No, I don’t have a back 40. Maybe I have a back four like you, a 4x4x4 chunk of concrete back patio in Bernal Heights, ancient cactus in one corner, Wizard-of-Oz cyclone cellar door in the other, a few beat-up chairs, windchimes, and ashtrays filling in the rest. Perfect for a garden! Last summer, my gardening lust didn’t get tripped until July, when I came home with high hopes and a couple of leggy tomato plants, only to find myself running a soup kitchen for a hungry neighborhood of whiteflies and aphids. Embarassing for someone with a certificate in ecological horticulture, to say the least.
This year, I put that hard-won CASFS knowledge to use. To wit: pests prey on weak plants, plants growing out of season, deprived of the nutrients they need. A healthy eco-system is one that supports beneficial bugs and pollinators, with a mixed palette of plants and bugs that can overwhelm destructive pests. Food not lawns, sure, but flowers can be just as hard-working as veggies, pumping out the nectar that feeds the bees and wasps, and in the process both enabling plant sex and elbowing out less desirable insects. Bachelor’s buttons, borage, sweet alyssum, morning glory, cosmos, sunflowers: they all bloomed and did their part, along with the stunning salpiglossis that was just there to look gorgeous.
So, what was growing in the back four by four? Tomatoes, of course, which no summer gardener can be without, even in too-chilly, too-foggy San Francisco. Not having the willpower of the Zen gardeners at Green Gulch, who bow to the powers of their surrounding cool marine winds and don’t even try, I compromised with a couple of cherry tomato plants, a Chadwick Cherry (named after Alan Chadwick, mad genius and founding UCSC gardener) and a Golden Nugget, both birthed from thumb-sized starts from the Free Farmstand. The rest of the veggies came from seeds, thanks to my conviction that unless it’s grown from seed, you didn’t really earn it and it’s not really yours.
Now, I’m not a spiritual person. Planting seeds is the closest thing I get to an expression of faith: you hold these tiny specks, all shapes and colors, and trust that they contain everything to rise into life. You slip them into the dirt, water them every morning, and the day after you’ve skeptically succumbed to doubt, they pop up, all fresh and new, eager to spin the whole wheel again. Samsara, sure, only it all tastes really, really good.
What I grew, all in containers using just potting soil, encouraging words, and (no, I’m not proud, but I’m honest) the occasional dose of Miracle-Gro, along with size-10 sneakers unashamed to stomp on lettuce-munching caterpillars: French Baby Nantes carrots, which stayed pinkie-sized but were amazingly sweet and crunchy; sugar snap peas, prolific and delicious, despite a leaf-devouring case of fog-borne powdery mildew; the aforementioned Golden Nugget and Chadwick Cherry tomatoes; African blue basil, skimpy-leaved but prolific in pretty mauve flower spikes; tiny whorls of green and red container lettuce, mostly eaten by those effing caterpillars; and of course, early summer’s fingerling potatoes.
My old pals Sally and Christina, who came over to photograph, then eat, that first potato crop, came by again to dine on the fruits of the Summer Salad Project, augmented by a variety of local items. There was some crusty sourdough flatbread I’d made from locally grown and milled grains: whole-wheat flour from Eatwell Farm and cornmeal from Erin at Ridgecut Gristmills, glossed with olive oil from McEvoy Ranch near Petaluma and flavored with summer savory from a Marquita Farm mystery box.
With it went garden antipasti: the five ripe cherry tomatoes we could pick, a handful of sugar-snap peas and baby carrots, sheep’s milk ricotta from West Marin’s Bellwether Farms and a bowl of homemade mayonnaise. And Julia Child’s advice aside, you don’t even need to warm the bowl; as long as you go slow whisking in the oil in the beginning, making mayonnaise is a snap. All it takes is olive oil, lemon juice, salt, egg yolks, a little mustard, a whisk and three or four minutes’ worth of patience.
There were also deviled eggs made using more of that mayonnaise, because who doesn’t love a deviled egg? For dinner, garlicked-and-lemoned greens, made from a mixture of erbette chard, radish and beet greens, all pulled from the mystery box, and the piece de resistance: a succotash of Brentwood corn mixed with roasted serrano chiles, heirloom tomatoes, basil and savory from Mariquita, plus roasted torpedo onions and fresh flageolet beans grown by Annabelle at La Tercera Farm. In our glasses went pink vin gris from Bonny Doon, bought on sale at Good Life Grocery up the street.
Now, I’m name-checking for a reason. This isn’t brand-naming just for some kind of locavore dirt cred. The dinner was local on purpose, but it also wasn’t particularly hard to put together, thanks to the agricultural abundance surrounding us. What was on our plates was also community through commerce; all these vegetables were the livelihoods of people I’ve gotten to know, even just a little, through buying their vegetables week after week, visiting their farms, walking through their fields or orchards. It doesn’t take much time to put a face on your food, and to make it part of a larger web of interlocking stories and histories, a personal geography marked by olives and zucchini, the taste of a milky green wheat kernel or the sight of two tiny leaves poking up out of the dirt.
And that night, looking around the table, Christina said grace to thank the earth, the farmers, the cook, and friendship, for making it all worth it.