Do not read Tara Austen Weaver's new book, Orchard House, if you value your sleep. Even if you don't like gardening memoirs; even if you haven't even ever read a gardening memoir, chances are, you'll find yourself up until 3 a.m., unable to put it down.
That's no way to start a week.
Also, do not read Orchard House if you're keen on a calm back. And happy, go-lucky legs. And soft, squishy upper arms. It won't last. None of it. Because you will find yourself unable to stay out of whichever dirt patch you have access to. Your backyard. Your front yard. Your tiny porch pot. Your local park, surreptitiously weeding. Zoning and maintenance crews, be darned.
You won't give a second thought to dirty knees or weary muscles or fingernails, beyond filthy, despite gloves. You'll be defenseless against the tidal pull of Tara's gentle, all-consuming gardening spell, deaf to the (temporary) wear and tear. Until the next day, when the hangover hits. Creaky back. Jello arms. Very, very vocal hamstrings. What's worse? Before the wounds even heal? You'll be gardening under the influence, again. Fetching back for a time you couldn't feel the ghost weight of thirty-pound compost bags, still, long past bedtime.
Do not, under any circumstances, read Orchard House if you appreciate pristine baking pans. Kept in the cupboards. And dedicated to, you know, baking. And not re-purposed as (really excellent, as it turns out) seed-starting trays. (Those half-inch sides? They're the bomb.) Or if you like your measuring cups close to the kitchen, for cakes, or eggs, or anyway, not for tending to thirty thirsty tomato infants. And dozens of zinnias. And morning glory, and sunflowers, and more zucchini than can possibly be prudent.
And if you don't enjoy the company of cucumber starts, with your morning coffee? The not-so-faint scent of soil with your scones? The special feel of dirt mixed with toast crumbs, under your elbows, when settling in for lunch? The presence of plants, of all ages and stages, on your kitchen table, every day, for weeks? Because that's where the good light is? Well, there, and that big window around the corner, but that's already occupied, fully at capacity, because: see above, well?
Don't even crack the spine. You'll so be a goner.
If you prefer your romantic notions of gardening, its sweet metaphors, its tidy life lessons, its dappled (dubious) Pollyana pleasantries? Look elsewhere. I mean, sure, meaty connections abound, about pruning and failure and commitment and carrying on, through it all, inside the garden and out. But Weaver wears no rose-colored glasses, here. This is gardening with grit and honesty, raw and real and soaring and wonderful and bug-infested and carpeted with quack grass, as thick and rich as the day is long.
(Page 132? Attempting to read to two nieces under the azalea? Priceless. Worth the read, alone.)
Avoid Orchard House if you want to kick back and coast along on your cherished Spring gardening traditions: buying bunches of plants, perky from the nursery, then watching them die sad, slow deaths in your yard, as you realize a) your garden's choked with weeds, and b) in no condition to receive anything, and c) your borders are as sound as the Titanic, and d) six banana trees are not, in fact, exactly suitable for your climate and space.
Because instead, you might start at the unsexy start, with endless weed pulling, and serious fence mending, and infrastructure building, and compost hauling, and copious leaf raking, even though you swear you got them all, last fall. And undoing all the damage winter's done. And planning and considering and thinking and scrutinizing and rejecting and did I mention endless weeding? and all kinds of hard grubby un-fun work. All, way, way less exciting than thoughtless (doomed) impulse buying. You might, god forbid, wind up with a garden almost, kinda-sorta, in spots, at the ready. And what do you do with THAT? (Oh, wait. See teeming start forest, above. And below. And every which where.)
Whatever you do, don't read Weaver's book if you want your week to proceed as per plan. Because in no time at all you'll be slave to the weather, scanning the forecast, studying highs and lows, calculating time passed between rainfalls, puzzling over whether your phone app's three raindrops are equivalent to a good dousing. And when the skies open up and pour, you'll shove your to-do's right off the table, recognizing this as Ideal Dandelion Armageddon Day. And when the sun shines, not too brightly, just rightly, you'll drop everything and don your yuck clothes and spend all day in the dirt. Laundry will wait. E-mail will accumulate. Dinner will look a lot like popcorn. Why, even this post, I'd intended for Thursday. Then, Friday. Then, yesterday. And here it is, Tuesday. Wednesday.
You see what I mean. Weaver feeds you to the plants, wholesale.
Definitely don't read Orchard House if you don't wish to go grocery shopping with twigs in your hair; or muddy the floors you yourself just mopped; or find yourself at 6:07 p.m. wondering what's for dinner, and who's making it, anyway? Because wondering after dinner led you to just wondering how those little peas outside are doing, whether they're poking through yet, if they'll even make it? And then! You notice the beets! The twee red-stemmed beets you started from seed! Which sounds utterly crazy, beets from seed, wha? But which you began weeks ago, well after midnight, deeply mid-book, when the ground was still freezing and no starts could be started and you had to grow something, itchy fingers and all that, so you snuck down the dark stairs to slide craggy beet seeds between damp paper towels and into a Ziplock and onto the window where, good grief, they sprouted! And grew!! And in time, were tucked into dirt!!! And here they are, miracle of miracles, as promised on the package but doubted by you, surviving and thriving through an Ohio Spring!!!!! And, *wow*, HOW is it 7:02, already?
If you don't want this to be you, all midnight seed raids and excess exclamation points? Do not, DO NOT, read this book.
