A Tale of Two Gardeners
April 2016 Issue
Gardener #1: Lucindy
My gardening journey didn’t begin until my move to Caswell County in the mid-1990s. Like Eddie Albert on Green Acres, I fled the big city of Raleigh to embrace country life. Being the newest member of Caswell’s farming community, I was obliged to start a garden. Admittedly, at that time, I had not learned the truth of playwright George Bernard Shaw’s assertion that “the best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there.” That revelation would come later.
At the time, my now ex-husband and I were finishing our cabin—hammering nails and putting in insulation; however, there were moments I would steal away in search of some gardening how-to tips . . . and tomatoes, not necessarily in that order.
One day, I stopped by a small white house on Hwy. 158 with a sign announcing — “TOMATOES” — in the front yard. Around back, an older gentleman with piercing blue eyes & a shock of white hair sat on the tailgate of an old red pickup, next to a weathered picnic table where tomatoes & cantaloupes were carefully arranged. R.L. (Bob) Watlington weighed my selection of tomatoes but, guessing its weight—EXACTLY–before doing so. This city girl was impressed. Was it magic or had he tampered with the scales?
I began to “court” R.L., stopping by to chat & marvel at his ability to guess the correct weight of my produce. It took some time to muster my courage, but at last I stammered out the purpose of my visits: “I want to be a farmer-slash-gardener. Would you help me?” I stammered.
He studied me with bemusement & then asked what I did for a living. A long pause ensued as I concocted my lie. Fearing dismissal if he discovered I had a Ph.D. and taught English at NC State University, I mumbled that I was a carpenter’s helper. Not really a lie . . . not exactly the truth. . . . more of a tall tale of Paul Bunyanesque proportions.
Guessing (correctly) that I might not have been forthright, he asked to look at my palms. With trepidation, I turned them to face upwards. R.L. looked at them closely . . . examining the splinters & calluses, the blackened thumb, then gazed at me with steely eyes that pierced my soul. Knowing the truth, but understanding the dream, he nodded his assent.
Before he died a few years later, R.L. helped me put in raised beds & I assisted him in spreading fertilizer, tying up his tomato plants, and attending his asparagus beds. Every moment with Bob was pure joy.
At the end of that first summer, when I had to return to teaching duties, I confessed my true vocation. Although he forgave me, for the rest of our time together, he delighted in reminding me that one might go to school 8 — 10 years to get a Ph.D. but it took 20 — 30 years to become a farmer. How true.
Susanne Byrd and I met soon after I opened the Yancey House Restaurant. This young entrepreneur and her mama, Bonnie, were selling produce at farmer’s markets as well other eating establishments. Her gardening history was markedly different than my own.
Susanne grew up on a farm, surrounded by tomatoes, butterbeans, purple hull peas, green beans, English peas, squash, zucchini, potatoes, turnips, and greens. As a little girl, she shucked corn, shelled beans, and helped mama can and freeze vegetables for the family table. Along with her brothers, she sold watermelons and her Paw Paw’s famous cantaloupes in her grandparents’ front yard. An ambitious group of siblings, they took home ribbons from the Caswell County Fair.
Farming proved a profitable endeavor for Susanne. When she was a teen, her father gave her an acre to grow tobacco, the profits from which were used to purchase her first car.
As high school graduation neared, however, Susanne decided she had had enough of field work and told her father that once she left home, she “would never ever ever farm again.” Instead, she would buy all her food “from the grocery store!”
Susanne did leave home to attend college, received a degree in Sociology, and worked in the mental health field for years before buying a house and returning to Caswell County. The first thing she did upon moving into her home was to. . . you guessed it . . . put in raised beds.
. . .
So, here we are . . . Susanne and Lucindy: A generation apart. One gardener with no experience, who struggles every year to raise a decent tomato with no blossom end rot; the other, a professional grower whose home garden looks like something out of Jurassic World with all its lush foliage. What could we possibly have in common?
It seems a great deal. We love food . . . we love to cook . . . we love to eat.
Some people garden for beauty and plant flowers. Some people garden as a hobby, an excuse to go outdoors and play in the dirt. Susanne and I garden for one reason, to provide fresh herbs and produce for dishes we prepare for our families. We know that fresh tastes best.
