Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Though we live ten minutes from downtown Seattle, our home feels more remotely located than anywhere I’ve ever lived. The base of a bluff abuts one side of our street; Elliott Bay, the other. At our juncture of woods and sea there is an amalgam of life. Blackberries grow maniacally down the bluff to the edge of the road, infiltrating our yard on every side. Cockle and clam shell remnants crunch underfoot on our decks and street; gulls’ litter. Occasionally an eagle lets a fish slip from its talons onto our roof, our deck.
Over the weekend, motivated by a stretch of gloriously sunny, warm days, I inspected everything outside, then got to work weeding and thinning and trimming back. Our herbs are going strong, and it looks as if we're going to have strawberries, rhubarb, and blueberries, too, before we know it. It’s a constant challenge beating the birds to the berries. Over the years we’ve lived here I’ve tried my hand at growing a lot of things; I’ve learned which parts of the yard get what kind of light. Around Memorial Day, I’ll buy a sungold tomato plant and one or two other varieties and install them in pots on our deck. Tomatoes grow famously in our southwestern exposure.
I’ve benefited from a garden’s bounty, flavor and nutrition most of my life. My maternal grandparents grew or raised just about everything I ever ate at their house. In the heat of the arid Texas panhandle they grew corn, okra, snap peas, black-eyed peas, squash, tomatoes, beets, turnips, green beans, yellow wax beans, and sometimes watermelon and cantaloupe. My grandmother made watermelon rind preserves by cutting the rind into cubes and cooking it with sugar and whole cloves. Those preserves were good on hot biscuits. My grandparents also grew lamb’s quarters – sometimes called Poor Man’s Spinach – and poke salat – wild plants cooked similarly to turnip greens – and pinto beans, which they picked before they were fully mature and then cooked like green beans. The pinto beans were outstanding. Their yard also had a small orchard with peach and apricot trees. One of their farms had wild plum thickets that produced very tart plums, perfect for jelly and jam. Every summer, my grandmother canned and froze enough of everything to feed an army.
When my family moved to Alaska around the time I started school, my parents, both children of farmers, transformed our backyard into a garden. The summer sun never dropped below the horizon enough to achieve astronomical night, and with all that light whatever we grew became enormous: broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, carrots, cabbage and other things I’m forgetting, and scallions, which were my favorite thing to snack on. My sister and I dared each other to eat the mouth-puckeringly sour gooseberries that grew wild in our yard.
My experience with growing food at our home in Seattle is relatively modest; nevertheless, we’re able to appreciate the bounty of our surroundings all year. We try to make enough jam with our berries to get through a school year of peanut butter sandwiches. We freeze our excess of tomatoes to use later in sauces and stews and such. We use the herbs we grow year round. My boys know the value of food and where it comes from, whether it be the side of the road, our garden, the farmers market or purchased elsewhere, and they understand a thing or two about self-sufficiency.