There was frost last night, and so the time had come for the cardoons to come down.
After their nap under a paper blanket they were pale and celery like, and covered with sow bugs and slugs. Not terribly appetizing. I brought them inside and consulted Alice Waters, who told me to wash them, cut them into three-inch lengths, simmer them for 45 minutes, and then make a gratin with them (cream, salt and pepper, cheese). She also said that young, tender stalks could be eaten raw. I tried a white young thing - and spat it out. It tasted like an aged dandelion. I went on (doubtfully) with the recipe. The moment the water with the cardoons began to simmer, the house was infused with the smell of...artichokes. Amazing.
This was the resulting dinner:
The gratin is hard to see, on the left, eaten with steak and oven fries. The gratin was quite good, with a distinct artichoke flavor, but still with a bitter hit that made it interesting. I'm not sure cardoons would ever make it onto my weekly vegetable rotation, which is all to the good, seeing as getting them onto a plate has been a six month project.
I have long desired to grow currants. Not because of any virtue of the fruits, that I know of first hand - I have never eaten a currant, fresh or jellied. What you buy in the grocery labeled "currant" is actually a little raisin. But I have read of currants, and all the descriptions use adjectives such as "gem-like" and "jewel-colored." For a few years I have stared at one ugly spot in the back of my garden, envisioning a line of currants there:
Can you see it? In five years or so a wonderful hedge will hide the decrepit back fence and the compost pile, and that hedge will bear gem-like fruit in jewel tones. Or it is so in my dreams, at least. If you look closely, you can see the currant babies, three of them (two red, one white, no further detail given), planted just at the shade line inside the vegetable garden, snuggling with the yet-to-be eaten cardoon.
Up close they are scraggly looking things.
That's the pull of gardening, really - the hope that somehow this ugly slip will grow and bear magical fruit. It's every fairy tale ever told.
My garden ideal is partly formed by my infatuation with Victorian chick lit and a couple of trips to Italy - not exactly attainable ideals - but is most shaped by the most beautiful garden I've ever known: my mom's. Over decades my parents turned their average suburban acre at the base of a gentle, boulder strewn hill into the kind of garden that ends up in garden books. There were perennial beds and shrub boarders and a woodland walk and a formal potager. The last year they lived there, my little son leaped off the stone wall, hid behind old trees, and ran laps on the lawn, and I was reminded how wonderful the place was for kids. But it wasn't wonderful for people on the cusp of retirement, particularly when the snow fell and the walk needed shoveling. So they moved, and we all grieved the loss of the garden and house we loved.
My parents are now living a hipster life in Providence (at least it seems a hipster life to me, suburban mom that I am) and they have built a new garden completely different from the old, but I think just as beautiful. They have two gardens, or maybe even three, depending upon how one counts gardens. The photo above is of the balcony garden, always blooming, always lush, and always visible through the living room, dining room, and study. I don't think many gardens have as much impact on the inside of a house as this new, tiny gem does on my parent's place.
Mom's second and third gardens are allotments in the community garden down the street, where my parents are growing, among the tomatoes and lettuce, dahlias:
I think mom grows as much food and many more flowers in her tiny gardens than I do on my bigger one. I've always learned from my mom's gardening, and I think I imagined that somehow I would cease learning when she gave up her large garden. I haven't though - her garden keeps growing, she keeps teaching, and I keep learning. What I've learned this past year, watching Mom, is humbling stuff: how a master gardener like her really is in a different league than a beginner like me; that community gardening is a soul enriching thing; and that small is truly and utterly beautiful. Of course I still miss the old garden, and I know she does, too. We'll probably all miss it forever, in the way I miss my grandmother who died not long ago - with a mix of sadness and sweetness and love. The new gardens, though, are offshoots of the old, just as my son is an offshoot of the great grandmother he never knew - generations unceasing, watered with love.
