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The maddening wait

19 May

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t go into hibernation mode all winter here in Vermont. True, we do sleep a lot more, and we don’t go out as much. But we’ve still got to eat.

By the time early spring rolls around, potatoes and onions and sweet potatoes have pretty much lost their excitement (but not parsnips. Those are still delicious).

This is the culinary malaise of early spring, when the weather has shown us some warm, sunny days but the first plants haven’t yet begun yielding delicate spring edibles.

Hey, cow!

It’s a maddening time — as California moves into its second growing season of the year, over here we spend a large portion of the springtime just waiting for the ground to dry and the last chance of frost to pass. And although there’s enough sun to give me a sunburn from a half-hour long run (I simply must break out that SPF 70), there are still very few fresh vegetables.

So instead, we’re holding our breath in anticipation of abundant greens and freshly harvested asparagus, of fresh tomatoes and strawberries and blueberries.

But finally, finally, the Middlebury Farmers’ Market is outside again. Yesterday, I managed to snag some new red kale, some radishes, and a small tub of Blue Ledge Farm maple chèvre. Which, by the way, is exceptional and highly dangerous, in that there’s a good chance you’ll finish the entire tub in one sitting.


Or maybe that’s just me.

So for those who actually do have greenhouses, spring vegetables are actually happening.

For the rest of us, well, there’s a whole lot of waiting.

Unfortunately, after our glorious week of sun and warmth, the clouds came back and the rain started up, so of course the only solution was to bake bread and brew beer through the rain. But oh, hey! All of a sudden the trees were budding.

At least something's growing...

Trees, great. But with the unusual amounts of rain, area farmers are falling behind schedule. And looking ahead, it’s not looking like it’s going to improve much:


Oh, well. What do weather forecasts in Vermont really mean, anyway? We saw some sun today, so…score one for unpredictable weather, I guess.

Still waiting for the day when we can plant these puppies outside.

Baby basil!


Rain, rain, gone away (knock on wood)

11 May

I don’t know where you are, but up here in Vermont spring’s been pretty darned slow in coming.

This means that the floodwaters are up on Lake Champlain — three feet past flood stage, breaking the previous record (set in 1869) by a foot. Roads are closed, homes are flooded, and Federal Emergency Management folks are hanging around the hard-hit areas of the state, evaluating the damage.

And though Middlebury hasn’t been in any immediate danger of flooding, the rain has also meant that our chosen backyard plot has been mucky and not much good for tilling, and we’ve all forgotten a little bit about the whole gardening thing.

A note to the spring season: you exist in order to to bring people out of their winter hibernation. Torrential downpours just don’t cut it.

This weekend we got some nice weather (see, for example, this photograph taken at Abbey Pond. Ominous clouds, but no rain.)

Abbey Pond

Of course, the ground was still to wet to do anything.

Today after work, though, we got a quorum of those willing and able to head out to the garden and take a whack at making those raised beds look less like wooden frames atop the grass.

Tilling began at five, though I was (as usual) late leaving work and didn’t get there till nearly six.

But the great thing about the spring? The sun was slanting across the garden on its downward trajectory, but it was still most definitely out. The air was warm enough for t-shirts, and thanks to our expedition to Agway a few weeks ago (the one that ended with granola pancakes. Yeah, that was it.) we had the shovels and hoes to put everyone to work.


After hacking away at the damp clay earth for the better part of three hours, we ended up with two bare, grassless indentations within our wood frames. Tufts of grass poked in all around, and the ground looked naked and forlorn. Around the beds were piles of torn up grass and sod pieces.

But hey, you’ve got to make a mess to grow a garden.

The sky was darkening by the time we deemed the beds ready for the next step: a layer of gravel, then a truckload of soil and compost to fill the empty space. Those will happen over the next few weeks, before Memorial Day.

On the phone with Senator Leahy today (yeah, we’re tight), he told me the cherry blossoms have come and gone in D.C. already. Weeks ago, he said.

For us, the trees are just beginning to show the faintest little buds. Saturday was the first farmers’ market in Middlebury, but we’ve still got a little while to go before the tables start to fill up with more than early greens.

It’s springtime in Vermont, all right, but Memorial Day weekend will mark the real beginning. That weekend (or shortly thereafter) we’ll put our seedlings into the ground, if we’re lucky, watch them start to grow. After that, all our efforts will come together — the plants we’ve been coaxing to life in our separate apartments and the seed packets we’ve been collecting.

If we’re lucky, they’ll become vegetables that will feed us through the summer and into the fall and winter. Even if we’re not, we’ll still have learned plenty about gardening.

I sort of suspect that this fortune, a result of the Chinese dinner that followed our tilling party, has something to do with what we will gain through these endeavors.

So cryptic

But honestly, I can’t make heads or tails of what it means, so I’m just going to go back to nursing the blisters on my hands and call it a night.

All in the preparation

22 Apr

They say it’s spring elsewhere, but I’ve got to say, I have yet to notice it. Case in point: this morning brought gray skies, cold wind and snow flurries.