My first year gardening, my goals were clear: Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes, colorful bell peppers, garlic, lots of basil, and other herbs. My mission has always been to grow produce that can be turned into pesto and marinara sauce which I, like Aesop’s ant, freeze for winter dining. It wasn’t until later that I began to see a more meaningful purpose.
The fact is that we live in a society that consumes an astonishing volume of “anonymous” food—we have no idea who grew it or where or how it was grown. Knowing that the tomato slice I put on my grandchildren’s grilled burgers was grown fifteen feet from my back door comforts me.
Susanne expresses a similar view: “Being able to take a few steps off my porch and grab a few things to turn into a meal is special.”
In addition, Susanne’s gardening philosophy, like mine, has evolved over the years. Of course, it’s still all about the food, but there is an added bonus when gardening becomes an act of relaxation and meditation, of connecting with the land. And . . . something more.
Susanne explains: “My house garden, unlike my commercial garden, is an experience I can share with my little boys (ages 1 and 2). They help mommy plant seeds, water, and weed. And you should see them eat! Last summer my oldest picked Sungold tomatoes off the vine and shoving them into his mouth as fast as possible. He looked like a chipmunk.”
Because I still consider myself a novice, I asked Susanne what advice she would give someone who wanted to start a garden. She advised to “start small. If you don’t have much room, consider container planting. Grow some tomatoes or herbs in pots.”
“If you have the room, time, and energy, install a raised bed. They make it easy to grow veggies and herbs in small spaces. And with raised beds, you really don’t need any special equipment except for a shovel, rake, and maybe a hand trowel or hoe. Fill your bed with good topsoil and compost and you’ll have healthy plants.”
“Some vegetables,” she suggests, “can be planted directly from seeds in your raised beds. They include lettuce, squash, zucchini, and beans. Other produce, such as tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and broccoli, you will want to start from seedlings or plants. Make sure your veggies are hydrated but not soggy. And remember that most plants need full sunlight. Keep the weeds out. Pay attention.”
During the summer months, Susanne and I have enjoyed some friendly competition with our summer produce in the form of “throw downs” on Facebook. If I recall correctly, my grandson Austin won the Watermelon Pizza competition, while Susanne took first place in the Okra for Breakfast contest. Below, you will find another one of Susanne’s winning dishes from her garden.
Roasted Beet Salad with Citrus.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Toss 6 medium red, golden, or candy striped beets, peeled and sliced into wedges, with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Place the beets on a foil-lined baking sheet (keep the reds separate to avoid their “bleeding” and staining the golden beets) and roast for about 45 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Let cool.
Layer together 4-5 C micro- or baby mixed greens, beets, 1 blood orange and 1grapefruit, peel removed and thinly sliced into rounds, as well as 1/2 fennel, shaved. Whisk together 1 TB whole grain or dijon mustard, 1 TB apple cider vinegar, 1/4 C olive oil, and salt and paper to taste. Drizzle over the vegetables and serve.
Byrd Farm will be at the Hillsborough Farmer’s Market this summer. To learn more, email Susanne at Susanne_byrd@yahoo.com. To sign up for Chef Lucindy’s Terrapin Cove culinary newsletter, visit terrapincovefarm.com.
The Garden Party
April 2016 Issue
“Nothing is so beautiful as Spring–When weeds, in wheels, shoot lovely, long, and lush. . . .
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the sweet earth’s being in the beginning.”—Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring.”
It’s spring, when the lyrical expressions of forsythia and lavender speak to the inner poet in all of us. And this time of year, Nature is getting a little help from area organizations.
To bring us out of hibernation, communities (including the entire state of Virginia) are offering garden and farm tours. For example, April 23-30 marks Virginia’s Historic Garden Week. During this period, visitors can tour more than 250 Virginia gardens, homes, and historic landmarks. For exact dates, ticket prices, and times of each tour (they vary), visit vagardenweek.org.
South of the border, on April 23-24 from 2-6 p.m., the Carolina Farm Stewards Association hosts their 21st annual spring tour featuring over 40 sustainable small farms. Here, you will find farms for every interest, from bees to herbs, from buffalo meat to lamb, from cheese to wine.
