The Tomato Jungle

Summer is the only time that I really get to do two things that I year to do muchly all year: grow food and turn that food into more elaborate other foods. Sure, I cook in the winter, but my school schedule leaves much to be desired in the “leisurely home cooking department.”

A unique summer delicacy that I have been missing after growing up near the south is okra. Those who know okra fall into two categories, generally: the okraphiles and the haters (see definition here just to be sure you understand fully those in category number two). Yes, there are those who love the veggie, and those who just can’t be happy for it, no matter what, or criticize it unjustly. “Oh, it’s too slimy!” or “I had it this one time, and it sucked.” Well, maybe the cook sucked. Good okra, cooked well, is delicious. Period. If you don’t like it, chances are you haven’t had it cooked properly. Or you are just jealous of its green goodness.

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Last Saturday at the Farmer’s Market, I was humbled and gleeful to find okra! Two years ago, a woman in a stand had okra. When I acted like she was actually selling golden goose eggs, she said, “I’m glad somebody knows what to do with it.” Somebody indeed! Last summer, no okra. Then again this summer, there it was! I bought a cup Saturday and two cups on Tuesday.

Over the last few days, I have had not one, but two batches of fried okra, and tonight, I am experimenting with a curried okra dish. The Indians call okra “bhindi.” You have not quite lived until you have had bhindi Indian style. Apparently, Indians love okra so much, they name jewelry stores after it. That’s right. Okra Jewellers.

But I digress.

My little garden patch is teeming with two things: tomatoes and green beans. The green beans are volunteer, coming up at the edge of the garden. They are mediocre as far as green beans go. But tonight, I will be jazzing them up with some…you guessed it…curry, which should make them fabulous!

The tomatoes have become the tomato jungle. I have never successfully grown a tomato plant.

No. That isn’t true. I successfully grew some cherry tomatoes one year that a bird planted in my garden. The last year we were in Springfield, I grew one plant that produced two hard, nearly inedible, fruit.

I planted four cherry tomatoes because of my ultimate goal to dehydrate roughly one million of them for snacks all winter. My mother-in-law dehydrated cherry tomatoes this last winter, and they were AMAZING snacks right up through this spring. So…I planted four plants without nary a bird’s help. Normally, cherry tomatoes are like zucchini. One plant is not enough, two is too many. But dehydrated? I am hoping for as many as I can get.

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In the foreground of the above picture are the volunteer beans. In the background is what I now fondly refer to as “The Tomato Jungle.” Other plants are either lettuce going to seed, volunteer potatoes that don’t seem to be doing anything, or weeds I have been too lazy to pull. Also, the kinder souls among you will suspend judgement on my bean trellis, which was very last minute once I realized that the volunteer beans were actually going to produce something. I am positive that better bean trellis technology exists, and next year, I will investigate and implement said technology.

In addition to the cherry Tomato Jungle, I have a single plant called “Oregon Spring” whose info card assured me that she would be an “early producer.” So far, no ripe tomatoes off her. She has some tomatoes, still green. So much for “early.”

In addition to those five, I have three mystery tomatoes given to us by a friend…in the back yard plot. Two look like they might possibly be Romas. But really, who knows? Actually, my friend who gave them to me probably knows, and when she is done galavanting across Germany, maybe I will ask her.

So, the total number of tomato plants in my backyard is 8.

THEN…the same friend who gave me the three mystery tomato plants gave me an additional 10 or so other mystery plants, which I promptly ignored while I traveled to the AP reading. They started to look pretty puny. So…I shoved them in around an azalea plant that seemed to be doing pretty well in this big bare patch in our front yard. I used the logic that azaleas love acid, and tomatoes love acid, and the azalea loved that patch of earth, so “What the hell?” I thought. I could have 10 dead tomato plants in pots in my carport, or 10 dead tomato plants in a patch in my front yard.

Here are those ten plants today…

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Yep. Every one survived. Most of them have blooms. One of them has an actual almost ripe tomato.

