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Coming inside from the frigid outdoors and standing in the warm office of the town’s administrative building, my fingers felt so cold last week that they could barely grip an ink pen. The stiffness relaxed as I read the back and front of a community garden contract, paid the fee and signed my name on the dotted line to once again rent two plots with the Green Thumbs.

The agreement’s pledge was clear. We will take care of our spot and respect our fellow gardeners, their tools and crops.

The oath was simple to make on a blustery day when the snow-covered ground remained frozen and unplowed. The work of maintaining a garden was still months away as I returned home with plots 6 and 16 secured, and the bitter wind gave no indication that winter was loosening its grip. My daffodils by the front steps were short green stalks too cold to bloom and standing awkwardly stiff like my fingers.

But almost a week has passed since I paid the garden rent, and spring feels possible. The weather has done a 180-degree turn, warming the neighborhood with highs in the 70s forecasted over the next few days. Yesterday, I carried my lawn chair from its spot in the basement next to the rolled up garden fence and metal posts, and sat in it on my front porch, which overlooks the thawing daffodils. A robin hopped on my front lawn, and joggers waved to me as they passed. Feeling comfortable in my bright pink, long-sleeved turtleneck sweater, I started to read Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, edited by Edwin Morris Betts, for inspiration. A tiny gnat distracted me as it crawled on our third president’s words: “But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

And so are the Green Thumbs.

We rented our first plot in 2013, and immediately faced the problem of deer among our unprotected rows. The animals left behind brazen footprints and ate our broccoli, which probably wouldn’t have survived anyway because we planted it too late in the season. Nonetheless, the invasion was a setback until we added a flimsy fence around our square and forged ahead.

At the beginning of the next gardening season in 2014, we admired with pride our three rows of abundant strawberries planted securely inside our fence. Never had such a beautiful patch of fruit been grown. We dreamed of all the short cakes and pies we would eat. But a week before harvest an unexpected hail storm damaged and broke the healthy plants and their berries. We nurtured the crop as best we could, but the strawberries hardly recovered. I didn’t even freeze one pint for the winter. We were left to wait another year for a satisfying berry harvest.

Last year in 2015, the deer stayed away. The berries bore fruit. And the Green Thumbs planted popcorn, something my youngest son had wanted to do since we started gardening. I was thrilled watching the popcorn grow, until he reminded me that he had gotten braces on his teeth and was not supposed to eat popcorn. We harvested the cobs of corn early because the summer was so dry and decided to cut the cooked popcorn into small pieces so my son could have a taste. We placed the corn, cob and all, in a brown paper bag inside the microwave oven. We could hear the kernels popping and had salt nearby and a stick of butter ready to melt and pour on the white puffs of corn. But the microwave cooked the snack too long. The cob of corn became burnt, black and inedible. And the kitchen smelled terrible.

Despite our minor setbacks in the garden over the years, the Green Thumbs also have had annual successes. We have grown enough lettuce and radishes, tomatoes and peppers, eggplant and onions, beans and carrots, watermelons and cantaloupes, potatoes and squash, and pint after pint of cherry tomatoes to feed our families and share with others.

Each year our planting knowledge and experience grows. We have aged many years at the community garden, but if Jefferson is right, the mysteries of farming will keep us young forever.

–cawk

CHRISTMAS PUMPKIN ENDS THE PARADE

We took down our fence last month and cleaned up our garden, leaving the tidy square of dirt void of vegetables and abandoned until spring. But the unusually warm fall has evoked a feeling that we closed up too early.

I’m left with an orange pumpkin and a few unusual squash that have been taking up space on my kitchen counter since way before Thanksgiving because I can’t decide if I should and how to cook them.

The calendar says December, but I’ve barely worn my winter coat. My gloves and hat have gone untouched. And snow has yet to be forecast.

Cold or not, a parade of holiday red and green has swapped autumn’s orange and yellow. Evergreens and Santa figures have replaced picture for blogcornucopias and pilgrims. The seasons have changed from harvest moon to twinkling lights. Still that pumpkin and squash hang on like our garden turnips and radishes did after our lonely first frost.

The pumpkin doesn’t fit in with my holiday décor, and topping its round shape with a Santa hat won’t help.

