but on local fingerling potatoes—were very tempting.

After lunch, we walked next door to Allenholm Farm for a classic Vermont dessert—a maple creemee.

Back on our bikes, we looped around to the western side of the island to take West Shore Road hugging the coast. The wind picked up and it started to drizzle just as we were approaching Snow Farm Vineyard. Perfect timing!

The first commercial vineyard in the state, Snow Farm was established by its forward-thinking owners in an effort to retain agricultural land in the face of pressures to develop. The island’s more temperate climate allows Snow Farm to grow French hybrids, along with Pinot Noir and Riesling, under the direction of a winemaker who studied with the best at the University of Dijon in Bourgogne, France. (I also studied there while in college—not winemaking, although I did my share of extracurricular sampling.)

Chris and I shared a tasting, which they nicely let us split since we would be getting back on our bikes.  I was impressed by the smoky Baco Noir and also the Gewürztraminer, whose minerality is balanced by lush peach.

Back outside the drizzle had stopped, but we still had to ride against the wind back to the ferry. We pedaled hard up a couple hills, and then we rounded a bend and came upon a field edged by trees. On practically every tree, someone had placed a colorful birdhouse. Hundreds of them.

In this technological consumer age when we’re constantly bombarded by corporate efforts to “surprise and delight” us, this simple display made us literally stop in our tracks, genuinely surprised and delighted. And it was just one of several instances that afternoon, during the course of our twenty-mile bike ride, that had this effect on us.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Southern Exposure

I’ve been on the road again, this time to the Southeast, specifically Virginia and North Carolina. We packed up the car and drove down, crossing the Mason-Dixon Line near the town in Maryland where I spent most of my childhood. Growing up, I didn’t think of myself as a Southerner. Maryland, despite being below the Line, was technically a border state during the Civil War. The Battle of Antietam, which resulted in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, was just down the road, but at the same time one of my high school acquaintances was a direct descendent of Robert E. Lee. And the street I grew up on has a former slave auction block, now partially obscured by some shrubbery, on one of its corners.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Big Boy

I just graduated—from a small, charcoal kettle grill, that is, to a 6-footer, gas/charcoal combo grill that I’m affectionately calling The Big Boy. It’s an impressive piece of equipment, with cast iron grates and a warming center in both sections, and a side burner that I haven’t even tried out yet.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Route 100 (Partial) Food Tour

Food tours are all the rage these days, but much as I love food I have yet to sign up for one. I prefer to explore an area on my own and discover its food personality based on my own and my companions’ tastes. In Vermont, legendary Route 100, described as one of the most beautiful roads in the world, lends itself well to a self-guided food tour. Extending the length of the state from Canada to Massachusetts, this scenic route skirts the Green Mountain National Forest and runs parallel to the 273 mile Long Trail, a precursor to and inspiration for the Appalachian Trail. Known as the Skiers’ Highway, this two-lane byway connects many of Vermont’s major ski resorts as it meanders across farmland and alongside rivers, past covered bridges

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bizarro McDonald's

Very few American cities can claim to not have a McDonald’s within their limits, but Burlington, Vermont, is one of them. A while back a Golden Arches did exist downtown, but in an unusual turn of events, it quietly closed its doors. After an inspired renovation, The Farmhouse Tap & Grill opened up four years ago in its place to fanfare that hasn’t stopped since.