My “Dad’s” Garden

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This piece originally posted on June 17, 2010.

Zucchini, corn, and tomatoes in my parents’ garden. Credit: Winston Lutz

This morning my dad sent me a series of photographs of his garden and although I’ve seen his garden many times over the years, I was still pretty impressed.

Truth be told, this is not just my dad’s garden.  It is my parents’ garden.  They started it when my grandparents moved in with them and my grandmother needed something to do once she left the farm she had lived on for over 50 years.  My parents’ backyard was too small to plant a garden large enough to occupy my grandmother for any length of time, so they bought an empty house lot down the street and planted a large garden.

The garden is divided into two parts– one for vegetables and one for flowers.  The vegetable garden is my father’s domain.  Of course, my mom does a huge amount of work watering, picking, cleaning, and canning the vegetables that come out of it, but it is still under my father’s ultimate control.

The cutting garden at the front of “the lot” belongs to my mom and she uses it to grow flowers for flower arrangements. The flower garden up at the house is for show, but this is where she grows the bulk of her cut flowers.  It’s a wild little garden and it’s not meant to be pretty, although I like the strange mixture of plants that flourish there at different times of the year.  It’s the place my mom can grow plants that aren’t necessarily attractive in and of themselves, but produce beautiful flowers.

A second view of my parents’ garden. Credit: Winston Lutz

My parents occasionally have turf wars, and it always cracks me up.  I hear stories like, “Your father dug up the green beans yesterday because he was tired of picking them, but I wasn’t done with my canning!” or “Your mother wants me to extend the fence around her garden, but she doesn’t use all the flowers she already grows, so I’m not in any hurry to do it”.  I don’t know why I find these stories so hilarious.  Maybe it’s because “the lot” is such a good metaphor for my parents’ marriage (although I’m sure they’d both be horrified by this idea or any discussion of their “relationship”.)  Their garden is well-tended, fruitful, and a little crazy– but in an amusing and creative way.

For years my parents have raised a lot more produce than they can eat themselves and they always share their garden’s bounty with neighbors, friends, relatives, and the occasional “varmint”, as my father calls the creatures who eat his vegetables.  The gift of produce smoothes the way with difficult neighbors and encourages visits from friends and family… especially during tomato season.  It’s amazing to see how much comes out of their garden and how much they get out of the process.  I only have space for a tiny vegetable garden in my yard, but every year I find myself digging out a new little patch to grow just one more row of tomatoes or a few cucumber plants.  These experiments don’t always work out, but they do give us all something to talk about and get my family out into the yard, working together and hoping for the best.

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Stir Fry Awaits: 5 Location Tips for Suburban Foragers

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Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

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Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.
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Mature fairy spud (spring beauty) in late winter. Credit: Susan Lutz

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

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Two primitive methods of tapping a tree for its sap. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

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City-Style Ranching

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Seville oranges ripen on a 100-year old tree at E. Waldo Ward’s orchard. Credit Susan Lutz

I read books and magazines about urban farming the way many people read cookbooks.

Sometimes I intend to use the information I read, but usually I’m just daydreaming. I love visiting urban farms for the same reason. I justify these trips by saying they’re good for my children’s education. But what I’m really after is to see how urban farmers have managed to carve out a bit of undeveloped land to grow crops, raise chickens or wrangle livestock in the midst of the city.

The E. Waldo Ward Ranch in Sierra Madre, Calif., is not an “urban farm” in the usual sense. That is to say, the ranch is not the product of urban land reclamation for agricultural purposes. It was here first, long before suburban sprawl took over. E. Waldo Ward started his ranch in 1891, and the city grew around it.

The ranch is situated in a quiet, “un-ranch-like” suburban neighborhood of Craftsman homes. But behind a stately house with a large lawn, you’ll discover barns, tractors, pick-up trucks and a “backyard” that stretches to the next block. It’s like a farm that’s been carefully camouflaged by surrounding it with suburban homes.

