I’m trying to break a bad gardening habit. I’m trying to resist the urge to over-plant, to stuff the vegetable beds to bursting point no matter how good it makes me feel. You see, when visitors ask for a tour of my gardens, I do a lot of apologizing– for the small size of the zucchini plants, for the holes chewed in the tomatillo and cucumber leaves, for the broccoli beheaded by deer, sure, but really, I’m making excuses for the dark splotches of soil marring the beds.
“Don’t look over there, “ I say and lead bewildered guests from those dreaded gaps.
It takes considerable willpower to decide that another basil plant should not be tucked in here, more lettuce should not be planted there, a vining squash plant should not cover that dirt smudge between the peppers. It’s just that there’s something unseemly about the summer solstice approaching and bare earth still being on display…around the beans, the fennel, the eggplant, even the tomatoes. Most years the garden is in its full green glory right about now with the peas and favas producing faster than I can pick them, baby potatoes and carrots and zucchini in abundance, the second crops of lettuce, radishes and spinach gracing our table. Giving all that green.
Not this year.
And so some little voice inside my head tells me I’m a lazy gardener for allowing all that dirt to show itself. I can just hear the resident rabbits thanking me for leaving such nice gaps in the raised beds just for them—a place to sit while they nibble through young radicchio and chard and fenugreek. The deer nod their approval of the clear, wide paths between the kale plants. The robins appreciate the worms within easy reach. Little kids, cats, dogs…just about everyone but the impatient gardener likes all that dirt in mid-June.
What is it that compels some of us to rush out and fill the empty spaces in our gardens? Is it earnest advice from intensive-gardening advocates who would have us broadcast seeds thickly to get the most produce possible? Is it the fear that if we don’t, Nature will, and we’re not exactly thrilled by what Nature is offering—those grasses and weeds that we already spend hours yanking? Is it some deep desire to impose human order on the wild? Or some notion of aesthetics: were we taught at a young age that lawn and vegetables and flowers are beautiful unless threaded through with brown patches of soil? Is it competitiveness—a case of my-garden-is-better-than-your-garden disease (but not with all that dirt showing around the edges)? Do we suffer from some itch to fill the view akin to the tendency to jump into silences in conversation, our fear of quiet? Why are we uneasy with the gaps?
My grandfather wasn’t. His World War II Victory garden was planned, carefully planned, to provide plenty of room between plants, between rows, so much so that he probably plotted ample plant spacings to the quarter inch. My parents, on the other hand, attended the school of intensive gardening and so packed plants closely together like mosaic tiles.
If I give into temptation, I’ll follow my parents’ example and the garden will certainly look better sooner—with that lush full greenness splashed on magazine covers. But really, the gaps are good. Plants, like children, need breathing room. Some space to push out their roots, stretch their limbs, set their fruit without the stress of someone pushing them around. Steve Solomon, in his thought-provoking, even startling book, Gardening When It Counts,writes about the difference between the actual nutrient values of vegetables grown well (in terms of soil composition and plant spacing) and those grown haphazardly. Those gaps right now mean healthier vegetables later. They will not over-compete for root space or water—they will suffer far less stress than the same plants nestled close together.
Oh dear, my closely-spaced carrots might not carry as much vitamin goodness as I had thought? My kale plants with their tips touching one another might not be as super a food as I had assumed? That multi-colored carpet of lettuce is lackluster in the nutrient department?
Okay. In the name of good gardening, I’m changing my ways. I’ll give the kale two feet between plants, two feet between rows; the carrots one-to-two inches and 18 inches between rows. I will not plant more lettuce in the nooks and crannies: I’ll sow it every couple of weeks, but in the designated spaces for the lettuce crops, with the 10”-12” spacing Solomon recommends between plants. I’ll think back to my grandfather’s gardening ways and retrain my eye to embrace the swaths of soil, to appreciate, not apologize for them.
Recipes for While You Wait for the Gaps to Fill
Makes 10-12 bundles
A combination of slightly bitter and creamy, licorice-y and sweet.
- 1 – 2 heads of radicchio, washed, dried and separated into leaves (10-12 leaves, each four inches across). Choose a variety without a thick, stiff center rib
- 1 large ball fresh mozzarella (mozzarella da bufala, if possible) cut into 10-12 ¼ inch-thick slices
- 4 – 6 fresh basil leaves, torn into 5 – 6 pieces each.
- Olive oil for brushing on the bundles before grilling and for sprinkling on after grilling.
- Balsamic vinegar
- Sea salt (a rough flaky kind)
- Three cups mixed baby greens, washed
- Finely grated zest of one lemon
- Kitchen string cut into 10-12 six-inch lengths
- Charcoal grill or gas—fired grill or grill-pan
1. Fire up the grill to medium heat with the rack three-four inches above the fire.
2. Trim the radicchio leaves if they are much longer than 5 inches. If they are crisp and stiff, blanche them briefly by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for 3 -4 seconds, lifting them out and draining them on paper towels. Pat dry.
3. Lay out the leaves on a counter, insides up. Place a slice of cheese, 4 – 5 slivers of torn basil inside. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and with a dusting of lemon zest. Brush with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
4. Bundle them as you would wrap a package, making sure to leave no openings. Tie up with a length of string, trim the string ends—so they don’t fall between the grill grates and catch on fire. Brush bundles lightly with oil.
5. Brush the grill with oil if it tends to stick. Lay the bundles on the grill and test stickiness by placing a spatula under them once. Cook for two minutes or until they soften and intensify in color; flip and grill for another two minutes or until very soft. Timing here will vary a bit depending on the grill and heat as well as the thickness of the leaves. You want to keep them on the grill until the mozzarella melts inside but not so long as to burn!
6. Snip off the string and serve them atop baby greens, dressed with the remaining balsamic vinegar and oil.
Lavender Pots de Crème
Inspired by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Jean-Georges at Home
NOTE: You can make these ahead of time, but know that the lavender flavor will intensify after the pots de crème have been refrigerated overnight. I think they’re at their best made the day they’re eaten. Ingredients
- 4 tsp dried lavender flowers, detached from their stems; use 3 tsp if you make it a day ahead
- 2 cups whole milk
- 6 egg yolks at room temperature
- Scant ½ cup sugar
- 6 lavender stems with flowers intact, for garnish
- 6 4 oz ramekins
- A large baking pan that will hold the ramekins and is deeper than them
Directions 1. Infuse the milk: place the lavender flower petals and milk in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat immediately and simmer for 5 minutes. Cover, and place it on simmer (if you do not have a super-low heat, just turn off the heat). Let it rest there for 10 minutes. Take it off the heat and let it cool a bit. 2. Preheat the oven to 300º. 3. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and well-blended. I use an electric mixer to make sure they get truly thick. Set aside. 4. Strain the lavender milk through a fine strainer. Discard the lavender. Pour a small amount of the milk into the egg mixture, whisking as you pour to make sure you do not cook the eggs. Then pour the rest, gradually, into the mixture, whisking until it is well combined. 5. Divide the mixture between the ramekins and place them in the baking pan so they are not touching. Pour water into the pan up to an inch below the top of the cups. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. 6. Place the pan (carefully!) in the oven and bake. Check for doneness after 25 minutes—the puddings will be firm on the edges but jiggly in the middle. Bake for another 5 -20 minutes (every oven is different) if needed but watch carefully—you want it to be soft in the middle! 7. Serve warm or cold, garnished by a sprig of lavender.
Published in The Addison Independent, June 16