My goal today is to bake gingerbread cookies. But after I roll out the dough and release the smell of warm spices from the oven, that pumpkin will still be sitting on my counter next to the mixer and reminding me that fall will continue until that annoying orange vegetable gets cooked.

So move over tiramisu and fruit cobbler. This year’s Christmas dessert is going to be pumpkin pie.

–cawk

HEAVY HARVEST

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When the summer began, I planned to walk to the garden and back each morning to get more exercise. Thirty minutes there, thirty minutes back — it was a fool-proof strategy. In addition to eating all of those garden vegetables that the Green Thumbs planted, the routine of walking everyday would help melt away the pounds and get myself in tip-top shape before fall.

Now that the summer is half-way over, I can sadly report that I’ve made the trek on foot only twice.

It’s not a bad walk. Sidewalks and a paved path provide a pleasant surface for most of the journey. The last few paces require a short distance of walking on mowed grass before the sidewalk reappears. Electronic signs help guide pedestrians across two major streets of traffic. Pine trees, crepe myrtles and other beautiful landscape grow along the winding walkway.

The first time I walked to the garden from home, I made the trek alone early in the growing season.

I carried a cloth bag packed with my cell phone, a pair of garden gloves, a bottle of water and two additional cloth bags in case any vegetables were ready to pick. I wasn’t sure how long the walk would be, but the weather was pleasant early in the morning. Other Green Thumbs were meeting me at the garden, so a ride home, if necessary, would be available.

Not many people passed me on the sidewalk. People on their way to work dominated the adjacent steady traffic. Overall, the walk was a positive experience. I returned home with a few vegetables in the bag strapped over my shoulder, a good feeling about getting my exercise for the day and a determination to make the journey a part of my daily routine.

But life got busy, and my trips to the garden continued by car until this past week. My son agreed to wake up early and walk with me to the garden. This time, the traffic seemed lighter, and the walk went by faster with our conversation. I was feeling pretty good.

We weeded two bucketsful of debris from the garden. We raked the rows. We plucked dead buds from the marigolds. We filled two bags with ripe tomatoes, eggplant, beans, onions, zucchini, squash and cucumbers.

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Then it was time to go. I picked up part of our harvest, but the bag of vegetables was too heavy for me to carry. My son transferred some of the vegetables into a day pack to carry on his back, and he lugged the other bag of picked-vegetables home for our entire walk.

When we got home, he weighed the harvest using our bathroom scale. The bags together weighed 25 pounds.

Next time, I think we need to bring a wagon.

–cawk

COMING UP CUCUMBERS

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My refrigerator crisper is full of cucumbers.

The vegetables are growing much more plentiful this year than in years past at The Green Thumb community garden. Some of the vegetables are thin and bumpy. Others are smooth and fat.

My current diet is heavy on pickles as well as cucumber sandwiches. The secret to a good sandwich is spreading both the top and bottom slices of bread with the right amount of mayonnaise so the cucumber slices will stick instead of fall out when the sandwich is lifted off the plate.

I peel my cucumbers and add salt and pepper to the rows of green circles arranged on a piece of white bread before gently pressing a second slice of bread on top. Sometimes I sprinkle the cucumber slices with oregano, too, but I didn’t grow up fixing the sandwiches that way. My sons add crumbles of feta cheese. My daddy used to eat cucumber and tomato sandwiches.

My favorite appetizers at wedding receptions and graduation parties are the open-faced cucumber sandwiches presented on bread spread with a dab of cream cheese to secure the cucumber slice, which is usually topped with salt and pepper and a sprinkle of paprika. I love the way the sandwiches are elegantly cut in round cookie-cutter shapes or squares with the crusts removed so you can eat them in one bite. One of my co-workers occasionally brought a refrigerator container full of these sandwiches to share in the office. She never went home with leftovers.

Despite all of the cucumber sandwiches we have been eating at home, my crisper remains full of the green vegetables from our garden. I’m adding diced cucumbers to pasta salads and to green salads. I’m serving peeled cucumbers with a side of ranch dressing for snacks. And I’m making continuous batches of refrigerator pickles and serving the kids afternoon appetizers of cheese and pickles on toothpicks.

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I’m beginning to understand why almost every summertime meal that my family ate while I was growing up included a bowl of sliced cucumbers covered in apple cider vinegar with a touch of salt and pepper and why so many people brought their family version of Cucumbers and Onions in Sour Cream to the covered-dish family reunions and church picnics in June and July.

