Cucumber Sandwiches

It’s a hot July afternoon, steamy with showers and intermittent sunshine. Each round of it builds heat and pressure. Tomorrow’s promise is for an even hotter day, when the temperature will cross the line and go into the nineties, something we find worthy of grocery  line chatter, along with the nor’easters that will barrel in from the Atlantic a mere six months from now.

It’s the perfect day for a cucumber sandwich.

TT got a call this morning from EB, his big-garden buddy, alerting him to the mass of green beans that are ready for picking. I can picture EB standing in the middle of their four acre vegetable patch, cell phone in hand, squash plants tickling his knees. It’s quite a place, the big garden. It’s more than a garden though. Over the years it’s become a little community, with shared spaces, exchanges of onions for corn or potatoes, or vegetables in exchange for planting and weeding help as the season progresses.

We didn’t plant green beans in our backyard garden this year, so this is a welcome call, and I add “green beans” to my errands list and make a point of taking a tote bag with me when I set out.

Well, you know I can’t stop at picking just green beans. I spotted a couple of small tomatoes that had ripened when no one was looking. Their red skins were blushing from underneath the protection of their leaves, so I picked those, which are enough for tonight’s salad. I heard a couple of bright yellow summer squash calling my name, and even though we have some in our own yard, I had to oblige.

Then I meandered over to the cucumber patch, and glory! What a year it has been for cucumbers! Before you could say Israeli salad, I had ten of them in my tote bag, picked from just three plants. I’ll be making an Israeli salad for twenty next Saturday. I guess having enough cukes for that won’t be a problem.

This is the long way around to tell you this:

I got home, mixed up a batch of double chocolate zucchini bread and had that in the oven in less than half-an-hour. My stomach rumbled its discontent at being empty as I then eyed the cucumbers, which were still warm from the field.

It was meant to be, so I went for it and slathered my multi-grain bread with more mayonnaise than would be considered respectable in polite company, doused that with salt and pepper, then peeled the best looking cuke of the bunch and trimmed it so its length matched the size of my bread. Then I sliced it into thin lengthwise slices, and stacked the slices on the bread.

Such luxury the bounty of summer brings to the gardener. An entire cucumber on a sandwich. This was no fussy tea sandwich. This was a two-fisted, open your mouth wide to take a bite, feast.

As I was constructing my lunch, a mantra waltzed through my mind.

“Thank you, dear mother earth, thank you, dear mother, thank you.”

And before I knew it, I was sobbing in grief for my mother, who I miss every day, as I have for more than twenty-nine years.

And I was sobbing in gratitude for her, and for the times the two of us would sit at the table on a hot summer’s afternoon enjoying a cucumber sandwich together.

Sometimes it’s the littlest thing that will trigger a flood.




Civic Minded Gardening?

It’s just about time to prune the butterfly bushes.

I have a friend who is a master gardener. She would probably call them Buddleia Davidii. She’s amazing. A walking, talking gardening encyclopedia.  She knows the Latin names and growth cultures for scores of different plants and shrubs.  Her gardens are diverse, fragrant, and lovely.  She is also the president of our local garden club, and she is actively involved in beautification projects around town. Her civic minded approach to her gardening skills is enhanced by the fact she does not have to be involved in raising income for her family.  And our city benefits from her ministrations.   She encouraged me for quite some time to join the garden club, but I work full time, which leaves me with few precious hours to care for my own gardens, and the mid-day meetings are quite out of reach for me.

Anyway, I call the Buddleia Davidii by their common name, butterfly bush; which are so named because they are known to attract butterflies (fancy that!). I enjoy them because of their dramatic growth every year.  In the early spring they need to be pruned back to about 18-24”, so for about 8 weeks after pruning they look like lifeless remnants of a neglected garden plot. Then, before you know it, they start to sprout leaves and grow, slowly at first, but once they hit their pace, it is easy to see almost daily changes in these bushes, so that by the time late June rolls around, those odd looking clumps of wood are nearly 8 feet tall and almost as wide, fully leafed out and starting to bud up.  They are fairly late to blossom in my neck of the woods, which makes their purple addition to the garden especially appreciated after the wild rumpus of colors and textures of early June has subsided.

My next-door neighbor used to enjoy the butterfly bushes as well, before she moved west, but for a different reason.  As it turns out my butterfly bushes attract dragonflies.  One afternoon I was out pulling weeds or complimenting my flowers on their colorful costumes, or some other important task, and she wandered over to tell me that in late afternoon dozens and dozens of dragonflies will come around and feast on the dark lavender blossoms of my bushes.  She enjoyed watching them so much, she made a date with herself to watch the dragonflies in my garden a couple of afternoons a week while enjoying a glass of iced tea.