The association has made it easy for you to plan your tour by visiting https://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/pft/ where you will find a map and links to the various farm offerings. I have been attending this tour (with and without grandchildren) for the past two decades. Whether you take children, bring friends, or go solo, it is great fun and educational. A two-day pass is $30 a car.
All this talk of gardening and farm tours brings thoughts of early spring produce and garden parties. As chef at the Yancey House, I hosted formal spring luncheons, with guests wore elegant garden hats and attired themselves in pastels, as well as informal repasts held outside on the restaurant’s Victorian porch.
What type of garden party would you like to host this spring? Formal or informal? Outside or inside? How can you make your event uniquely your own?
You might consider holding a plant swap with each attendee bringing the same number of plants as guests. Or ask everyone to dress in overalls, bring their trowels, and help you get started on your herb garden project.
As a party favor, present each guest with a wide shallow clay pot, herbs, and potting soil and let them play in the dirt, creating their own miniature herb gardens to take home.
If you want to take it to another level, request that guests bring blossoms, natural greenery, and vases, then hire a local florist or designer to lead a workshop on flower arranging.
With the venue and activities decided on, all you need now is a menu. To help get you started, I have created one that is relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare: Asparagus Bruschetta, Lemony Pasta with Asparagus, Shrimp, and Early Spring Herbs.
Appetizer: Asparagus Bruschetta
For the asparagus: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a roasting pan toss 1 pound fresh asparagus, washed and trimmed, with 3 tablespoons olive oil until coated. Spread asparagus out in a single layer. Roast asparagus for 10 minutes until tender. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. When asparagus has cooled sufficiently, cut the stalks on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces.
To prepare the bread: Cut a dense Italian boulle or French baguette into 1/2-inch slices. Brush with olive oil and rub with a garlic clove. Arrange slices on a cookie sheet and bake at 375-400 until lightly toasted about 6 to 8 minutes.
To make the garlic-herb cream cheese: Cream together 8 oz. softened cream cheese, 1 TB. heavy cream, 1 TB minced green onions, white and green parts, 1 TB. minced fresh dill, 1 TB minced fresh parsley, and 1/2 tsp. minced garlic.
Plating: Spread the toast with garlic-herb spread and top with asparagus tips. Sprinkle with a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese, pea sprouts, and drizzle with balsamic vinegar reduction.
Entrée: Lemony Pasta with Asparagus, Shrimp, and Early Spring Herbs
Cook 1 pound bowtie pasta or linguini in salted boiling water with 1 T. olive oil. Cook according to box directions until al dente. Pour in colander and then immediately run cold water over the pasta to halt the cooking process.
Note: If you are making this dish ahead, place cooled and drained pasta in a ziplock bag. To reheat, pour pasta into boiling water for 1 minute.
Trim off woody ends of 2 pounds of asparagus and discard. Slice off 3-inch tips and set aside. Cut remaining stalks using a roll or diagonal cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces. Par-boil both tips and pieces in salted water for 3 min. Remove and place in ice water to help them hold their bright green color. Once the asparagus is cool, drain well.
In a large skillet, sauté 2 tsp. minced garlic & in 4 TB butter over medium-low heat. Add 1 lb. peeled and deveined shrimp and sauté until translucent. Add 1/3 C sliced green onion and 1/3 C diced sundried tomatoes, and sauté for 1 minute. To this mixture, mix in 2 tsp. lemon zest, 1/3 C lemon juice, 1 1/2 tsp. lemon pepper, and 1/3 C white wine. Bring to simmer. Finally, gently stir in blanched asparagus stems. Cook until heated through.
Divide the pasta among four bowls. Top with shrimp. Spoon 1/4 of the shrimp-asparagus sauce mixture over pasta. Top each bowl with 1/3 of the asparagus tips, 1 TB walnuts, and 1 TB finely chopped herbs (chives, parsley, basil).
Strawberry Ice Cream
Place 3 C strawberries in a processor with 1/3 C extra fine granulated sugar. Puree. In a separate bowl, mix together 1 can condensed milk, 1 can evaporated milk, and 1 ½ C. heavy cream (or regular milk). Mix in strawberry mixture. Cover and place in refrigerator until cold, then freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Ripen in freezer for 1 – 2 hours.