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.


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.


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…


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.



Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to work in a collaborative partnership with NOAA, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to do some filming for a grant project sponsored by NOAA. One of my students, whose blog is here, did the actual filming, and I did a lot of the holding-of-lens and positioning-of-reflectors.

We shot over three days from the Upper Umatilla down to the lower on tribal lands and those controlled and regulated by ODFW. The one concept that kept sticking in my head, after all that shooting, was the idea of sinuosity. For a river to be healthy, for it to maintain fishes and bugs and such, it must be allowed to be as sinuous as possible. In other words, it must be allowed to drift and find its own path across a flood plain instead of being pinned to the side of a valley in order for more land to be used for agriculture.

When a river is pinned, its velocity is too high to sustain the natural life within it. The river heats up, and things in the river, like fishes and bugs, start dying, or get replaced by bottom-feeders and other elements that are not native to the stream. Not to mention the effects of pollution, run-off, etc. on the stream itself.

I connected with that idea of sinuosity and the unhealthiness of being pinned up against one bank and running too hot to sustain life. I work best in a state of sinuosity. Like today. I have been playing around with uploading photos to Picasa, checking out blogs about MOOCs, enjoying a recipe for Instagrahams, spying on my friends lives and keeping up with news stories through Facebook, working on this blog, and enjoying the sinuosity of drifting across the flood plain of my summer.

The trouble is, most of the real world thinks that sinuosity is multi-tasking, is unhealthy at best and at worst EVIL! Most of what I have encountered is an adult and particularly as an academic are efforts to pin me to the edges of the floodplain. Then I end up tearing loose in a flood and destroying a crop. Ok, maybe not destroying. But certainly not benefiting.

So my new goal is to learn to be sinuous more often. Basically, I need an SI > 1.

Also, here is a photo I took using the panoramic view of my phone camera looking out from Cabbage Hill with dawn to the east and a thunderstorm and double-rainbow to the west. Enjoy!

Last Tuesday in June

Daria has been learning to ride her bike by riding around the block, up to the park, and back.

Daria biking on sidewalk near our house.

She’s gone from limping along, pushing with one foot and hobbling, stopping every few minutes to expound on the cracked pavement or the state of the shade to gliding like a pro in a matter of days. Her development is astounding. Every few days is a new miracle.

This afternoon, while eating lunch and perusing the next-to-latest Rolling Stone, I read an article about the Beach Boys getting back together and suddenly had a flashback to riding my bike as a little girl with my nephew in the basement of our house on Wooded Hills Road, where my sister and her family still live. The summers were scorchy-humid-blistering, but the basement garage was sweet cool and spidery. We rode our bikes in figure 8s while listening to “Barbara Ann” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Surfin’ Safari” and “Little Deuce Coupe.” A bit of California in sultry, land-locked, rock-infested and sun-bleached Northwest Arkansas.

Daria’s riding path is strikingly different from our basement. She rides on sidewalks past Norman Rockwellesque yards to a neighborhood park where she can look up and see the Blue Mountains. June is preternaturally cool, highs only kissing the low 80s.

The view from the edge of our neighborhood park.

Before we moved to Oregon, I lived in the midwest, or the “upper-South” most all my life–Minnesota, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri. Hot and humid summers with dazzling but short spring and fall surrounding icy, unholy winters. Moving to the Blue Mountains shocked our systems. Dry. High. Surrounded by mountains not of the Ozark variety, which Wikipedia informs me are actually dissected plateau. But real mountains. We live at 2800 feet above sea-level, roughly and are in a valley surrounded by close mountains with peaks of 4800-8000 ft.

Our valley lacks fireflies and thunderstorms (sorry, natives…we have had one in the three years I have lived there…the rest are slightly noisy showers). But it has rich, dark soil (again, sorry natives, but the soil is not “full of clay”…for that, I would take you to Southwest Missouri/Northwest Arkansas where potters could literally make coffee mugs straight from the soil on my in-law’s land).

Moving across country from your home territory (securely in Zone 6 and 7, CST) into a completely foreign soil (in chilly Zone 5, PST) throws off your internal clock. My body still seems to function in Central Standard. By mid-May, I was itching to put a tomato plant in the ground, feeling like something was wrong with them still squatting in my windowsill (“Brave move!” said a Zone 5 lifer when he saw my mid-May garden, rife with spindly Oregon Spring and Cherry Tomato Plants).

When I was four, my family transplanted from Minnesota to Arizona to live near my aunt. In Arizona, I developed a strange allergy to the climate, and my family re-transplanted when I was six to Arkansas. I remember that my parents were really headed to Kentucky horse country, but Arkansas got in the way. A good chunk of my family still lives in the dissected Ozark Plateau, having planted roots for the last 31 years.

I wonder, when I look out over mountain peaks ringed with June snow if Daria’s roots will break this soil. I don’t know.

But for now, she is enjoying the climate.