Now don’t get me wrong, I was very pleased to learn about the dragonflies, and I am also happy that my neighbor was fortunate enough to be able to meander freely throughout her yard (and mine??) on a weekday afternoon, but deep inside, way behind the cheerful smile and the heartened response, I was jealous, hurt even.  It felt remotely like it did the day I went to pick up JT at the child care center after a long day’s work, only to learn that she had taken her first steps, and it was not my eyes, my face, and my arms she was trusting on that initial risky business called walking.  I’ll always wish that JT could have waited until after work to walk for the first time, but that night she also took her first steps with me, and we have been traveling companions and celebrating each other ever since.

And I’m OK with the dragonflies too.  It seems I had been civic minded all along, without even knowing it, just by being a gardener.

Houston, We Have Cucumber and Tomato Plants Growing on the Porch

Can’t wait to see this month’s electricity bill, but ah, forget the cost of keeping these little babies warm and bathed in the artificial sun of grow lights – if all goes well, we’ll be eating our first homegrown cucumber of the season sometime in April and maybe, just maybe, our first homegrown tomato of the season on Memorial Day.

This race to the first vegetable started innocently enough, I thought, but I didn’t realize just how strong the competitive streaks ran in my mother-in-law and her son.  Willine and my father-in-law, Al, were not just gardeners; they were subsistence farmers in southern Maine, and they raised all of their own vegetables for their family of nine, and they raised their own beef, had cows for milk and sometimes would have chickens for eggs.  Strawberries, corn, and cucumbers were cash crops which they sold to the local grocery store, to a pickling company in Oxford, Maine, and from their front yard. The money was used to buy school shoes, clothes and other necessities in the fall.  37 acres and some hard labor can produce a lot of food.

And Willine did not like it one bit that our growing season was two weeks ahead of hers, which she realized the first summer we were married and we were comparing notes on how our gardens were coming along.  Within a couple of years, she was after Al to build a greenhouse off her kitchen, and the race was on.  Year after year, Terry would make sure his parents knew when we had pulled the first radish, eaten the first spinach, or lettuce, or whatever he had managed to pull out of the ground early that year (the asparagus was a favorite “first” because, well, it was a favorite to eat), and he would always be satisfied with a mournful cry from his mother when she knew she had lost the race again.  I must state here, however, that a race was never officially declared, but there was no denying it, either.

Now that Al and Willine have both departed the fun of friendly gardening competition has passed with it, but we do both like defying the winter by having a taste of spring before the snow season is officially over.

Gardening in the Winter Happens in the Imagination

Ah, the seed catalogs. Johnny’s, FEDCO, Territorial, Cook’s Garden, and my favorite, Kitchen Garden Seeds, begin to arrive around Christmas. A gentle tease, I make myself wait until after the holiday season to crack them open in order of least preference, which allows me to clear out early on the catalogs that offer me no inspiration for our next garden, leaving me with one or two from which to dream and imagine what to grow in the coming seasons.

Last year, since we finally, finally finished building our little (9’ x 16’) greenhouse and set up a cost efficient way to heat it on especially cold nights we decided to try some greenhouse cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes. The seeds were expensive, but for twenty bucks we got to start early and ate our first homegrown cucumber in late April, which for a New England gardener is very early. We enjoyed early tomatoes also, but last year’s crop succumbed to the blight that made its way around, and most of our plants died, leaving us only with cherry tomatoes. Better than no tomatoes. The zucchini looked lovely on the vine, but we found them to be tough and aged, even at only medium size, so we won’t try those again this year.

Gardening is hard work, make no mistake, but the dreaming and planning for what we will produce in our small suburban raised beds is a source of joy for me. I love the possibilities, accept the work, and hum with delight as I meander through the plants and vines from April to November (sometimes even December) picking vegetables for our next meal or two.

During Thanksgiving weekend, we had the pleasure of two of JT’s college friends visiting for an afternoon, and I learned, much to my surprise, that JT had told stories of her parents’ garden for the four years she was away at school. One guest was skeptical of it, but as luck would have it, that morning I had spotted a near-perfect head of broccoli exactly ready to be cut, and I knew there were carrots that could be dug. When he expressed his doubts, I just smiled at him and said I’d be right back. When I returned with the broccoli and a fist full of freshly dug carrots his skepticism departed quickly, and as he bit into one of the fresh, live carrots, the look of astonishment on his face was satisfaction enough for me.

Maybe we have converted another to the concept of real, live, homegrown vegetables, which is the greater gardening, if you ask me.