Round Robin: Reflections on Summer

LANSING, New York–What a dry spring and summer it was! For weeks and months, the weatherman kept predicting rain, but all we got was wind, thunder, and lightning. Even though I had to spend so much time hauling hoses, I felt lucky to have the water. We used to have only a well for the house; during dry seasons I used to run it dry watering the garden and plant nursery and would have to have someone come with a tank truck to refill it several times during the summer. I had to water plants individually and carefully from a watering can so as to save every drop. Finally, after several particularly stressful summers, I got some experts to reactivate an old drilled well that used to provide water for the cows that lived on this farm in the old days. It’s sulfur water so it’s smelly, but it’s wet and the plants–and we–are grateful for it. When I feel like complaining about having to drag hoses, I remind myself of the days when being able to turn on a sprinkler would have seemed a great luxury.

Thanks to our well, the garden was glorious–a little too glorious, I’m afraid, in my 20-by-30-foot enclosed hot-color garden, where for some reason everything grew almost half again as tall as usual and the explosions of orange, chrome yellow, scarlet, and crimson were nearly overwhelming. I didn’t use fertilizer, so I can’t explain the burst of growth. I’m wondering how I can tactfully curb the enthusiasm of the plants next year without discouraging them utterly. One really doesn’t need or want 4- to 5-foot yarrows, bee balms, and dahlias in such a small space; the heleniums would have been even taller if I hadn’t cut them back in June. Perhaps I could put bushel baskets over them for a part of each day while they are making their first surge upward? Or dig them up and replant them? That usually sets a plant back considerably.

Our gardening daughter who lives up the road went heavily into exotic greens and herbs this past summer, an activity from which we greatly benefited as she came bearing gifts. They included such delights as cresses– watercress, garden cress, and Dutch broad-leaved cress, which was delectable–arugula (rocket), and an Italian dandelion called Catalina Special. There was claytonia or miner’s lettuce, and of course, cilantro, chervil, escarole, endive, fennel, and mâche (corn salad). And what salads we had! Every bite was an adventure.

She also grew red orach (Atriplex hortensis), which we found was not only good and good-looking in salads, but also made a fine potherb. I chopped it and sautéed it gently in olive oil along with slim new leeks or red onion thinnings, smothering them for a few minutes only. Wonderful. The orach doesn’t have a strong flavor, but it does have a sort of creamy, meaty quality that it shares with lamb’s-quarters (Cheno­podium album). If you have ever gathered and cooked lamb’s-quarters in early summer when it’s fresh and tender, you will surely agree that it’s better than spinach.