On the plus side, the chives are growing!

On the garden front, though, we’re moving ahead slowly but surely. By which I mean, last weekend we assigned people to start seedlings, snagged some already-started seedlings from the fantastic Earth Day festival on the Middlebury town green on Sunday (American Flatbread slices, Co-op chocolate chip cookies, seeds and seedlings — heck yes!) and built two 4×16 foot raised beds.

A diller, a dollar.

But first, we had some shopping to do.

It just so happened that on Saturday afternoon, Agway was having a 10 percent off sale for everything in the store. We found shovels, rakes and hoes already deeply discounted — although we debated the wisdom of buying a $5 hoe, since, from what we hear, the more expensive ones perform better.

We also discovered my new all-time favorite garden tool, the diller (at left) — though we opted not to buy one, since its gardening function is somewhat unclear.

Immature jokes aside, we decided to err on the stingy side. After all, assuming this collective venture doesn’t go the route of a commune and we instead part ways after a given amount of time (as, let’s face it, 20-somethings often do), cheaper tools will make for fewer painful custodial decisions.

And after five years in Vermont, I picked out my first pair of Carhartt work pants. I call that a victory.

Surveillance: it's never been so cheerful!

Then we popped out to the greenhouse for hot dogs, popcorn and Monument Farms chocolate milk. Because, you know, nothing makes shopping better than free food.

Armed with contented bellies, garden tools, potting soil, and a newfound appreciation for pickup trucks (see below), we headed to the lumber store.

Funny, this trunk didn't seem so small on our way to the store.

Despite our overwhelming desire to see how four 16-foot planks would fit into the small, brave Honda (and to see how many traffic accidents we could cause as a result), we took the easier route. The kindly employee at R.K. Miles agreed drop the planks over the back fence, into the immediate vicinity of our garden plot.

What a nice guy.

Just a side question: once our garden begins to yield edible things, are we now supposed to drop vegetables back over the fence to repay the folks at the lumberyard for these lumber hijinx? What, exactly, are the moral and ethical codes surrounding unorthodox delivery of garden materials?

Once all was assembled, we got to work:

The echo of the hammer reverberated through the neighborhood, reminding us a little of hunting season come early and letting all the neighbors know where to go for free vegetables come midsummer.

I kid, I kid. The neighbors wouldn’t do that. And if my own prior gardening experiences (er…just one experience, I guess) are any indication, there won’t be too many vegetables, either.

I spent some time taking the obligatory photos of my new Carhartts, which I put to work immediately. Some might say I’m vain and materialistic, but I say I’ve just got a dang good pair of new pants.

While I was navel-gazing, some people were hard at work finishing the frame.

Then we built another.

Soon, after the ground dries out, we’ll till the ground and put down compost and start planting things — first, the frost-hardy seeds, then the more delicate things in late May. They’ll include lots of tomatoes and basil, as well as anything else we can fit in around that.

But we’d already put in several solid hours of manual labor, which, let’s face it, requires a whole different skill — and muscle — set from sitting on a chair in an office all day. Yep, it was definitely time for a late brunch at Steve’s Park Diner.

Granola pancakes, a.k.a. BRILLIANT

From the beginning

12 Apr

It was a sunny April evening when six of us gathered in the kitchen of an apartment near downtown Middlebury.

We came to eat and drink, to plot and scheme, and to launch an ambitious project: a backyard garden.

Not so ambitious, you say? Well, consider the inputs. We’re a group with little collective gardening experience between us, limited funds, and six jobs that subtract time and energy from the equation. It’s a bit daunting.

What we do have is eating experience, a little piece of land to use, Googling skills (for gardening advice, of course) and some serious evening-and-weekend elbow grease. And of course, the desire to make our own food.

Technically, it’s already spring here, but here we’re deep in the midst of what locals call mud season.

There may be mud, but spring has sprung!

As nothing has yet gone into, or come up from, the still-hard ground, the potluck offerings that evening were store-bought. Still, they were quite satisfying: a beet and apple salad with cheddar cheese, parsley and hazelnuts (it was a recipe from GQ, though none of us would have guessed it), and there was a flour-dusted whole-wheat calzone with mushrooms, mozzarella, tomato sauce, and there was brown rice and black beans with sweet potatoes, kale and chipotle. And chocolate mint cookies to top it all off.

A delicious potluck meal (taken with a crappy phone camera)

Afterward, the discussion turned to dirt, seeds, raised beds, rototilling. To what plants we would raise, and who would do the research. To the moment a few months from now when, if all went well, our potluck would feature homegrown vegetables. Tomatoes! Basil! Chives! Sugar snap peas! Swiss chard! Parsnips! Pumpkins! Squash! Fennel! Broccoli! Eggplant! Mint!

That moment, still far off, was coming closer and closer.

But first, we had to do our vegetable homework, build raised beds, and buy topsoil (you can throw a pot with the clay in the soil here, but you won’t get much edible vegetation out of it). So, armed with our assignments, a Google Group for communication, and the dream of a backyard garden, we set off home to prepare.