At ground level

A column about LIFE

First crop

My first crop from my garden.

I was so excited yesterday. In between my busy schedule I harvested the first crop from my raised garden. I decided to snip my lettuce right away before the bugs and squirrels sensed there was something edible there to eat. Then, after washing it well, I made my favorite – wilted lettuce salad.

There is a story behind my wilted lettuce salad. The first time I tasted this particular kind of salad was at the home of my in-laws the first year I was married. It was my then husband’s favorite, so like a good wife, I attempted to make it when we harvested our crop from our own garden.

Since I was only familiar with iceberg lettuce salad and bottled dressing, I wasn’t real sure how to make this wilted lettuce salad dressing. There was no Internet then, and my mother-in-law didn’t really have a recipe that I could follow to the letter. I was just supposed to eyeball it, she said. The proportion of bacon and the blend of oil, vinegar, water and sugar depended on the amount of lettuce we wanted to have for our meal. That amount would vary from one huge 32-cup Tupperware bowlful of lettuce to a couple of pints more or less.

I tried multiple times to get the mixture right, but would always fail. Each time I failed, the other half would chastise me. Finally, at the dinner table one summer day, hot, tired, angry, exasperated and feeling like my efforts were never appreciated, I pushed the gallon bowl filled with soggy lettuce swimming in oil toward him and sternly said, “Eat it!” He knew I meant business. He didn’t say a word and dutifully ate every bit of it.

Eventually, I was able to perfect the dressing, with the combination of oil, vinegar, water and sugar proportionate to the amount of lettuce I served. Years later, we would recall that time and chuckle. It was one of the times I appreciated his obliging me and eating that awful concoction I had made. Now that I know better, I wouldn’t wish that moment on anyone!

Last night, my warm mixture of oil, vinegar, water and sugar was perfect the first time around. Topped with bacon bits, the salad was delicious. Even my sister, who is visiting from the Philippines, was impressed. We had enough for a couple of generous servings – just right to start off a good meal.

After yesterday’s rain, I see that my lettuce has sprouted up once more. We may be able to have more salad in a few days!

Wilted lettuce salad, topped with bacon bits and perfect the first time around!

June 5, 2011 Posted by | Life | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tending my garden one day at a time

Tomato plants on the left, then my now sickly looking pepper plants, and then lettuce in the middle. To the right front are beans and then another cucumber plant.

It’s not even June yet and it’s already a busy time for me. More visits from friends and family, weekend outings and long trips are in store for us this summer. I’ve been tending my garden though, despite my busy schedule. Here are pictures of my vegetable plants at five weeks. I’m especially excited that my lettuce is up. I’ve been hungry for wilted lettuce salad!

I’m worried about my pepper plants, though. They were the most hearty plants in the beginning, but now their leaves have holes, and whatever is attacking them has stunted their growth. I’ve checked the plants, but can’t seem to find the culprit. I may have to plant new ones if I can find the time.

Then there appears to be a problem with my tomato plants. The tips of the leaves are turning black. So far, I haven’t stumbled on a definite answer or solution to the problem. Some sites I’ve googled say it could be a fungus, while other sites say it could be from too much watering. I sure hope it’s the latter, because I’m not in the mood to race to the store and meander through the aisles in search of the best fungus killing spray.

Despite having had a garden decades ago, I still consider myself a novice. I wish I had paid more attention back then. Clearly, I am not sure I know what I’m doing with these plants! In any case, I think I may have to thin them out. I also think it’s time I staked the tomatoes and the beans!

We threw a few bean seeds on the ground of my now defunct flowerbed and they were growing quite well until the rabbits ate them. Aside from moles, gophers and voles, we now have a family of rabbits that like to squeeze in between the fence slats and hop along my yard. They appear to be having a heyday at my expense!

I’ve come to the conclusion that planting a raised garden was, indeed, the best option for me. I’m told, though, that even a raised garden on legs is not full proof protection for my plants; that soon, I will have to contend with the birds and perhaps, the squirrels, that right now appear content to run along the top of my fence, the old telephone lines and the neighbors’ trees.

I guess I’m just going to have to take this gardening business one day at a time and see how this story ends.

The zucchini plants (back) are thriving the most. Right front is another cucumber plant. In the middle are beans.

May 30, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Fairy tales and tending my garden

The last few days have seen much coverage of the royal wedding. Many, including myself, stayed up through the wee hours of the morning to watch the special event. There were others, like the woman I saw at the craft store, who, in my opinion, got a bit carried away and bought wedding accessories for a royal wedding get-together with friends in front of her television!

Some people scoff at all the fanfare, but I am one of those who believe the occasion is truly one for celebration. As young girls, we grow up with fairy tales, from Cinderella, Snow White to Sleeping Beauty. Always, in these fairy tales, the girl ends up with her Prince Charming, she becomes a princess, and we assume they live happily ever after. What these fairy tales seem to leave out is it takes a lot of hard work to live happily ever after and, sometimes, it just doesn’t turn out that way.

For me, the royal wedding symbolized a renewed hope that true love still exists, a confirmation of marriage, and best wishes for the happy couple, that they can, indeed, live happily ever after.

As I watched the ceremony unfold, Shakespeare’s words “To thine own self be true,” echoed in my mind. Unlike the marriage of his parents and many people in this world, it was obvious as William and his bride entered into the Sacrament of Marriage, that they were being true to themselves, devoid of pretenses, truthful and transparent with each other.