The vegetables are so plentiful that I’m thinking about eating Chilled Cucumber Soup for breakfast.

Biting into a cucumber this time of year brings back childhood memories. I can’t remember a summer when we didn’t have fresh cucumbers from the garden.

Sadly, my sons aren’t big cucumber fans, but I’m hoping to change their minds one family recipe at a time this summer – at least until my refrigerator crisper is empty.

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REFRIGERATOR PICKLES

Sliced onions and cucumbers

Sliced carrots and green bell peppers (if desired)

4 cups sugar

¼ cup salt

1 1/3 Tablespoons celery seed

4 cups apple cider vinegar

1 1/3 Tablespoons turmeric

1 1/3 Tablespoons ground mustard

Put sliced onions in bottom of jar. Fill with sliced cucumbers, carrots and green bell peppers. Heat remaining ingredients to melt or dissolve sugar. Cool. Pour over cucumbers. Eat after 4 or 5 days.

 

CUCUMBERS AND ONIONS IN SOUR CREAM

½ cup sour cream

1 Tablespoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon vinegar

2 medium cucumbers, thinly sliced

2 small onions, thinly sliced

Combine sour cream, sugar, vinegar and salt; add cucumber and onion, tossing gently. Cover and chill 24 hours, stirring occasionally.

Yield: 4 servings.

 

CHILLED CUCUMBER SOUP

4 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped (about 3 pounds)

3 cups buttermilk

1 (8-ounce) carton plain yogurt

2 green onions, chopped

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1 ½ teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon pepper

Process all ingredients, in batches, in a food processor until smooth, stopping to scrape down sides as needed. Transfer to a serving bowl; cover and chill 2 hours.

Makes about 8 cups.

 

–cawk

GARDEN TASKS NO LONGER A CHORE

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Last week, my sister sent me a picture of a split cherry tomato labeled: first fruit from the garden.

I never know if I should eat the split ones.

But she ate it flaw and all.

A few days later, I received another picture. “Here’s another one.” The fruit in this picture was perfectly round, red and appetizing. She ate that tomato, too.

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I read on the internet that if cherry tomatoes are splitting, growers can pick the fruit before it is fully ripe and let the tomatoes ripen at home.

For now, I’m looking at plenty of yellow flowers on the Green Thumb tomato plants. We’re still a long way from coming home with the red vegetables. But we continue our chores.

The plants are full of promise. But it feels like forever since we planted them

We’ve delighted in their progress from seedling, to flowering, to tiny unripe vegetables. We’ve been weeding and raking and watering and checking for bugs, but mostly watching and waiting for the plants to produce.

The thrill of harvesting strawberries is over. Not much fruit can be found on those plants anymore. This was our third year of strawberries. We are trying to decide if we should pull them up and plant more next year, or let them be while knowing they might not produce as much fruit in the fourth year.

A few days ago, I went for the usual garden check. As I watered the radishes, the stream from my watering can washed away some of the dirt underneath the radish tops, and I saw a new splash of red. I gripped the green leaves and pulled to find my first vegetable of the garden – a huge radish. I was totally surprised. The root beside it needed picking, and the next one, too. When I left the garden, I had a harvest of 12 fresh radishes to eat and share. I was thrilled. I also found two ripe strawberries, a banana pepper and a yellow squash to pick.

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Going to the garden no longer feels like a chore now that the vegetables have started coming.

And our community garden neighbors are generous. Last night, my family feasted on a stir-fry made with a large zucchini left on our porch. The gift was from a fellow community gardener.

My son and I stopped by our garden plot last night just before dark. The rows were neatly raked, so we didn’t go in to explore. But from the side of the fence, I saw a few blueberries that looked blue enough to pick.

I’m eager to get to the garden today in hopes that I can taste one of those blueberries. Who knows what else I will find ready to harvest.

–cawk

LET’S FACE IT, GARDENERS KILL BUGS

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One of the lessons I give my sons is that the man has got to kill the bugs. But this may not be true when it comes to the garden.

Yesterday morning, I went to the vegetable patch with one of the Green Thumbs and her daughter who is home from college. We were greeted by our garden angel, who oversees the community gardens. He told us to check our tomatoes and eggplant for Colorado potato beetles and any eggs they may have left on the leaves.