Finally, don't even crack the cover if you wish to remain smug in the illusion that Spring's a too-quick, blink-and-you'll-miss-it thing. Those flowering fruit trees, the ones thereandthengone? Turns out they're full on for three weeks. Three. Weeks. That's 568 HOURS! And while some of those hours (beet-seed-starting notwithstanding) will certainly be spent on sleep, most are waking. And if you force yourself outside all day, last Friday, say, from sun up to sundown, instead of indulging your inner mole, which would really much rather stay stuffed in the house, you'll effectively, magically, extend Spring and its smooth breezes and discus dogwood and crabapple air. It's like time travel. Or a pause button on reality. Or elastic waistbands, as applied to joy.
Also? Cherry trees aren't chocolate cakes. Wait. You knew that. But did you know this? That unlike chocolate cake, sublime on bite one, so-so by bite nine, cherry trees remain absolutely intoxicating to the nose, even eight hours in? Their heady perfume doesn't fade, or dull, or even diminish, even after all day. Indeed, the scent somehow amplifies, intensifies, one-upping itself, hour over hour. This so doesn't make sense. Then again, magic never does.
All of which is to say, if you haven't yet read Tara's book, I cannot cheer you on madly enough. I mean, not all of you. Orchard House is probably pretty niche. It's really only suited for those of you who have a garden. Or who have ever gardened, or who hope to, someday, in a pot or a plot or a p-patch. Or, alternatively, those of you who have a sibling, or nephew, or niece. Or a parent, or a family. Small or large, close or broken. (All you perfect family people? No need to read. Move along.)
Probably, Orchard House is also spot-on for that small subset of folks who have moved. Or are moving. Or might, someday, move. Or those few of you who've been in community, or wanted to be, or have helped to build one, in that slow, imprecise, wobbly weaving together of bonds built on interest or empathy or proximity. Yeah, you.
Or for those of you who've tried to grow a thing, any thing, not necessarily organic, a business, a product, a creative life, something from nothing, peace from weeds. Or those few of you who've mended what's broken, a fence, a relationship, mayonnaise. Or if you simple enjoy a good story, packed cheek to jowl with wonderful writing: muscular structure, lyrical lines, bristling with insight, and honesty, and humor. Those few of you will adore Orchard House. Everyone else, ignore it and move on.
Anyway, on the off chance you fall down the garden rabbit hole, you may wind up filthy and starving and way past lunchtime with a way-huge appetite and no interest in cooking. Or re-heating. Or, heck, tossing a simple salad. You might wryly note the irony inherent in investing a morning (and better part of an afternoon) in the growing of food, only to have zero interest in preparing any. You'll want food five minutes ago. Ideally great. Preferably faster.
Cue our favorite berry bowl. Now, writing up a bowl of mixed berries is a little like pushing an avocado toast recipe. Avocado. Toast. Moosh A on B. Doh. Not so fast. There's so much of import in the interstices. Just as my avocado toast game has been upped greatly by a squeeze of lemon, and thickly flaked salt, and a pinch of Aleppo, and a sprinkle of seeds, and a pouf of sprouts (optional, but excellent), so the details of a berry bowl so matter.
Our beloved details are as follows: begin with an immodest heap of strawberries, sliced bite-sized, plus any blue/black/rasberries you have around. Tumble into a greedy-sized bowl. Dribble good plain full-fat yogurt over all. Pause here. This matters so much. Not non-fat. Not Greek. Ordinary, old-school, European-style yogurt, the sort that slops and spills and dribbles, like a thick cream sauce, but with swagger. It will bring its inherent dairy sweet, plus a touch of rich, plus its signature tang, plus an admirable ability to work its way into the cracks and crevices between each berry. Turn, if you can, to whatever local yogurt you can find; they are abundant, and always terrific. Here in Ohio, we adore Snowville Plain 6%. Nationally, Brown Cow Cream Top is widely available, and wonderful.
On top, we add a pinch of brown sugar, truly a pinch, perhaps a teaspoon. It takes so little, but adds so much, melting and whorling into the white, for a fetching, discreet twinkle of sweet. And finally, a fistful of cocoa nibs, a flourish I added on impulse a few years back, one from which I've never recovered. The nibs, they're game-changers. Faintly bitter, suggestively sweet, rich in the way of good buttery nuts, the nibs' musky charm and fantastic texture totally rock the berries below.
All told, the bowl is rich and indulgent and light and bottomless and energizing and in every way, so, so satisfying. Also, it takes, like, two minutes to make. Crucial, when you've got forty hollyhocks to plant. Of course, if you'd like something more complex, or time-consuming, or remotely fancy, you'll have to look elsewhere. But oh, this is so my kind of fast food.
A Winning Berry Bowl
On yogurt: here in Ohio, we adore Snowville Plain 6% yogurt. Nationally, Brown Cow Cream Top is lovely, and widely available. If you can't find full-fat plain (which happens), a nice, not-too-sweet vanilla (and no brown sugar) will still be wonderful. Re: cocoa nibs, I've taken to buying them in bulk, for the price, freshness, and the rate at which we devour them. My kids love this berry bowl, exactly as written, but with these (gently) sweetened nibs. I stock both.
As to berries, I often use all strawberries, though love it best with a mix. Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries: any/all are nice, here. Obviously, this is best in summer, though in the off-season, on our monthly Costco runs, we indulge in a sweep of organic berries. We feast like kings, feel fully indulged, all for about the price of a pizza.
3 cups berries (strawberries alone, or a mix)
1 shy cup wonderful, plain whole-milk yogurt
1-3 tsp. brown sugar
1/4 cup cocoa nibs
Wash, dry, and slice strawberries. Pile into a bowl, along with other washed and dried berries. Dollop yogurt generously over the top, sprinkle with brown sugar, and add cocoa nibs. Eat, in the garden, or with a good book, or best of all: both.