The garden cheerleader


by Chef Boy Ari

There are many reasons to dump your garden right now. It’s dried up, stunted, lost in weeds or perhaps already forgotten. I know about all of these conditions myself, thanks to my own garden. This garden was, as usual, ambitiously conceived. But as usual, my follow-through fizzled.

After ordering enough seeds to start my own farm, many a young plant suffered troubled upbringings under my care. Starting with cheap potting soil, grow lights, window boxes and finally my ghetto greenhouse, and then planted out weeks behind schedule, at which point some of these plants were forgotten entirely. All of which is my way of explaining that my garden, by many measures, sucks.

My garden is probably uglier than yours, and less productive than hundreds of gardens around town that are tended by people who can finish the many little jobs that together constitute gardening. To those real gardeners, who turn their yards into oases of edible diversity, hats off. This story is not for you.

My garden is more like the cluttered lab of a mad scientist. It’s a toy garden, where I pretend to take my stand and live off the land. And while I may eat from that garden every day of the year (I’m broccoli self-sufficient), one could argue that my garden is a waste of time, space, money and water.

No, it’s true. In economic terms I’d be better off using all that garden-time to earn more money and then go shopping wisely, buying big in season when prices are low, taking advantage of U-pick produce opportunities, bartering with farmers, and then stashing away the food in freezers, bags and jars. I’d get more food for my money than I do from my seeds, starts, potting soil, pots, water, greenhouse supplies, hoses, sprinklers, drip lines, half-baked experiment supplies, etc.

And I’d have so much more time on my hands. I could watch a more prudent, shady, water-wise garden all summer from the vantage of my hammock. Mornings and evenings I’d listen to the radio while processing all the expertly and locally grown food I’d acquired so pleasantly.

Those of you who are smart enough to do this, you earthy bargain shoppers, I salute you. You’re leading a good life that’s also good for your local economy. This story is not for you.

And then there is that curious breed of gardener, whom I’ll call the snob, who grows a garden because he or she simply must have this or that ingredient and it isn’t sold locally. Maybe it’s a plant from the old country, like shiso, or epazote. Maybe it’s a specific kind of hot pepper that you can’t get at the farmer’s markets, like a bhut jolokia. Some snobs require that live herbs and tomatoes be available within 100 feet of their cutting board.

Thank you snobs, for sharpening the edge of local cuisine. Your operation is too manageable for this story to be aimed at you.

And thank you to all the categories of “real” gardeners and farmers, who grow food and grow it well. And thanks to all of those who buy local food and keep the local food economy going. You are doing the real work, while people like me are trying to get their melons to climb corn plants, making fences out of raspberries, and convincing Love in the Mist (a flower) to grow in my strawberry patch. Alas, I am the anti-pragmatist, the garden tinkerer and cheerleader. And while there might be plenty of reasons to dump my garden right now, I won’t. To those of you like me, I don’t salute you. But we have things to discuss.

Surely you have some plants that have bolted, or gone to seed. Usually when plants make the “decision” to bolt, there is nothing you can do to stop them, and the plant’s flavor changes for the worse.

There are, however, some notable exceptions to this rule of thumb. Bok choy, for some reason, continues to taste good while it’s bolting. But instead of a nice tight head, you have to pick the leaves off the bolted stalk.

And if your cilantro bolts, it will soon produce the seeds known as coriander. Since you can’t stop cilantro from bolting, you might as well enjoy the coriander.

Basil, meanwhile, is one of the few plants whose bolting can be delayed by repeated picking of the flowers. Harvest basil by picking the center shoots – flowers and all.

Meanwhile, a new round of seeds can be planted for a strong fall crop.

So, lame gardeners of the world, let’s get back into the ring. Give your garden a good watering to soften everything up, then pull the weeds and useless bolted plants. CAREFUL! There might still be some good stuff hiding amongst the weeds. Sometimes it’s possible to excavate these runts, and they can still lead useful lives once they get some sunlight to themselves.

Once you’ve opened up some space, fill it with some fast-growing plants that can produce a crop this summer and fall – plants like spinach, lettuce, salad mix, radishes, kohlrabi, and of course more cilantro, all planted by seed.

And if your cilantro is bolting as we speak, consider picking a final harvest and making this cilantro chutney.

Combine 1/2 cup raisins (minced), 3/4 cup cilantro (minced), 3 tablespoons fresh grated coconut, the juice of half a lime, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon each of turmeric and ginger, and 1/4 teaspoon each of ground cardamom and cumin.

Let stand at least an hour, ideally overnight. Eat with nearly anything. •



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