Sunday, February 7, 2010

The velveteen gardener

What makes a gardener "real?"

It's a complex activity, and easy to out-source at many steps, from design, to installation, to seed starting, to care, to harvest. Garden walks and competitions often disqualify anyone who has had a professional plan and/or install a garden, except for hardscaping.

Many food growers, myself included until recently, "outsource" their seed starting, buying nursery starts at various stages of growth (the bigger, the more expensive, but also the more reliable). There are plants, like peppers, onions, leeks, and tomatoes, that you simply can't start in the ground in a place like Chicago with its late frost date and unreliable late spring freeze danger (well into May). We don't have a long enough growing season, and small backyards like mine lose the sun to close-in buildings late in the season, shortening it further. Always in the past, I only started the easy plants direct from seed-- peas and beans and turnips, that will grow anywhere.

So am I not a "real" gardener because I let someone else start my seeds? When I started journaling my garden on line at MyFolia I initially developed quite an inferiority complex because everyone else seemed to be a "real" gardener (my definition, not theirs!), despite the fact that I'd been gardening since most of them were in diapers.

In the last couple of years my day job has gotten smaller and my garden bigger, to where I now have enough time to go the extra mile and seed start indoors, while also too little money to buy nursery starts. I'm a "real" gardener this year and last out of time and necessity. At Folia, the consensus was that a "real" gardener gets his or her hands dirty.

But I think like our old friend the Velveteen Rabbit, a gardener becomes real, not through her methods or involvement, but through the love she feels for her plants, and the feedback of friends; through the flowers in her vase, and the food she shares:

Mushroom Barley Soup
2 cups cubed red potatoes
1/2 cup uncooked barley
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup apple cider
1/3 cup dry sherry
1 large onion, sliced very thin
2-3 pints mushrooms, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2-3 gloves crushed, minced garlic
1 tsp basil, dry or 3 tsp fresh, chopped fine
2 T parsley dry, or 3 T fresh, chopped fine
dash cayenne, dash black pepper
10-12 large swiss chard leaves, chopped roughly (optional)
salt to taste

Combine potatoes, barley, and stock in a large pot (I used a 1 gallon pot, seemed about right), bring to a low boil, then simmer about 30 minutes, until barley is cooked.

Carmelize onions in about 2 T olive oil. (Carmelizing onions looks and sounds complex, but it's basically just cooking the dickens out of them, more tedious than difficult.) Mix about 1 teaspoon olive oil with the mushrooms, add to onions with lemon juice, saute until mushrooms release liquid. Add garlic and herbs, saute a few minutes. Add sherry and cider, bring to a low simmer, then add to the barley/potato pot. Add the chard and simmer covered 20 minutes.

(Then there's the question of whether I'm a "real" cook. Or do I just play one on the internet?)


  1. Is this like a meme at Folia, that you have to start seeds to be a real gardener? This is the second post I've read in as many days that mentions seeds and Folia.

    I grow a lot from seed but I don't think it makes me any more of a "real" gardener than the next person.

  2. No they're not like that at all, they're actually pretty cool over there, but there are a lot of die hard winter sowers, and the people who post a lot tend to start seeds. Aside from my poverty, they're actually the ones that really gave me the knowledge and courage to grow from seed. I was always did nursery starts before, just didn't believe I'd be able to do it.

  3. I think you're a real gardener because you love it. Or at least that's what the Velveteen Rabbit taught me. My favorite childhood book, btw, which I recently read to the Kid.
    And those seeds are on the way, Lady! You should have them by the end of the week. =)