He removed a few of the bugs from our neighbor’s garden and held them out in the palm of his hand. They were pretty insects, like ladybugs are pretty, with black stripes down their yellow body. But their heads and legs were lanky and menacing. I didn’t want to touch those bugs, much less kill them. They looked like they would release lots of nasty bug juice if squished.

“Can’t we just declare the gardens a bug-free zone?” I asked.

But that’s not possible. We watched our garden angel squash the bugs with his fingers and drop the flattened insects to the ground. Then the three of us were left to inspect our plants.

“I teach my boys that the man has got to kill the bugs,” I told my friend and her daughter. But the men of plot 6 were at work and the boys were at school, so if any Colorado potato beetles lurked in our garden, they were about to be squished by two stay-at-home moms and a college student.

Armed in green garden gloves, I took a row. My friend took another. And her daughter took another. We turned over the leaves.

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“Something’s been eating over here,” my friend said, after finding holes in the leaves of one plant. We continued our search, but the bugs had moved on or were hiding from us formidable ladies who were ready to protect our food.

I was relieved not to find a beetle invasion. My bug rule can stand another day. But if the neighbors have those bugs, we’ll find them, too. My wish would be that the beetles stay away until the end of school, when my sons can do the morning bug inspections.

But I chose to be a gardener. Unwanted bugs are going to show up to eat my plants, and if I plan to grow tomatoes and eggplant, I’m going to have to squish those Colorado potato beetles and other unwanted pests between my fingers and get bug juice on my favorite garden gloves whether I want to or not.

New rule: just kill the bugs.

–cawk

GARDENING ON THE MOON

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The soil was so dusty at the garden this evening that my son and I felt like we were cultivating plant life on the moon. Each scrape of his rake over the dry earth created puffs of choking, brown dirt clouds, and the bottoms of our tennis shoes left pock marks and craters resembling the moon’s surface.

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Underneath all that dust must be rich, moist soil because the radish seeds we planted less than a week ago have poked up out of the ground, and two volunteer melons have started to grow. The tomatoes and beans have a great start, too.

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“There are so many rocks,” my son observed as we watered the plants and watched our alien shadows – long and lean – dance over the rows. My son started making shadow puppets of birds on the dry field background. I marveled at the shadows flowing from the fence.

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One thing we have avoided so far is weeds. A couple of neighboring plots have been inundated with the unwanted green, but our surface remains chalky and brown with only a few mystery sprigs scattered amongst the rows.

“I feel like if I weed now, I might pull up some of the plants we are trying to grow,” my son said, browsing our moonscape.

I agreed. It’s difficult to distinguish the difference between a potential vegetable and a nuisance at this stage. I handed him a rake so he could erase our footprints from the paths. Raking is our favorite defense against weeds.

While he worked I got curious and took my own moonwalk – not the Michael Jackson kind — from the cucumber mounds over to the popcorn. Neither one of these crops were showing signs of growth.

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“Mom!” my son exclaimed seeing where I walked. I thought I had stepped on important plants the way he called my name. “I’m going to have to rake that half of the garden again.”

Puzzled, I looked down. My footprints covered much of the rows he had raked already. I apologized and moved outside the fence.

“That’s okay,” he said. “It’s an easy fix.”

And I figure the dusty surface of our moon-like plot is an easy fix, too. It just needs some water. Come on rain. Help us out.

–cawk

MOVING-IN DAY

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Moving-in day is one of my favorites at the community gardens.

I like to see what everybody is planting. I like to hear the chatter between folks about where to make rows and how far apart the seeds should go into the ground. I like to hear the memories and comparisons to past gardens. And I like to rekindle friendships with the veteran growers as we welcome the new ones to the space.

This year, all 44 plots are rented, and a new gardener has joined The Green Thumbs. He’s in fourth grade, and he fits right in with the crowd. On Saturday, as we gathered to plant a long list of vegetables, including popcorn, tomatoes, beets, radishes, beans, peppers and jalapenos, we gave him a tour of what already has been planted – a thick patch of strawberries, a blueberry bush, and a few rows of potatoes, lettuce, snap peas and onions. Then we put him to work side by side with the other adults and kids.

