REQUIEM FOR A GARDEN

by John Idstrom on April 26, 2012

This piece originally appeared at Exit133 as part of my Mise En Place series there.  I am reprinting here with the sad news that my garden at Kandle Park has been basically ruined by an attempt to “improve” the space, an attempt that was doomed to failure by incompetence, inattention and apathy of park administrators.  Fill dirt used to (unnecessarily) rebuild the garden was hardpan and it holds water like a ceramic bowl. The result is a plot of muck with a nice wrought-iron fence around it.

Re-reading, I am pleased that the piece generally stands up.  It is painful to report that the garden itself was not so lucky.

A Garden Plot

“My name is Max Yasgur and I’m a farmer.”

OK, I’m not Max Yasgur and I didn’t allow my property to be used to host a half-million half-naked hippies at the Woodstock Music and Art Festival.

But I am a farmer. And like Max, I don’t know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this.

Maybe “farmer” is stretching the definition of the term. Last winter I applied for a community garden plot through the Metro Parks garden program and through sheer luck was able to score a plot in my first year. I first put my name on the list in December, but was originally wait-listed with a discouraging number of names before me. Based on my place and predictably low turnover, I expected it might be 2-3 years before I could get a plot. But, just before the season started, several people in front of me pulled out and I was in!

My first choice for a garden was at the highly visible 21st and Proctor lot, which is just blocks from my house. As luck would have it that garden was well filled and I was instead offered a plot at KandlePark, which is on North 26th near Orchard, not that far, but certainly driving vs. walking distance. I say “as luck would have it” with intention. As it turned out, Kandle is where I really wanted to be after all.

My plot at Kandle is about 7 feet wide by 42 feet long, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you are weeding it’s a vast acreage. Last year my crop included green beans, snow peas, snap peas, tomatillos, basil, cilantro, arugula, beets, and carrots. Chard and lettuces did well early and late. That’s what grew. Aborted attempts included broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Hey, cold weather crops didn’t do so well last summer. Previous experiences with blight discouraged me from even trying tomatoes.

Fortunately, I was able to convince my friend Barb to farm-partner with me. While I’ve gardened a bit before, Barb is a farm girl from outside Ellensburg whose life experience proved invaluable to the success of our plot. Part of that experience is the ability to commandeer youth assistance when the weeding gets tough.

As a “food enthusiast,” having truly fresh produce from my own garden was beyond wonderful. I’m especially proud of the bumper crop of tomatillos we produced, which have resulted in many meals of pork braised in roasted tomatillo verde sauce (kudos to Rick Bayless for his peerless verde recipe). In addition to meals upon meals of fresh green beans (garlic, lemon, salt), we put up a dozen quarts of spicy pickled beans between us. As Greg Brown sings, there’s nothing like a “taste of the summer (grandma put it all in jars)”. We had carrots coming out our ears and greens akimbo.

While the food from my plot was splendid, there were other equal pleasures. At Kandle, most of my gardener mates are Russian or Ukrainian. Some of them speak a little English, some not hardly any at all. Turns out growing food though is a universal language. When my beets were a bit too prolific, my neighbor, an older gent with a terrific gold dental grill showed me by hand how to thin them (for the record, you need three fingers between each beet). He was puzzled that I saved the baby beet greens though, which are outstanding with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. More mature beet greens are excellent braised with garlic and served with grilled steak. My Russian friends are more focused on borscht than salad, but that’s them. This summer I learned an old Russian saying, “there are as many recipes for borscht as there are Russian women.” This I believe to be true.

Early on, my garden was a little, shall we say, haphazard. Guilted by my more learned eastern bloc comrades, Barb and I gradually cleaned up our act, thinning, weeding, and getting our “mise” in place as the French would say. I take it as a personal triumph that one of my neighboring farmers, a middle aged Russian woman, commented one balmy evening that “you have nice garden.” She was mystified by my patch of tomatillos and befuddled by my Brussels sprouts, but her compliment made me do a silent fist pump when she wasn’t looking.

If there is one thing that beats watering your crop at sunset on a warm summer evening with your Ukrainian acquaintances, it’s being the only one on-site in the early morning. Kandle, with its wide open spaces, affords me the “two birds/one stone” opportunity of tossing the ball for Roy in the early a.m. before Animal Control gets on the job, as well as doing some weeding and watering. I wish I was writer enough to render just how peaceful it is to stand in a garden of your own planting in the cool of the morning, a cup of coffee in your hand and a panting Labrador just outside the gate, watching your garden grow. There are birds and butterflies, and the far-off sounds of a city waking up.

One of my wishes for us as a city is that we be the best at something, anything. Selling ourselves (and a bit of our souls in the process) asAmerica’s #1WiredCitywas a joke I don’t care to repeat. However, I do think it’s possible that we could aspire to beAmerica’s Urban Garden Spot. If there’s one thing we have in spades, it’s undeveloped land in our immediate urban core. Developing garden plots is about the least expensive thing we could do with our spare property and something with tremendous up-side quality of life potential. With virtually no promotion we already have waiting lists for existing plots. Just think what we could do if we did a little marketing and education. Think of it as Victory Gardens for the 21st Century. I’m convinced that if we increased our community garden plots by tenfold, we’d improve our quality of life by multiples of that in process.

Today I received my plot renewal notice from Metro Parks. If you are on the waiting list for a garden, I’m sorry to inform you that my renewal check is already in the mail. But maybe you’ll get lucky. If not, swing by Kandle Park some summer evening, I’m sure to have some tomatillos to spare.

Rick Bayless’ Pork Roast Braised in Roasted Garden Fresh Tomatillo Sauce

One pork “picnic” roast
One dozen tomatillos
One jalapeno pepper
One medium white onion, diced
3 garlic cloves (or more) chopped
1/3rd cup chopped cilantro
10 small red-skinned potatoes, quartered

Brown the pork roast on all sides in a dutch oven. Remove pork but reserve any rendered fat in oven.

Roast the tomatillos and jalapeno on a baking sheet on both sides until they are darkly roasted and blistered with black spots. Cool, then transfer everything (including released juices) to a food processor. Puree until smooth.

Set pork browning pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook until golden. Stir in garlic and cook a minute longer. Add the tomatillo puree all at once to hot pan and stir until noticeably darker and very thick, maybe 3-4 minutes. Add a bit of water and the cilantro and salt to taste. You might be surprised at how much salt you can add to offset the acidity of the tomatillos.

Nestle the pork roast into the tomatillo sauce and cook in an oven at 325 degrees.

Cook the potatoes in salted water until half-done and then transfer to the pork/tomatillo mixture for the last half hour of cooking. A large bone-in roast could stand to be cooked for 2-3 hours, while a boneless loin might only cook for 45-60 mins.

* * * *

John Idstrom thinks and writes about food at http://www.meezenplace.com. This piece originally appeared at www.Exit133.com in February 2010.

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