Having begun this year’s garden with all my typical optimism–believing, naively, that I had learned something from last year’s triumphs and catastrophes that would help me out–I feel I must be brutally honest in my final accounting:
Strawberries, 16: I was actually rather proud of this. I put in about six plants last year, so this was the first year they’d had a chance to assert themselves, and frankly I was pretty astonished when they just seemed to awaken by themselves in the spring and do their job. In the future I might ask that all 16 strawberries come to fruition simultaneously so that I could actually do something with them, e.g. put them in a bowl and sprinkle powdered sugar on them and serve them to someone. As it was, I’m afraid they just disappeared as they appeared, anticlimactically, one-by-one into my mouth somewhere between the garden and the kitchen door.
Grapes, 0: Okay, Diary, obviously one is going to approach the whole idea of a Northern Illinois vineyard with some skepticism, but I have seen grapes growing in wild profusion along the bike trails, and I figured Home Depot wouldn’t have them out for sale if Dionysus wasn’t looking out somehow for the enormous constituency of transplanted Greeks in the Chicago area. And my ambitions were really humble, and I’m not even going to say I’m disappointed that, for the third year now, there were zero grapes, because the actual real reason I planted this one poor little vine was because I’ve never stuffed a grape leaf that didn’t come out of a briney bottle with the consistency of pickled rubber. What I seem to have here is the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of Grapevines, however. In early June, when it appeared to be completely dead, I yanked it up out of the soil thinking maybe I’d just grow flowers up the trellis instead, but discovered that its roots looked perfectly live and healthy. So I put it back, and sure enough maybe sometime in July it began to sprout little leaves about the size of toddlers’ hands, and even began a timid climb one rung higher. The leaves never got any bigger than that, though–and btw, the two Sweet Peas I put in on either side, hoping they would shoot up the trellis and mitigate the pathos of the poor stunted little grapevine, instead compassionately withered, themselves.
Diary, I can see you wincing at the thought that we have to continue with this humiliating self-examination, but I think we must.
String Beans: 8: That’s the sum total of TWO plants, btw. Like the strawberries, they appeared and ripened individually. Unlike strawberries, though, there really isn’t that much gratification to be had from eating one raw string bean on your way from the garden back to the kitchen.
Tomatoes, large: 4
Tomatoes, cherry & grape: 22: I really thought I had a brilliant tomato strategy this year. There was an Early Girl so we could get a headstart on the harvest; a Beefy Boy so we could eat tomato sandwiches (the favorite food of Harriet the Spy, btw, which was how I discovered them around age 9); a Roma so I could be making fresh pasta sauce all through August; and a yellow cherry and a red grape so we could eat them like candy (see previous posting, Tomato Worship). I don’t have a clue what went wrong here, unless it was the weeks and weeks of rain in early summer followed by weeks and weeks of drought in high summer; combined with the chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, and possums who seem to trek though the garden on their way from the neighbors’ garbage cans to our garbage cans. Let’s just say that, for the purposes of being a tomato-worshipping person, I feel extremely lucky to live just blocks away from one of Chicago’s most robust Farmer’s Markets.
Zucchini, 1: Diary, this turned out to be my big summer surprise blockbuster. Last year, my two zucchini plants never produced one single zucchini, which seemed to me to be a statistical impossibility, like my math score on the SATs which was approximately half the score you would expect to get on the test if you’d just been randomly guessing. Everybody knows zucchini are the rabbits of the vegetable world, reproducing faster even than Martha Stewart’s corporate staff’s ability to invent new zucchini bread recipes. Last year they flowered happily and profusely, but despite the butterflies fluttering around the nearby Butterfly Bushes, and the bees buzzing around the Bee Balm, and the birds pecking up all Mr. Darcy’s grass seeds, my zucchini plants resisted the call of Nature’s fecundity and remained stubbornly celibate. In the end I bitterly regretted not having just picked the blossoms and stuffed them, but I was under the impression that these flowers were all going to turn into actual zucchini and I was much more excited about the idea of stuffing those.
Still, I couldn’t quite accept that I am the only person on the planet incapable of growing a zucchini, so this year, on the assumption that last year was a fluke, I bought two super-healthy looking Chef Jeff’s Aristocrat zucchini plants at a high-end nursery and gave them prime garden real estate. And sure enough, though the vines erupted into something the size of Jack’s Beanstalk, and the flowers were the size of daffodils, the summer went by without one single zucchini making an appearance. And honestly, in recent weeks the whole subject of the vegetable garden had become so depressing that I had basically given up on it, and only because, glancing out the kitchen window, I happened to notice a couple of little red things hanging from the exhausted-looking tomato plants did I even think to go out there and poke around. And Diary, there under one humongous zucchini leaf I found one humongous zucchini which seemed to have sprung full-grown from nowhere! Had there finally been an immaculate conception? Had the stork dropped it off? Had six chipmunks dragged it over from someone else’s garden and dropped it off there out of guilt over all the pilfered strawberries and tomatoes and grapes and–for crying out loud, did I mention the arugula?
Honestly, I didn’t care where it came from. I was as proud of this one damn zucchini as though I’d given birth to it myself. I decided I should cook it as part of last night’s wedding anniversary dinner, since surely there is nothing more metaphorically appropriate to happy marital prospects than a giant zucchini appearing out of nowhere for mysterious reasons known only to Nature. And there is nothing more satisfying to a food writer than growing, in a previously barren piece of dirt, a metaphor that can be sautéed in olive oil and lemon, and served with just a sprinkling of melted parmesan–and a knowing wink.