The barn at the E. Waldo Ward Ranch Museum. Credit: Susan Lutz

An empire built on marmalade

We parked behind the house and I went inside the small gift shop for our tour. I was greeted by Jeff Ward, fourth-generation rancher. Jeff pointed out the ranch is still a working ranch, even though it’s only 2.5 acres, and it still produces the same product that his great-great-grandfather (E. Waldo himself) started producing more than 100 years ago.

Our first stop on the tour was the original processing room, built in the early 1900s, where the company’s first product was tested. On the day we visited, soft winter light filtered through the many windows that wrapped around the room. It was here that E. Waldo Ward launched an empire based on marmalade.

Edwin Waldo Ward imported two Seville orange trees from Spain in 1891. He planted these new trees in the rich soil of the San Gabriel Valley. As a luxury food salesman, E. Waldo knew that the best marmalade came from Seville oranges, and no one in America was making high-end marmalade.

E. Waldo slowly built a grove of more than 600 trees that covered 30 acres using his two Seville orange trees as grafting stock. By 1915, he believed he could take the big step — quit his job, and launch his product.

Within a few years he was selling massive amounts of his high-end marmalade to his old sales clients, the railroads. He was harvesting oranges, making marmalade and packaging the product in his canning “factory” behind his house.

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Jeff and Richard Ward in front of a 100-year old Seville orange tree. Credit: Susan Lutz

Into the modern era

Jeff walked us past pallets and a small lift truck to the barn that E. Waldo built in 1902. Today it’s part store-room, part museum — a treasure chest of crazy old machines and relics of early 20th century preserve-making. One side of the tiny museum showcases examples of kitchen tools and family photos of the ranch over the past 100 years. The other side contains a workbench that looked (and smelled) just like my grandfather’s workbench on his farm in Virginia. In these quiet corners it is easy to feel that E. Waldo’s spirit is still very much alive at the ranch.Marmalade jars in the Ward ranch gift shop

After leaving the barn, we entered a series of much more modern processing and packing rooms. It is here that Jeff, and his dad Richard, spearhead the marmalade and jam processing operation that still bears E. Waldo’s name.

Jeff also applies the family’s know-how to help others create their own commercial food products. The company now offers consulting and co-packing services, helping small-time entrepreneurs take a handcrafted food product to market, just as E. Waldo did in this same spot more than a century ago.

The tour ended back in the gift store where we were offered the ranch’s high-end jams, marinades and sauces. I managed to taste, and ultimately take home, a number of delicious goodies, including blood orange marmalade and sweet spiced peaches.

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Ward Museum apple peelers. Credit: Susan Lutz

As we packed up our jars of preserves and headed back down the path to the city street, I watched my daughters scamper amid the orange trees playing hide and seek. I remembered hiding behind the gnarled old apple trees in my grandfather’s tiny orchard in Virginia in much the same way. Although I was 3,000 miles away from my family’s farm, I couldn’t help feeling that I was giving my daughters a glimpse of their own agricultural roots. This tiny piece of old California rancho history conjured up the spirit of 19th century while creating a vivid memory of the pleasures of living in Southern California today.

And the sweet spiced peaches were delicious.

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Secrets from the North Carolina Tomato Man: Craig LeHoullier

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Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz

On this first day of Spring, my thoughts turn to planting tomatoes and to the advice of Craig LeHoullier. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.

Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.

LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.

I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.

Winter gardening: prime time for research

LeHoullier says he gets about a month long break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.

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Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes,” holds a Cherokee Purple tomato. Credit: Susan Lutz

Determine your gardening goals

LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.

LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.

Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.

Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat

Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.

Get to know your gardening climate

Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.

Seeds vs. seedlings

LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.

Hybrids vs. heirlooms

Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”

Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)

After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.

Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.

One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”

Disappointment is an opportunity for learning

A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”

The bottom line

LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”

Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”

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