I, like many people, entered marriage with high hopes and the belief that we, too, would live happily ever after. It didn’t turn out that way. I still have to meet that someone who is devoid of pretenses and can be transparent with me, and who adheres to those same words:

“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Marriage is like planting a garden. It needs to be watered, tended and cared for. Relationships can’t continue on an even keel and be expected to succeed. Hopefully, the royal couple will “tend to their garden.”

This brings me, literally, to the subject of my raised garden. How does my garden grow? So far, so good … It took several days, but finally, it is done, thanks to my brother-in-law, who is the one member of our family with a truly green thumb, and my nephews, who gathered here on Easter Sunday and lent him a hand.

When I enlisted his help to assemble the kit I bought and drill screws into the pre-cut cedar, my brother-in-law shook his head and said, “Take it back. This is too much money for what you are getting. I’ll build you a better one.”

So off to the hardware store we went. It was an ambitious project, but we – rather, he – got it done in a few days, with redwood, bolts and screws, a table saw and handy drill – a 4×8 garden box with legs. Then we carried tons of garden and special organic soil, chicken manure and perlite into my yard, donned gloves and proceeded to mix this, his “sure-fire formula.”

As we mixed everything in the box, my brother-in-law turned to me and said, “Can you feel it? Isn’t it so warm? That’s the manure.”

The distinctive pungent aroma reminded me of the farm, but I had to chuckle, for even in the farm, never did I mix manure by hand!

“Ugh, this is disgusting,” I muttered.

“I promise you, you will be able to grow anything in this mixture,” he assured me.

My garden is now lined with tomato and pepper plants, a row of lettuce, a couple of cucumber plants and zucchini. I even threw in some beans for good measure. Let’s see what grows …

Garden fever must be upon us. Yesterday, my daughter and I got more of that soil and planted some orange and red zinnias and pink and purple begonias. They look so pretty by my yellow and pink roses and lavender bougainvilleas, which are now in full bloom, and thankfully, still untouched by those dreadful rodents.

“Just make sure you water the plants every day, or all that hard work will go to waste!” my brother-in-law reminded me when he left.

Yes, I need to tend my garden, just as the royal couple now needs to tend theirs. Time will tell …

As my father would say, “That’s not the end of the story yet!”

I do hope both have a happy ending!

My raised garden

May 1, 2011 Posted by | Family, Life | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Full circle, living off the land – maybe

Thirty years ago, I lived on an Iowa farm. I was a city girl from another country, so the environment and lifestyle were new to me. One of the things I learned there is at the heart of rural life is the garden.

Mind you, I do not have a green thumb. In fact, my children tell me I have a “purple thumb.” Despite this fact, gardening I did, together with my now ex-husband.

We planted tomatoes, green beans, green peppers, red peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, carrots, eggplant, peas, rhubarb, beets, zucchini and onions. The garden thrived. That’s the beauty of Iowa soil. It is so rich that anyone, even a “purple thumb” like myself, can grow anything in that fertile soil.

My first garden on the farm.

Gardening was challenging for me. I hated the weeding. I was in awe at the bountiful crop, but the novelty soon wore off. I worked part-time as a writer for the county newspaper then, yet it seemed like my real job was to put the produce from the land to good use. With the apples on the farm I baked and froze pies. Then I learned to can applesauce, and did the same for the vegetables from my garden.

The tomatoes just kept coming. I canned whole tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, salsa, and even my very own ketchup. I canned green beans, beets and froze the peas. I canned sweet pickles, dill pickles and pickle relish. I canned peaches. I even made jam and apple butter. I was a busy farm wife.

At the time, I didn’t much appreciate what I did. Gardening and canning seemed such a chore. There were many nights when I stayed up canning and sweating in a hot, steam-filled kitchen. We had to put everything to good use, my husband would continually remind me. He didn’t know that when the crop became overwhelming for me, I would sneak to the barn and feed the tomatoes and zucchinis (they kept coming too) to the hogs!

I can still remember cursing when I made my first batch of ketchup. I stirred the mixture for what seemed like hours, waiting for it to thicken. It splattered all over the kitchen – on my face, on my clothes, on my stove, on the walls, on the ceiling. I was exasperated! “Wouldn’t it be much easier and cheaper to just buy a bottle of ketchup for 70 cents (back then) at the store?” I wailed.

Yet, I have to admit, my ketchup tasted better than the store’s. So did my tomato sauce, my salsa, my pickles, my applesauce and peaches. They looked oh, so beautiful too, all lined up neatly on my shelves.

That was many, many, moons ago … I now live in Silicon Valley. What could be more metropolitan than this place, far away from farm land. It’s just a hop and a skip to the store, where I can buy all kinds of vegetables and fruits. So why do I find myself yearning for the produce that comes straight from the land?

At the store, they now call these fruits and vegetables “organic” and they are expensive. I have to chuckle at the irony of it all. I had all that a long time ago, and didn’t even appreciate it!

Last year, I planted a flower garden, and the year before, I even sodded my lawn. Alas, the Bay Area’s moles and gophers took over my lawn, and the voles devoured my beautiful flowers. I finally gave up.

Lately, I’ve become more determined. I want to have my own vegetable garden. If I want to beat those rodents, I will have to build a raised garden. So yesterday, I bought this kit with precut cedar wood and screws. I have a power drill; I just have to figure out how to use it. Once it’s completed, I want to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, green and red peppers and, eventually, who knows? Perhaps, I will start canning again …

Little did I know when I cursed at that first batch of ketchup, years later, everything would turn full circle for me, and that I would miss those days on the farm, and attempt to go back any way I could – even if it means constructing a raised garden in the city.

The verdict is still out … Remember, I still have that “purple thumb.” I’ll let you know how this project progresses.

April 15, 2011 Posted by | Iowa | , , , , , | 2 Comments