We planted a vegetable garden last April. I blame the pandemic. Literally, I blame the pandemic, as in I never would have agreed to such a thing had I not realized I’d be stuck at home with nothing to do all summer. We built three raised beds last April, then ventured to a local nursery and bought a handful of seed packets plus a car back seat’s worth of little plants. We also built some planters hanging over our deck and potted a bunch of herbs there.
I still have no idea what I’m doing. I will not wax eloquent about the natural rhythms of nature or some shit. I don’t have a clue what I learned from this, or if we’ll do it again next year. I couldn’t begin to tell you why one cucumber plant died and the other thrived. But it was nothing if not entertaining! The following is what passes for my advice.
You will begin your gardening journey as quite the Helicopter Parents. You will look out the window and say things like, “Oh no, do you think it’s too windy for the basil?” and also things like “Don’t spray the sunscreen, you’re too close to the eggplant!!!” You’ll run outside multiple times a day to check on your babies, attempting to notice every milometer of growth, always cooing at and congratulating your baby plants for… I don’t know, photosynthesis? Please know this phase doesn’t last.
After you are done helicoptering and obsessing, you will find yourself turning into Tiger Mom. You will frown disapprovingly at your plants and say things like, “You’ve been here a whole month now, why am I not seeing fruit, young lady?” and “I can tell by looking at your leaves that you’re not dead, so you better snap to it!” This phase too will end.
After the plants do in fact bear fruit, you will morph into neglectful plant parents. You will stop checking on the plants so often, and you will say things like, “Seriously? Babe, the poblanos are throwing a tantrum, did you water them yet? Fine, I will.”
A little more advice. First, find yourself a garden whisperer. Someone who has more experience than you, someone who is willing – and pay them if you can – to come over and tell you where to plant which vegetable, how often to water, warn you about bolting, things like that. I can’t recommend this highly enough.
Secondly, don’t garden if you aren’t able to think of bees and spiders as friends. You need bees to pollinate all flowered plants (which is more than you think), and you actually want spiders to build webs within the leaves to catch bugs who would otherwise eat your plants away.
So, some vegetables are easier to grow than others. Rosemary, sage, thyme? You couldn’t kill that shit if you tried. Basil and parsley, on the other hand, are very tempestuous little buggers. Dill and cilantro are very weird, we had little luck with either. And there’s a certain species of beautiful black butterfly that’s attracted to dill. The caterpillars crawl up and down the stalks and eat the dill until they grow enough to morph. We weren’t having much luck harvesting it anyway, so we decided to let the caterpillars have it. We’ll have butterflies! The caterpillars hung around for awhile and grew quite fat, with curious orange stripes down their backs… and then a bird swooped in and ate all of them.
Chile peppers are shockingly easy to grow. I guess because they are used to harsh conditions? I don’t know, but we have terrifying amounts of poblanos, habaneros, serranos, Thai bird chiles, and shishitos coming out our ears.
Tomatillos are nuts. Easy to grow, and quite invasive. We’ve had to build structures and tie them off so they won’t smother neighboring plants. Kale will also proliferate on you, and it’s hyper low maintenance, aside from the fact that squirrels will eat it.
We planted various lettuce seeds last spring. Bibb, little gem, and escarole. I was envisioning plucking a whole head of lettuce every few days and enjoying crisp salads all summer long… only to learn, that’s not a thing for home gardeners. Apparently, you need greenhouse conditions to grow lettuce to maturity, so home gardeners only eat baby lettuces. You never pluck out the whole head. You just go down the row with kitchen shears and trim off enough outer leaves to make a salad. Lather, rinse, repeat, until it bolts. After it bolts, or flowers, you can’t eat it anymore. The leaves become thick and leathery and usually very bitter, especially in the case of escarole! Oh my lord. After we suspected bolting, we cut a couple escarole leaves, washed them with the hose, took one bite, and easily confirmed. I seriously don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything so bitter in my life! We tossed them into the yard, where even Dame Agatha Pistachio wouldn’t touch them.
We should talk spaghetti squash! I adore spaghetti squash; and now I will always buy my spaghetti squash from someone else, forevermore. The plants produce lily pad-sized leaves that hide the sun from other plants; that’s the first, and it turns out, the most minor problem. They are super easy to kill, thanks to attracting specific bugs that lay eggs in and on them, worms that burrow in the stalks(!!!), and a specific fungus that whitens the leaves and can spread to other species easily. Oh, and they are huge! The vines grow to easily twenty feet, overtaking neighboring beds. You can’t mow your grass, and they stretch out into your driveway and underneath your car! The vines have thorns. They need ungodly amounts of water. We managed to at least somewhat survive all that indignity, only to discover that… squirrels just eat the baby squashes. Seriously. We got two squashes to maturity. That’s it. We finally said enough of this horseshit and tore them all out. The okra and eggplant, with whom they’d been sharing a bed, have never been happier.
And that’s pandemic gardening for newbies! I have no idea what I learned, or if I’ll do it again. I agreed to it as a distraction from a horrible world at my doorstep, and I think it was successful in that vein.
Roasted Tomatillo Salmon Tacos
- 1 2-lb salmon fillet, pin bones removed
- 1 ½ lbs tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and halved (or quartered if large)
- 1 white or yellow onion, thickly sliced into rings but not separated
- 1-3 serrano or jalapeno chiles, halved
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
- Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
- Olive oil, for drizzling
- 3 limes, 1 cut into slices, 1 halved, and 1 cut into wedges for serving
- 1 handful of cilantro (about ¼ cup), plus more for garnish
- 12 corn tortillas, warmed
- Chopped raw white onion, for garnish
- Preheat your oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the salmon, skin side down, in the middle of the baking sheet. Place the tomatillos, onion rings, chile halves, and garlic around the salmon in a single layer. Season everything on that baking sheet with salt and pepper to taste, then drizzle olive oil over top of everything. Place the lime slices on top of the salmon.
- Roast for 20 minutes for rare. Transfer the salmon to a serving platter. Return the baking sheet with the veggies to the oven and roast for another 15 minutes.
- Carefully scrape the veggies into your food processor. Add the handful of cilantro plus the juice of 1 lime. Process until smooth but still a little chunky. You’re making salsa, so you want salsa texture. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if necessary. Pulse it in so you don’t wreck your salsa texture.
- To serve, transfer the salsa to a serving bowl. I like to plate up family style. We use forks to dive into the salmon and chunk it up into the tortillas. Then spoon salsa over, and garnish with chopped raw onion and a little more cilantro, plus the lime wedges for squeezing over.