It's official: I am a stooper.
Are you a stooper? Here's how you know: when you walk through a garden—yours, your friends', the local roundabout—and you spy some flagrant wayward weed, you cannot help but bend down and yank the thing clear. I've never before in my life been a stooper. I've always just walked by the weeds, maybe waved. No longer. That is something, anyway.
I'd thought that, by now, I might have come farther. Had a gardening manifesto, maybe, or perhaps a philosophy. At least some semblance of a routine. I've nothing so orderly, but no matter. What I have is a haphazard summer of small efforts, and I can see, looking back, they add up to experience. And experience, I think, might just trump manifesto.
I've mentioned before my deeply compromised gardening skills, and our great good fortune in adopting a well-established landscape. This, combined with a gracious garden fairy to tend it, has meant my involvement's been minimal to zip. Until now. This summer, I took on a few actual responsibilities, which led to a few key learnings, a heap of questions, and a definite turn toward the au naturel look.
I observed, for example, that my plans are bigger than our plot, which I'm fairly sure is the gardener's analog to eyes bigger than the stomach. Way back in Spring, when we planted seeds for eight cucumbers, and three dozen beets, and one dozen tomatoes, and a few (dozen) each of the basils and zinnias, it all seemed fairly modest in the scheme of things. It's just that our particular scheme sits on one teeny-tiny tenth of an acre. House, front lawn, compost, and flower beds included.
Full-to-bursting doesn't begin to describe it. Turns out, plants, like children, only grow.
I've learned my enthusiasm waxes and wanes, that a week can go by without me lifting a gloved finger. And that my weeds are not subject to such whims. Nor, for that matter, are my plants' thirst.
To be fair, my watering skills have improved drastically: I drug out the hose on at least twelve occasions. To be equally fair, my watering deficiencies endure, a truth my Joe Pye weed would echo. Were he still with us.
I've learned I've a lot to learn about gardening with children. Spreading out a blanket helps. Puppets and books, also. Small gardening gloves encourage the accessory-minded sorts. Snacks buy time, as do bug habitats, as does permission to pick flowers for a 'boo-kay'. (We're working on the notion of blooms and stems). Popsicle breaks are key, and very low ambitions, and the odd episode of Spiderman when something absolutely must get done. But when all those sleeve-tricks add up only to an hour, and the pruning/watering/tying/planting/weeding list runs to another three, well ...
All tips on gardening with small people welcome.
I've discovered that plants, unlike children, don't talk back. No matter how intense the interrogation. I cannot count how many hours I've cross-examined weird green things: "Flower? Weed? Weed? Flower? WEED or FLOWER?! Yes, YOU!!" One late July day, after several dozen such exchanges, I finally realized that if it's shabby, I can pull it out.
Just. Like. That.
I guess I thought I needed a license. Or at the very least, a permission slip. Somewhere along the line I forgot I was in charge, and this epiphany was terribly liberating. The sudden influx of tidy was deeply satisfying. Even if a lovely lemon thyme gave it's life to over-zealousness.
I've learned that by putting one foot in front of the other, one can dope out a bean teepee, making it up as you go. That although there are likely instructions a-plenty, two relentless eager assistants and a dash of gumption will get you through.
A chalk mock-up's not a bad idea, nor is lots (and lots and lots) of twine. Okay, and a stool, and your biggest hammer, to drive the stakes twelve inches underground. The summer storms here are something else. This year's the first year our teepee hasn't toppled. (Hoo-ah!)
I've learned that if you are harvesting green beans, and feel like something is on your arm, you are probably just being paranoid. Note all those dangling beans overhead?
Unless, of course, you are not. Unless it's a two-inch grasshopper.
Then? You are entitled to scream.
Also, working in the dirt is really, well, dirty. You know I don't mind a good mud romp, but I do rather prefer it remain outside. This summer, a good portion made it somehow indoors, I think because my sights were elsewhere. Like on everything within my limited, stooped-over sights. I suspect a survey of us human weed whackers would reveal a marked increase in muddy footprints and faucet handles. Note to self: install outdoor shower next year.
Also, it made me a superhero. After spending an hour wrestling a crazy fifteen-foot wild sunflower, I heard Zoë call out, and I quote: "Mom, you are Wonder Woman." Understand, no amount of bread-baking or bandaging or explicating why a cylinder's volume equals πr2h has ever before earned me this status. (Yes, geometry will come back to haunt you.) Might all be worth it, right there.
I realized that, despite my avowed love of muted blooms, I am mad for bee balm and zinnias. The bee balm's a dead-ringer for my kids over breakfast, with its lazy bobble and goofy bed-head.
And the zinnias, well, they're like rosy red cheeks and brand new mary janes and 64 fresh Crayolas: irrepressibly, hopelessly happy. And, get this: we planted them from seed. From seed. And they grew!
