The Garden as Scrapbook

 Pitchfork Diaries

When I refer to our microfarm, I am talking about just over five thousand square feet of heirloom gardening spaces, that my husband and I have carved out, cared for, slowly added to and greatly benefitted from for the last almost decade.  Our home sits on a very rural, mostly wooded, forty-five acres, so anytime we felt like we could handle a little more weeding, or heard from enough friends what a thrill it was to dig up potatoes in the fall—in went another sizeable garden space.  Until we are now left with our own personal work camp in the Catskills.

Collectively, this year is the largest to date.  Two summers ago I was well into my pregnancy, and not so agile in the bending-digging-weeding routine.  Last summer we had a seven month old son who cut our two-person-powered time to bend-dig-weed exactly in half, needing to be nursed or held or kept out of the fierce sun by one of us almost at all times.  Each season we vow to go easy on ourselves.  Each season we do just a little more than what would be considered sane.

Compared to previous years, we felt like we had it wholly together this time, and are planted to capacity—despite the fact that the plan had been to leave our oldest and largest space empty for a season to sensibly replenish.  But I once again fell victim to the gorgeous seed catalogues, web sites, and that plant pusher, Trina, at the incomparable Silver Heights Farm, and can not cut myself off once my palms get sweaty and pulse quickens.

Because in the end it is about food!  Food I remember from some meal, food I can’t easily buy around these rural parts, food I can’t get until this time of year, food I have been dying to try to cook with, and more than anything, food I am picturing laying out on a giant rustic white platter and presenting to a dozen or so dear friends seated around the table made of antique barn wood on our porch.  How can I possibly expect to limit myself?

The end of last week the clouds parted for the first time in nearly a eight days, and I was able to get the last of the seeds in the ground, finishing the planting phase that started just after the unseasonably late memorial day weekend frost, and was ideally to be finished within the week at the latest.  Our haricot vert will be a little later this year, but nothing of a detriment.

As I walked through rows after rows of our rich sheep compost soil; I was struck again how nearly everything in there had been chosen or sought out because of some great food influence, or dear friend who shared some seeds, or a great meal I was invited to, or a piece of culinary lore that had been recounted to me through one avenue or another.  Just like the experience of opening the box of ornaments each Christmas season and reliving and retelling their story as each is placed on a flexible bow.  There is history to this collection of plants and seeds and garden beds.  It is my and my husband’s thumbprint, but fingers of so many generous and talented others are all over it.

I know of a few friends who have certain vegetable varieties growing in their gardens either because I’ve passed along extra seeds or seedlings, or because of something that was cooked for them at one of the barn table meals.  And when they go back and seek out that same variety of tomato or squash or miniature cucumber the following season to devote precious growing space and time and work to, there is frankly little praise that could mean more.  And for all of you who have added to my “to plant” list that begins in a notebook in early February, we couldn’t be more grateful.

 haricot vert seeds from pitchfork diaries

A few of our plantings and the generous and creative souls who caused them to cross our path:

Mexican Sour Gherkin Cucumber:  I read a one-paragraph blurb about these incredible olive-sized-watermelon-looking cucumbers in 2007 in New York magazine and was on the hut the following year.  They have been one of our favorites ever since.

Shishito Peppers:  3-4 slender green, very mildly spicy peppers, that were served blistered on a grill and simply dressed with sea salt and a squirt of fresh lemon juice mounded on a huge platter for a snack, when I took a fund raiser cooking class with chef Bill Telepan years ago to benefit Slow Food NYC.  We now grow the plants from seed—thank goodness, since they are now apparently super trendy and sold out all over this year.

Fin de Bagnol Haricot Vert:  the most delicate, slender, tender french green bean.  Sought these out due to my very strong memory of chef Sheamus Feeley graciously teaching me about salade nicoise when I was cocktail waitressing at his restaurant in Denver the summer after my first year in acting graduate school.  I was a terrible cocktail waitress.  But learned a volumes about food that summer.

Shiso or Perilla:  Often referred to as Japanese basil, I owe this one to my friend Melissa, who told me about it, and showed me how to wrap tender roast Korean duck in the individual leaves at a long table at a friend’s birthday.  This is a new one for us this year, but now of course, I am reading about it everywhere.  We’ll see.

Escarole:  Friends from graduate school worked at the restaurant Lupa for years.  We finally made it there, and the escarole nearly knocked me out of my chair.  I have been obsessed with it since—as insane as being obsessed with a leafy green can be.  Giving it a go from the ground up this year.  Should go very nicely with the whole pig (in parts) we have in our freezer.

French Breakfast Radishes:  In culinary school we had a surprisingly huge amount of access to the brilliant and generous dean Chef Jacques Pepin.  (who also lived in the town I grew up in.)  I worked with him one night at a benefit, and helped prep the extraordinary and extraordinarily simple radish-butter-salt crostini.  These radish are some of the most mild, most beautiful, and quickest to grow.

Collards:  Our friends Sam & David, as well as my incredible southern chef/culinary classmate Clay, have both prepared collards for me that I have subsequently dreamt about.  Also, when in Saratoga Spings, NY:  Hattie’s.  Chicken.  Shack.

Five Color Silverbeet Chard:  There is a stunning passage about this heirloom chard variety in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is why I sought it out 7 or so years ago myself.  It was also the featured ingredient of my big menu project in culinary school.  (for which I won the award, ah-hem.)  The garden would look very dull without it.

Leeks:  My remarkable gardener friend Alice always grows them, and then makes us something incredibly delicious with them.  Finally tried it ourselves a few years ago and they are such a reward.

Spaghetti Squash:  This was a special summer meal for my grandmother and I, often after visiting a local farm stand, 30+ years ago, way before it was the thing to do.  Particularly for a kid, scooping out those long golden strands are pure magic.  And they are just about the easiest thing to grow.

I could go on and on and on.  What are the nostalgic favorites in your garden?

One response to “The Garden as Scrapbook”

  1. Sarah Schroeder says:

    In our garden we are growing Little Jack Pumpkins- Elsa tries every year and we have yet to get a pumpkin- they don’t do very well in the fog belt. I like her determination though! We are also growing lettuce, sun gold tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, yellow squash, snap peas and green beans! Garden really took off this week ( thank you fog for going a way for a bit!) and we are looking forward to a good harvest from our little garden plot in our front yard. Loved reading about your garden and would love more pictures!

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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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