So, to recap, I now have four cherry tomatoes, one Oregon Spring, and 13 mystery tomato plants for a total of 18 tomato plants, alive, in my yard right now.

Next year, Universe-willing, I will have as many okra plants. And I will not have to depend on a few good vendors at the farmer’s market to determine my okra universe.

In addition to the tomato/okrathon, I have decided to venture into the world of the refrigerator pickle. A woman who teaches here makes delicious ones, so I thought I would give it a shot. I bought some pickling cucumbers at the same market, gathered spices, and found a recipe online. I rounded up my two quart jars, trounced all over La Grande to find regular jar lids, then…

I was immediately foiled by having no fresh dill. I take for granted, having lived in places with more than a few grocery stores, that fresh dill would be available in July. In a grocery store. HAHAHAHAHA!

So I substituted freeze-dried dill, and now my pickles look like they are swimming in a very think dill-laden lake of brine. We will see what happens. If they turn out even close to amazing, I will grow pickling cucumbers and dill in next year’s garden. And okra.

When we asked our friend Jason, who tilled the garden this year having just received his master gardner certification, what we should plant, he answered, “Plant what you like to eat.” Now, I am remembering, too late, that some of the things that I like to eat are things that I need to plant to make other things (like dill), and things that I forget that I like (like green beans), and things that I have no confidence in growing (like tomatoes and okra). Maybe the garden this year will actually yield enough to build my confidence in growing not just things that I like, but the foods that sustain me.

Also, here are our newbie asparagus.

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In the Beginning

Welcome to the summer of the blog. If I can keep this up all summer, my reward it getting to go Pro in the fall.

This summer’s themes are Gardening, Living, Mothering. I added Teaching to the categories because I might find things I want to incorporate in that section, but I am hoping to stay at least a little clear of the teaching world…at least in July.

So to begin.

In February, my husband, 3-yr-old daughter, and I moved to a new house close to the campus where we teach. I had been jonesing for living in a house again after living in a tri-plex for nearly three years. I wanted a yard with space to garden. And this house has just that. So this summer is my first foray into gardening since, well…the last time we moved into a new house with space for a garden (2000).

I wasn’t going to jump head-long into veggie gardening again, but in mid-April a friend had a tiller that he volunteered to use on composty-patch in the back corner of our lot. I said “Ok…might as well do that and I will put in some plants that I won’t care about.” After all, I had no intention of actually “gardening” in the formal sense. but I could put in some plants and see what happened.

So Jason tilled a patch.

Not a bad start. We soon found out that the blue spigot to the right of the frame was hooked directly to our hot-water heater, so that was out as a source of water for the garden. But it did clean Jason’s tiller nicely.

After procuring romaine and butter crunch lettuce, spinach, radish and asparagus seeds, chard, and tomatoes, we planted.

After planting, late April 2012.

I am not a stellar gardener. I have tortured and killed many a plant, potted and otherwise. One friend of the family said that my indoor plants seemed to live just to spite me.

So far, the garden has flourished, or at least survived. Mid-May, Daria and I began harvesting spinach, lettuce, radishes and chard.

Our garden as of May 18.

Mid-June, I left town for 9 days. Jacob and Daria picked spinach and lettuce but didn’t weed.

I came back to…

Weeds everywhere.

Daria and I wrestled with weeds and replaced the radish patch with some new tomatoes given to us by friends.

Back to normal.

In addition to the fact that I still have a garden where things are still growing after two months is the fact that I moved into a house that has all of this…

The rosebush in our front yard.

The rosebush in our back yard.

How do you make opium from poppies?

And finally…two plants I have always, always wanted but never had…

Clematis

Columbine

So why blog now? Well, I want to start writing again, and journals worked well when I was trapped at home with Daria on maternity leave. I could journal while holding her and rocking. But now, I don’t journal, and I don’t want to lose this summer like so many others to the lazy hazy days that bleed one into another. I want her to have something that captures the rare moments and miracles that are everyday in our existence. We live in a beautiful place, here in the valley of the Blue Mountains. This summer, I want to work on making that beautiful place really our home.