I will not bore you with the tired old miracle of how exactly all that jolly fit in one barely-there seed. Except to argue that it exempts a person from the standard single exclamation point rule.
The zinnias were not our only seed efforts, though they were definitely among the top-performers. The radishes were gorgeous, a foot tall, big white flowers, but nothing below save white spindly disappointments. I always saw radishes as Psych 101 for the science-challenged set, an easy win, a guaranteed A. Oops.
We did manage a very small crop of carrots, the emphasis being on 'very', and 'small' (that would be our total harvest, above). But the spring lettuces thrived, and the sweet peas produced, and the cucumbers and basil were champions of their kind. And then, those beans, those teepee-topping beans, those late, great, finally abundant green beans. I realize, looking back over these past three Ohio summers, how glad I am of the chance to practice with a string bean. (And how I'm convinced the best lines in literature mostly hail from children's books. Thanks to Russell Hoban and Gloria for this one.)*
I know string beans are sort of a slam-dunk, but slam-dunks are what I need at this amateur stage. I didn't even know to plant string beans, until then-four-year-old-Henry brought them home from preschool. They thrived. We repeated. Last year, and this. Despite our blundering, they've delivered every time. I'd love them for that, even if they tasted like sand.
They don't, of course, though I admire them more each year. I've never exactly not liked string beans, but for years I was, shall we say, green-bean-neutral. Until they turned garden all-stars. Now, I've got a list, long and running, of ways we eat and appreciate their charms. We cut them up small and steam them with carrots and bathe them in butter, so simple, so good. We tuck them into curry and orzo and into endless salades Niçoise. We stir-fry them like this and stir-fry them like that, because I find a bit of pork helps the green beans go down. And last week, I roasted them with friends, and confirmed this to be a fine fate, indeed.
I first tasted roast string beans just after Zoë was born, when my sweet friend Beth brought me two (two!) full dinners. One included a side of said beans, roasted with shallots, rendered addictive. I well remember standing in my kitchen, newborn in one hand, non-stop beans in the other. They were unlike anything else I had roasted, more toothsome than tender, pleasantly chewy, with a deeply green, baritone sort of flavor. I could not stop eating them, any more than I can explain why three years passed before I made my own. Not that there's much to it. Or to this.
What this is, I feel I should explain, is something pretty pedestrian. It's a tray of those beans, plus summer squash and eggplant, chopped into equal-sized bits over homework, chucked into a screaming hot oven for twenty. It is nothing more than the ordinary glories of roast veg, though that's the sort of ordinary I crave often, and in quantity. The result is a tray of deeply caramelized nuggets, salty-crisp without, softly sweet within. Not unlike last week's zucchini, minus the frying and the MUST EAT NOW mandate.
What to do with a heap of roast veg? Well. If you're me, you eat a good serving at the stove, plucking bronzed bits from the tray at your tongue's risk. Then, you might heap them alongside sticky sausages, which cook in the time the vegetables roast. Or, toss bunches into hot pasta, with parmesan and basil and chickpeas, for protein. Or, tumble them over brown rice, with feta, fresh thyme, an olive-oil fried egg. A plain, lovely lunch, practically perfect in my book.
I could go on about the versitility of such things, about how this is more blueprint than recipe. Go with all green beans, plus one thinly slivered onion. Use just zucchini, cut into cubes. Eggplant-only is divine. You get the picture. Use what delights. Just remember that roasting's not restricted to winter; practice with whatever late summer has on offer.
As for me, I've not worn my gloves in a week. I've got some serious stooping to do.
A Late-Summer Roast of Green Beans, Summer Squash + Eggplant
2 large handfuls green beans, topped, tailed, and cut into 1" lengths
1 large eggplant (or several small), cut into 1" cubes
2 medium summer squash (or zucchini), cut in half lengthwise, then into 3/4" slices
fresh thyme (optional)
Move oven rack to lowest position, and preheat oven to 475°.
Tip cut vegetables onto large, rimmed baking sheet (I use half sheet pans, a.k.a. jelly roll pans). Generously drizzle olive oil over all, 3-4 seconds (3-4 tablespoons). Dust with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. With clean hands, toss vegetables, oil and salt to coat. Roast in preheated oven for 15 minutes. With a flat metal spatula, gently turn vegetables, which will be browning and caramelized on undersides. Roast another 3-7 minutes, until vegetables are showing color on second side.
Remove, and when cool enough to sample, taste for salt, adding more to taste. Think french fries, here—you do not want to overwhelm, but there should be just enough salt to notice and please, to balance out the deep sweet of the vegetables. Scatter fresh thyme over all, if using, and serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
" 'It is a nice dish, isn't it?' said Mother.
'Eat up the string bean, Gloria.'
'Oh!' said Gloria, and ate it up.
She had already eaten her dinner of strained beef and sweet potatoes, but she liked to practice with a string bean when she could."
—Bread and Jam for Frances, Russell Hoban
Me and you both, little Gloria.