In a series for The Glassblock, writer Sherrie Flick explores urban gardening using a familiar source material: her own garden on the South Side Slopes. Read part one, Turning It Over, here.
It’s 8 a.m. and I’m slicing cucumbers. The only reason I grow cucumbers is to make pickles, so every single one of them gets sliced lengthwise and wedged into a mason jar. It’s 77 degrees outside. The brine is heating on the stove. Not exactly sure how warm it is in my kitchen, but my husband has already escaped to the office and I have the ceiling fan and stove hood on high. I’m sweating a little, sure. It’ll soon be 87 degrees outside. It’ll feel like 90. I understand this.
This is mid-August. I wake up and I try to garden and can things before the heat converts me into a puddle and I head off into my real work day. When it cools off in the evenings, if it cools off in the evenings, I bake things like loaves and loaves of zucchini bread. Like blackberry pie and raspberry coconut bar cookies. And zucchini cake. And zucchini galette. Honestly, I can’t believe how much zucchini I’ve grown this year.
I’m not suffering. I live for this. It’s August and I’m happy.
There are three giant trays of heirloom tomatoes in my kitchen. I select the ripest ones and make tomato pie, make tomato bread. I pickle the daikon radishes. I pickle peppers. I’ve frozen the raspberries and blackberries that I haven’t baked into things, that I haven’t vinegared up into shrubs for cocktail experimentation.
Just this morning my husband Rick put on an overly cheerful smile and said, “Hey, why don’t we go out for a nice dinner tonight?” Rick, who has diligently, and I must admit enthusiastically, eaten a piece of tomato pie and a slice of chocolate zucchini cake every day this week for lunch. It’s a friendly intervention. I understand.
When I first plant the garden, in March–May, I’m pretty sure nothing is going to work. Every year, I think, “Hmmm. This isn’t working,” as I look at the blank stretches of seeded soil. And then the three beds that snake up my South Side Slopes backyard start to sprout and grow. Still, I’m sure something will go wrong. I pace the rows, examine the seedlings with their bright green optimistic perkiness. I wait for the fungus and the rot. I wait for the vine borers and cucumber beetles. And sure, they come. Something always doesn’t work. This season the potatoes, which I’ve grown in this nifty tiered wooden bin for three years, have died. They looked great, but when they got near to flowering, they shriveled up. No potatoes. But the tomatoes have ripened and the beans have flowered; the cucumbers vined. The kale looks great. So I move on, potato-less.
The serious bug noises and the lightning bugs started in late July and now in August as they intensify along with the humidity I feel a kind of loosening up. I experience this moment as a new discovery each late summer. I discover I’m not the one in charge here. Sure, I planted everything and watered and snipped and coaxed and spread the super stinky fish emulsion that made my neighbors look twice. But now, each year, this is when I learn to let go. I learn how to learn again, which is my favorite part of this hobby.
The groundhogs have found another garden, or someone up the street has gotten a trap. The baby bunnies, I’m pretty sure I must admit at this point, live in the iris patch. One particularly extroverted bunny hangs out while I garden. It seems to know its adorableness and also my inability to do anything about it. We’ve reached a detente of sorts: I have admitted defeat and it (and its brothers and sisters) really haven’t eaten that much. I did not reach a truce with the birds, who had a master plan of conquering all of the berries on the bushes. I spread bird netting everywhere and now they sit (glumly, it can only be) and watch the berries while I struggle in and out of the netting every morning.
I know we plan this abundance, we gardeners. I know we know it’s coming each year. But the garden is a giant surprise party—it’s the present I wanted and then got and then got again from three different people.
As the crickets and locusts hum steady, high and low alongside the birdsong, I hear fall in the background silence. I know summer won’t last. All the plants will die, and I’ll be left to clean up the festivities. I ignore that part until it’s too late. Every year.
Recipe for Another Zucchini for Lunch
2 T olive oil
2 cloves of garlic that you planted last fall and harvested this July and cured like a pro for once, chopped
1 zucchini that you managed to pick before it grew to the size of a baseball bat, cut into quarters and then chopped into bite-sized wedges
1 tiny palm-sized pattypan that you managed to pick before it grew into the size of a baseball cap, halved and cut into wedges
1-2 c. leftover brown rice from the okra-tomato thing you made earlier in the week.
2 T basil and carrot top greens pesto (or to taste or any pesto you care to make or have on hand)
Half an avocado, which you did not grow but know in your heart you would if Western Pennsylvania’s climate permitted it, sliced. Oh, what the heck, use the whole avocado. It’s been a tough week and you deserve it.
Salt and pepper, to taste.
Heat the olive oil over medium heat; add the garlic. Once it’s sizzling and you can smell its garlickyness, add the chopped zucchini and pattypan. Cover. The squash chunks will brown and caramelize and you’ll remember why you planted them and you will apologize for cursing them and their bounty just that morning. Stir occasionally until they look uniformly delicious. Add the leftover rice to the mix, stir to coat and heat up. Add the pesto. Stir again. Spoon onto a plate or into a bowl; artistically arrange the sliced avocado around the pretty rice pesto squash dish. Take a picture to post on Instagram.