I was caught off guard when the cucumber leaves fell in a wilt. Spring and summer have been rain-gauge busters, the basement is persistently squishy, and the down-valley cornfields are stunted and pocked with freshborn ponds. So this little spot of drought was slow to register. All that precipitation, then it only took a few days for half the garden to go hardpan.
As regular readers of this column already know, my use of the word “garden” is an oversell, be it invoked as either noun or verb. But by recent experience I can tell you that even a poor garden is a garden. We’ve put up a dozen jars of pesto and already the basil is bushed out again. There are vast racks of garlic drying in the barn. The squash patch is weedy, but when I part the foxtail and lambsquarter to peek through there are acorns and butternuts fattening on the ground. The eggplants are royal, bulbous and magnificent, and the last time I passed through the kitchen I spied baba ganoush in process.
And my favorite — backyard bruschetta — is well in season and supply. To step out the door and gather up the ingredients an hour or so before you intend to eat them, tear the basil, chop the garlic, slice the onion paper thin, dice the tomatoes, fiddle with the ratio of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, let the whole works mull on the counter so the flavors can intermingle, only stirring in the cheese as the bread slices toast … the results will make you gardener of the year if only in your own mind and belly.
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There are other happy surprises. In spite of our neglect the kale is hale. We’ve had a limited but hearty selection of carrots. And despite a persistence of potato bugs it appears we’ll have all the baked, boiled and mashed we can handle.
On the flip side, most of our lettuce was subsumed by thickets of inedible greens. Rabbits got a swath of the chard, deer got to the beans, and we have watermelon vines but no melons. The sweet corn never even sprouted.
And yet we can revel in the taste of something fresh. Last week, prior to the cucumbers wilting, our elder daughter returned from an extended trip away from home. The girl loves pickles and vinegar, so around noon I went to the garden and picked a batch of cucumbers, an onion and some dill. After slicing the cucumbers and onion, I doused them in vinegar, seasoned them with the dill and fresh-ground pepper, and left them to marinate in a tureen. The look on her face that evening when she stepped through the door and spotted the bowl was almost enough to convince me to tackle her college aid form again. She pulled up a chair and tucked in, making happy little noises that didn’t sound like a teenager at all. Sometimes I get the Dad thing right.
Last night a decent rain fell. A soaker, as opposed to the more recently common gully-cutters. This morning the cucumber leaves were flush and flared. We are out of the running for Garden of the Year, but I just heard a man on an economics podcast declare it was time to “establish a more robust value proposition,” and now that the cukes are back, I’d say we’re there.
An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio”(tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.