Here, actually, as it turns out, is what I really don’t didn’t like about gardening: the giant wagging, nagging finger that is was my outside. (WARNING: ugly photo overload, ahead.) It didn’t occur to me it could be banished. I didn’t know Things could get Done. I didn’t know I could look out the window and instead of disconsolate or disgraced or overwhelmed, that instead, I could be pleased.
Not I. Not until last week, really. Though looking back, I can see the inklings began a month ago, not long after Kate’s comment, when I did a bold thing and "gardened". Alone. In the afternoon. Translation: I spent my few precious solo hours in the yard, equivalent in my book to voluntary extreme dentistry, hunched over the bricks, knifing dandelions. I can't say I enjoyed it. Indeed, I whined. Incessantly. Way, way beyond any whining I'd allow my children.
Fortunately, no one else was there to overhear.
Unfortunately, I was there.
I was awful.
But the path looked better, and my biceps felt stronger, and my nails weren't a scandal because, for once, I'd had the good sense to don gloves. (Maybe gloves exist for a reason? Maybe not everyone fancies black rings?) I moaned over all the time wasted, brushed off my brown knees, and picked up my people.
And returning home, noticed something. Here, where I'd just toiled and troubled, where I'd fervently cursed my poor time management choices, where my quote-unquote-garden was generally barreling madcap toward jungle and making me itchy with anxious? Here, there was this one bright clear spot. Clean. Tidy. Together.
I didn’t rush to conclusions. Didn’t switch camps, didn’t suffer epiphanies. But I did vaguely entertain the question: what would happen if I kept at it? What if I cleared just one more tiny patch? What if I went all Sleeping Beauty on the rose bush, cut back the brambles, and while I was at it the ivy, also? What if, as one very wise plant person I know advises, I put in “just 5 minutes, each day”?
What if I got more do-y, less whiny?
Some hypothetical answers:
I might clear away just two more shy square feet, just enough to get those fresh herbs in the ground. And so, avoid drying them direct in their pots. Dry, here, being a euphemism for dead. Avoid, here, being a stunning P.R. My normal M.O. being to buy, bring home, neglect, compost evidence. Repeat.
Three trips, I've made for live plants this year. Three batches, I've gotten in the ground. Zero plants, I've lost to date. The buoying power of that patch, those first basils? Beyond measure, give or take.
I might become one of those spotters and stoopers, those people who, while oudoors, can't help but pluck clover, nip seedums, pinch cilantro. I might spot invaders in strangers' yards. It might take a surprising injection of self-control to (let it go) not (just keep walking) surreptitiously stoop and pull. (I might have succeeded. So far.)
I might improve my deductive reasoning skills. Might realize shunning gloves and bemoaning the consequences is like spending all day outside barefoot, gathering splinters and grime, then concluding I loathe walking. Ahem.
I might finally dig out plants I've stared down for years, space hogs of deeply mediocre merit. I might free up space for things I adore. Things I then plant, because there is room. Things I then water, because I planted them. Things I then weed, because I adore. As far as vicious circles go, this one's pretty nifty.
I might actually stick seeds in the dirt. Quickly, imperfectly, haphazardly. But in. And once in, they're as good as dirty jeans in the wash. Which is to say: off and running, taking necessary next steps while you're doing something else entirely. Sweet peas sprouting roots while I clean up dinner is my kind of multi-tasking.
I might, on a whim, get the garden To Do's out of my head and onto our chalkboard. Communicating has never been my strong suit. Head full of private fermenting yard chores, sinking under their weight until I abandon ship? Totally my preferred method.
But by simply posting the list in public, others could see it, read it, know it. Sometimes, they might even help with it. More importantly, they're aware of it. Accomodate it. Expect it. Applaud it. There is power in getting what's in, out. (I should probably tattoo this across my forehead.)
I might start spending enough time outside to begin to look something like a habit. To have the kids come to expect an hour or two in the garden, after school. To round the corner well past five o'clock, and find coats and backpacks strewn along the path. To discover we'd not yet made it inside.
I might feel a little less Scrooge: Summer edition.
I might notice bad bugs invading everything. And then, actually do something. Might start storing my mucky shoes in the garage, so as not to track up the house. (Insert head slap.) I might start reading the forecast through weird, unfamiliar eyes. Warm, wet afternoon? Perfect planting morning! Six days without water? Get cozy with the hose. Unusually mild Labor Day weekend? Get out there and prune, plant, dig, weedweedweedweed! Then: sleep like the dead.
I might find that gardens are rather like children, growing (or withering) according to the attention they receive. Not quickly. And not completely. But visibly. And definitively.
I might adopt bizarre habits around those ten-minute windows that pop up, here and there. Taking those ten to, say, tuck in the zinnias, or cast salad seeds, or weed six square inches. I have never, ever wasted those precious pop-up opps. However, I've never taken them outside, either.
I might, when we go inside to play games, and make popsicles, and escape the skeeters, not feel that ominous omnipresent guilt that is the exclusive territory of the adamant non-gardener. It's weird. I feel empty. But a good empty.
I might become that crazy lady with the kettle, toting pot after boiling pot to the yard, to get all medieval on the dandelion-lined path. Talk about who knew? This one learning alone has improved my gardening happiness quotient by 62%. (Note to self: When boiling dandelions alive? Ixnay on the flip-flops.)
