To the chagrin of our college-age sons who don’t enjoy change on the home front, we have just taken down an overgrown crab apple tree and added another bed to the vegetable garden. This means there is less lawn (a good thing), less room to kick a soccer ball (a good thing from my point of view, a bad thing from theirs), no place to hang the hammock (a very bad thing from their point of view, although neither of them will be home this summer to lie in it), and much more sun-kissed ground in which to plant additional vegetables (a very good thing).
The newly tilled earth is an in-ground bed (as opposed to the six raised beds built over a former driveway). I will fill it with ingredients for soup: potatoes, carrots, leeks, parsnips, tomatoes, onions and butternut squash. My other soup ingredients are already in the raised beds: garlic, more onions, spinach, beets, celery, peas, sorrel, parsley, oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, parsley, bay and cucumbers.
What's up in the garden?
Just about everything! Barbara has Fava beans. I forgot to plant mine, and since they don’t like warm weather, I’ll have to wait and do a planting for fall harvest. Spinach, kale, fennel, garlic, onions, lettuces, most herbs, tomatoes, peas, cucumbers…
We started working on the new bed by watching. No kidding. Once the crab apple came down, and the trees around the edges of the property started leafing out, we watched the progress of sun and shade moving across the lawn in order to site the bed in the right spot.
There is no point in going to the trouble of putting in a new bed if it isn’t going to get enough light. After all, what do plants need to grow but a patch of healthy soil (a topic for another column), water and good sunlight. Is there a place in your yard, in the front, the back, or the side of your house where this trio of garden necessities exists? If so, dig in.
In a small yard like mine, where the shadows from the house, the studio, the neighbor’s trees, and the hedges for privacy have a daily say, the movement of light and shade bears noting (my art students are familiar with this thought since when I look at a subject, whether it be a portrait, a still life, or a landscape, I am most interested in the movement of light and shade). It determines what I plant and where I plant it (likewise in a drawing, it determines what I draw and how I compose it).
Let’s face it: It is all about light.
Some vegetables need all the sun and the heat they can get. Tomatoes and peppers want as many hours of sun as possible, so I grow them in the parts of the garden that get the most sun. Tender leafy plants, like lettuces, arugula and spinach, like a little afternoon cool, a little less sun. I plant mine in the raised beds that receive the first afternoon shadows cast by the studio.
When planning a garden, it makes sense to think about the light, where you are situating the garden, how much space you have, and then the sweet part: What is it that you enjoy eating? What is it you literally wish to get from your garden? After all, in the summer, every fresh vegetable you can imagine is probably available at the farmer’s market, or in local vegetable stands. Do you yearn for the freshest possible salads and greens? Or still warm tomatoes? A cutting garden for flowers? Edible flowers? An herb garden? Or do you have enough room to plant it ALL?
My new bed is going to be a soup garden. Here’s why: I have never had enough room to grow potatoes before. I want new potatoes and I want to store potatoes. And potatoes will do well in the new bed, the “sod garden,” which we’ve rototilled (thanks to our neighbor Bob’s vintage Troy-Bilt rototiller), and amended with lots of compost (thanks to Alden Harwood and our neighbor, Tim, who loaned us his truck), then turned over again. I do not have room in my raised beds for the spreading nature of butternut squash vines (though I have grown them — the vines eventually choked the stone paths where it is warm and fruit ripens quickly). And I have never grown parsnips before. Frankly, I just want to grow more.
This may be a small lot, covered mostly with a house and a painting studio, but I can fill a root cellar with homegrown organic produce, enough to make many soups summer and winter. It not only feeds my family, it makes me happy. And who wants to mow the lawn anyway?
When I got married, my mother handwrote a beautiful little notebook full of recipes for me. It started out emphasizing affordable, but delicious recipes, but then she started adding in recipes from her friends and relatives. The following recipe is easy and quick — perfect after a day at work.
My mother’s blender spinach soup: Wash a pound of fresh spinach, sprinkle lightly with salt, and sauté in a tablespoon of olive oil, for four to five minutes. Place the spinach in the blender. Add 3 scallions, chopped, and a half of a cucumber that has been peeled, seeded and chopped, with 4 sprigs each of parsley and dill. Add 3 cups of chicken broth. Blend till pretty smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or chilled.
Sorrel Soup: I wrote about sorrel soup last year, but today was the day I made the first batch, picking the sorrel in the pouring rain. When I make it next year, perhaps the potatoes will be from my own garden! Here is what I did for Sunday lunch: Sauté 1 chopped onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil till soft. Take 1 pound of Yukon gold potatoes, and cube them. Add them to the onions and stir till the oil and onion coat them. Wash as much sorrel as you can get a hold of — one to two pounds — and rip it into smaller pieces. Add to the pot and stir. Add 4 cups of chicken broth, and simmer gently till potatoes are cooked. Add one and a half cups of half and half cream. Salt and pepper to taste. We ate it hot today, but it is delicious chilled.
Curried Butternut Squash Soup: This is a fall soup, but this is what my soup garden is all about. Take 4 tablespoons of Olive Oil, and sauté 2 cups of chopped yellow onions, with 1 1/2 Tablespoons of curry powder, slowly, till onions are limp. Meanwhile, peel 2 medium sized butternut squashes, remove the seeds, and cut into small cubes. Add 3 cups of chicken stock to the onions, and add the squash. Simmer for about 25 minutes or until the squash is soft.
Allow soup to cool slightly, then process in small batches in the blender until smooth. At this point, you have options. You can add a cup of apple cider, and some shredded apple for a harvest soup, along with salt and pepper to taste; or you can add a cup of heavy cream for something rich and fancy. Sometimes I’ll even throw in a little dollop of sherry!