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He arrived carrying a packet of cucumber seeds to grow in mounds along the edge of the side fence. But he didn’t plant just cucumbers. He helped the other kids dig holes and plant marigolds around the outside of our fence to deter bugs. He carried a heavy watering can to and from the water tanks to douse the popcorn seeds planted at the front of the garden. As the newest Green Thumb, he asked the adults good questions and listened to their instructions. And when we finished for the day, he grabbed a rake with some of the other kids and swiped away our footprints to discourage the weeds from growing.

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Like everyone in the garden, he helped establish a patchwork of food that he might or might not want to taste. Some of us like beets, others detest them. Strawberries are a favorite, but okra not so much. The spicy food eaters look forward to the jalapenos, whereas those with more sensitive stomachs welcome the rows of simple tomatoes. We are there to make everything grow whether we help ourselves to the different servings or not. The leftovers will go to friends, family and the local food bank.

We still have to add zucchini, squash and eggplant to the empty spaces. But the 2015 garden is established. We’ve finally moved in.

–cawk

IT TAKES A TEAM

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A community garden takes teamwork, and some members of the team don’t “garden.”

They are behind the scenes making great things happen for those of us who do.

Our first supporters are the township and borough councils who provide the land and keep the water tanks full for our annual project. Their backing is vital to our success, and we appreciate all that they do to help our progress.

This year, the borough provided us with a shed where we can store our tools and equipment. During previous seasons, my family’s “garden shed” was the back of our minivan. Rakes, shovels, scissors and watering cans rattled against extra poles and buckets as we rode around town. The kids’ soccer and baseball equipment was thrown in next to dirty work gloves and sometimes muddy shoes for our daily trips to our patch. Occasionally, on carpool days, I had to apologize because our car smelled like the garden shed that it was. Although the fragrance was “earthy” not “stinky,” we liked to keep the windows rolled down a bit to air out the car on each journey. And on grocery day, I continuously would forget that space for our purchases was limited to the front seat. My family thanks you Borough! Your simple act of kindness has given us back our car.

Another team player behind the scenes is the local farmer who plows the land each year so we can move in and plant. If we had to plow our spots individually, the project would fail. And thank you, too, for plowing the land at the back edges of our plots mid-season when the adjacent grass starts to get out of hand. You give our gardens beauty and each of our growers peace of mind.

Finally, I’d like to thank all of those who battled the cold winds last week to measure and stake each plot with string and poles so we will know where to plant. Working in that weather required the strength and perseverance of toiling in a frigid wind tunnel. The volunteers did an amazing job. Each plot is numbered and ready to go. Thank you for stepping in when many members of the garden couldn’t. Hopefully, we will be able to repay your kindness before the season is over. But know you are appreciated, and your hard work has been noticed.

–cawk

DAFFODILS LEAD THE GARDEN PARADE

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My daffodils took their time blooming this year. But their beauty was worth the wait. The yellow flowers stand tall and vibrant despite the recent wind, cool temperatures and rain.

They are leaders in the parade of spring. Next, the golden forsythia should appear in the neighborhood, followed by blooming ornamental pear and cherry trees. My neighbors will join the parade with morning walks. Each year as we hike down the sidewalks, our noses tickle with the unpleasant smells of fertilizer in several front-yard flower beds and fluttering white petals on the pear trees along the path.

But those smells give way to fragrant roses, lavender and honeysuckles. Other flowers, including begonias, impatiens, petunias and vinca, soon join the parade.

Then vegetable gardens march forward and gradually take us into fall.

My sister, who lives farther south than I do, is closer to the beginning of the parade route. She sends me hints of what’s to come.

“I planted 2 rows of potatoes, 1 row of winter squash, and 1 row of onions!” she emailed me this week.  “It was so much fun.  Hope it all grows.  I’m counting on it.”

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She sent me pictures of the winter squash she grew indoors from seeds that I sent to her on Valentine’s Day. The tall, healthy plants, which were outgrowing their tray, are now planted in her garden.

My two sons and I have noticed other trays of seedlings on sale at local chain stores. We are anxious to start planting, but are waiting for Mother’s Day.

We don’t want to rush the parade, especially knowing that Santa takes up the rear. That jolly old elf can keep his distance. It’s Mother Nature’s turn to bask in the spotlight.

–cawk