I might outlast Henry outside. This is like out-cleaning Martha. Impossible. Last Sunday, the impossible happened. Twice. (But don't you dare white-glove my house.)
I might fall in love with that 5-minute limit, as much for the ceiling as the floor. On the guilt-inducing, hands-on-hips end, who doesn't have five minutes for the garden? On days of even the craziest sort, I'm hard-pressed to not carve out this meager ask. And pleased by the way 5+5+5+5+5+5+5 adds up, somehow, to a habit.
Equally, and maybe more importantly, it forces me back in the door, after. Not always in 5, but before 145, which is where I'd so often go astray, in years prior. I would want to weed until it was DONE. Which is like finishing the laundry, once and for all. I would burn out, curse the daisies, and stomp back inside, determined never to return.
I do not make idle threats. The limit bit saves me from myself.
And slowly, slowly, over a month—a month named May, no less, when every year past, the garden's gone from lovely to wild-crazy-overgrown-insane—I might wrangle a tiny modicum of control. Keep weeds at bay. Fix last Fall’s lapses. Dig out unwanteds. Make room for beloveds. Tuck in seeds and starts for Summer. Feel, by month’s end, instead of behind, ahead. That’s new. That’s huge.
Better: I might look out the window, and smile. This is so novel, so totally weird, I might shake my head, to gut-check my vision. I'm so accustomed to the giant indictment, the singular scold that's been my garden, I don't know what to do with delight. All the weeds, all the mess, the unparseable work: it was what outside had come to mean. Stifling. So to look out and see ground freshly worked, leaves trimmed, tomatoes caged, an actual path? Well. It might be alright.
It's also a serious pre-cursor to lunch. Weeding, turns out, builds quite the appetite. Fortunately, May is asparagus month.
We've had the most gorgeous asparagus this year, as thick, plump and sweet as any I've eaten. I'm told our harsh winter, which decimated the state's peaches, was especially good for the mighty green spears. And while I'd ordinarily grill and roast them by the bushel, I've taken an asparagus detour this Spring, braising pound after lovely pound, thanks to the folks at Food52.
Specifically, I've been braising asparagus à la Patricia Wells, in a glug of oiled and seasoned water, amply spiked with bay and rosemary. It's one of those quiet, tremulous techniques, all slow simmer and occasional blip, and yet, it yields spears of shout-out-worthy depth, drunk on their own excellent herb-y water.
What emerges is—I know no word better—silken, deeply slumpish, impossibly soft. This is no roast asparagus analog; there's no backbone left, no spine to speak of. Pinch one of these between two fingers, and it won't even think to stand. It will give, and sigh, and almost melt. And you'll be all the happier for it.
I like finger-thick spears, here; thumb-thick, better still. This is no place for waifs. The thicker the spear, the more room for imbibing the nutmeg and resin of bay and rosemary. The extended cook time appeases the fibers, rendering them toothless and tender. There is something about the finished dish that screams 'bacon'. Never mind, the whole dish is strictly vegan.
I suppose this could be considered a side, to mingle with roast chicken, or dress up polenta. But I call it lunch for one. Especially with a fried egg draped over, ideally a farm egg whose yoke you can poke. Or, a few curls of good true ham. Or a wedge of nice cheese, sharp and crumbly and wise. Or, if the weeds were particularly fierce, all three. (Did I mention the multitudes within "dandelions"?)
It feels peculiar, this braising business, when the AC is on and the sun is out and the lifelong asparagus habit has been to preserve the verve and pluck and green. But I've made this meal three times, this past week, and twice that, the two weeks before. I think it's safe to say I'm sold. And that, maybe more often than not, it may just pay to try a bold thing.
Patricia Wells' Braised Asparagus with Bay + Rosemary
gently adapted from Food52
Serves 1 bountifully; up to 4, as a side
The bones of this recipe come straight from Food52; changes are all at the edges. I've reduced the asparagus by eight ounces, to 1.5 pounds, to better fit my skillet and appetite. Additionally, I don't have access to fresh bay leaves, but find the dried work beautifully. Note that you will need a skillet large enough to accomodate all spears in an even layer.
1 1/2 pounds thick asparagus spears
6 dried bay leaves
4-6" sprig fresh rosemary
1 Tbs. extra vigin olive oil
1 tsp. kosher salt
water, several tablespoons
Wash and trim woody ends from the asparagus. Arrange spears in a single layer in a large skillet, halving very long spears, as needed, and nestling ends into gaps, to fit. Arrange bay leaves here and there, and tuck rosemary sprig in under the spears. Sprinkle with salt, drizzle with olive oil, and add enough water to come up to bottom third of the spears.
Cover skillet, and set over high heat, staying close, just until water begins to boil. Reduce heat to low-medium, or until it holds a calm simmer, leaving lid in place for 5 minutes. (For narrow spears, remove lid after 2 boiling minutes.) Remove lid, give pan a few shakes to rotate spears, and continue to braise another 5-10 minutes, or until water evaporates and spears are very tender. Once the water has been re-absorbed, continue to cook asparagus 1-2 minutes, shaking pan once or twice, until the odd brown spot appears. Remove and eat immediately.