On Saturday, at about 10:30am, pirates overran the garden. They pilaged, drank grog, and swashbuckled in celebration of Noah's fourth birthday. A small exemplar of the species piratus preschoolerus:
As these little brigands ran through the lawn, and searched the rosemary and miscanthus for chocolate treasure, I thought: this is why I have a garden. Most days I want a garden for the beauty, for the food, for the pure pleasure of dirt. But really, I want a garden that little people can poke in, discover in, get dirty in. A place where parents of the little mischief makers can sit and chat and watch them as they imagine the playhouse into a ship on a tossing sea. I'm finding that a garden like that - a place for kids to play widly, and for parents to commune, and for me to grow food - can exist, but it takes more work than would a garden that must serve only one purpose, either food or beauty or play. My garden cannot be completely utilitarian, because I cannot leave the garden fork where it might put out small eyes, or where rows of leeks take over the baseball field, such as it is. It cannot be given over entirely to play, because I would grieve. And I've never considered having a garden that was just about beauty, primarily because I'd never achieve it. For me and my garden, balancing food, beauty, and play means an uneasy, and not always lovely, give and take. Two weekends ago food took a bit more lawn, as I dug up a chunk for new raspberry bushes. But last weekend play won, the pirates descended, and as I drank my grog I couldn't have wished for a better garden.
This, dear readers, is a cardoon. It is, they tell me, edible, although I have never tried one. I bought this plant at Colonial Williamsburg as a tiny potted seedling after reading some lovely coffee table book on ornamental vegetable gardening which said something about cardoons offering wonderful vertical elements to the potager. The book forgot to mention that you must do this to your cardoon before you may eat it:
Blanching. I have never blanched a plant, as I think it may be a violation of some international treaty for the treatment of captive plants. It at least sounds like something I would do in a kitchen or that some fainting maiden would do when confronted with a rapacious villian. But a cardoon is no fainting maiden - they are spiny, spikey, thistley plants that can hold their own. I planted my cardoon among the strawberries and chives after both were past, and it shot up and out, four feet tall and five feet wide, and then in August threw out spectacular purple thistle flowers. If a cardoon were an artichoke, which it almost is, you would eat the thistle heads, which would have been comparatively easy. Instead, you eat the stalks, and the flowers actually indicate (I found out too late) that you have watied too long to eat your cardoon.
Sadly, I cut down my cardoon two weeks ago, put its dried thistles in a vase and the stalks the compost heap. And there beneath the severed stalk was a cluster of small cardoonlets. I have no idea if they are seedlings, offsets, rogue stalks, or what, but as they began to shoot up and out I figured I'd try to blanche and eat them.
Just before the first frost (or in three weeks, whichever comes first) I will free my captive cardoons, cut them down, and eat them. They better be tasty.
Otis, dearest of dogs, darling slobbery galumphing beast. There are a few things that are incompatible with gardening, I think: laziness, August afternoons in Maryland, and boxers.
When we got Otis, and he promptly romped through my strawberry bed and trashed the peonies, I bought a book about melding dog and garden. I read it desperately, and found the main message was: make peace with dog paths, wire fences, and scooping poo. And so it has been with with Otis and the garden. What are some of my grudging concessions to my slobbering beast?
The white wire fence behind Otis in the photo is not my style - but it keeps Otis out of the sedum and nicotiana.
Down at the bottom of the garden, underneath a holly tree, is a broken chimenea, sunk deep into the ground, where we toss Otis' double daily offering to the compost gods.
The vegetable garden is surrounded by low lattice fence, with chicken wire gates, and I occasionally must scoop poop out of my vegetable plants, after Otis has made a comando raid into the forbidden zone.
Grass. Ah, the grass! We live with whatever low green stuff will grow in our back yard with the treatment it receives from the dog, the child, the indifferent mowing, and lack of fertilizer. I blame the whole condition of the lawn on Otis, though, because it is convenient.
All of this said...there are moments when dog and garden are in perfect harmony, like the other day when I found Otis rolling in the mint, his legs in the air, flews hanging open exposing his fangs, snorting. The mint didn't care and Otis was blissful.