Wednesday, April 30, 2008


As I was driving to work yesterday, I saw a farm stand with the first local asparagus of the year. This made me a bit sad. Not because asparagus, in general, makes me sad. But because this was supposed to be the year that I got asparagus from my own garden.

When I bought my house in late 2004, I immediately started thinking of things I could plant that I didn't have at the community garden, things I could commit to long term. (Admittedly, this will be my 13th year at the community garden, which should count as long term, but still. The minute you give up your plot, it becomes a blank slate for the next person who takes it. I’ve seen hundreds of dollars worth of perennials tossed by new gardeners who didn’t know what they were tossing. I wasn’t prepared to do that to asparagus.) I put in some raspberries, and the blueberry bushes are ready and waiting. Last summer, I planted my first potatoes, which I enjoyed. (I can't grow those at the community garden because of the potato bug, which, at least so far, hasn't discovered the potatoes at my house.)

But asparagus was what I wanted most. That first spring, I kept poking around the garden and the various beds around the yard, hoping that I would see some asparagus emerging. And there were some nice discoveries--in addition to the various bulbs and perennials, there were several rhubarb plants and a productive strawberry patch. But alas, no asparagus.

So, two springs ago, my second spring at the house, I decided to create my own asparagus bed. There wasn't really room in the main part of the garden, though--between the herbs, the perennials, and the strawberries and raspberries, there's not actually that much room for vegetables, and I wanted to use that space for other things. So, I picked a spot at the edge of the yard, next to the woods, and decided to put the asparagus there. It was out of the way but still got sun (at least in the spring), and other things (like rhubarb) were growing in that area.

Digging an asparagus bed is labor intensive, to say the least, and even more so when it's on the side of a small rocky mountain. I had to recruit Alex to help get some of the seemingly immovable rocks out, and it was the work of several weekends. After consulting diagrams in multiple garden books, I dug out my trough, created mounds for the plants, draped the asparagus crowns over the mounds, covered them up, and set out to patiently wait the two years it would take for them to grow enough so I could have asparagus from my own garden.

And I’ve been patient. When the first thin stalks appeared last summer, I cheered them on, gave them organic fertilizer, built up the soil around them, cleared the leaves and weeds away. One more year, I told myself.

But I was already starting to doubt.

What I didn't really realize when I chose the spot for the asparagus bed is that it’s in the path of a stream. Not a fully flowing stream—that, I would have noticed. But when it rains and the water flows down the mountain, it all seems to land in the asparagus bed. (The cottage in my backyard is also apparently built on this stream bed, which was a bit alarming, when we discovered it.) And when it rains a lot, as it tends to in spring, the asparagus bed is basically a big puddle.

So, it's not that the asparagus isn't growing--it's just not growing very vigorously. It's rather spindly, and I can't help but think that if it were in a sunnier and drier spot, it might be happier. You're supposed to only pick the stalks that are as thick as your finger. A few of the stalks are so thin that they look like fairy asparagus, or perhaps asparagus for the Borrowers. (You can see them on the left in the photo below.)

In this photo, you can really see the mud puddle effect:

So, I'm trying to get myself used to the idea of digging another asparagus bed, one in a sunnier spot. I have no idea where that might be, though. It might mean having to use part of the main garden or it might mean digging another bed somewhere. (Who needs all that lawn, anyway?)

In the meantime, I'm going to partake in all the local asparagus I can find--and there's lots of it, and it's good. (One of the nicknames for the valley where I live is the Asparagus Valley.)

Below is my long-time favorite asparagus recipe. This is one of the first things I make every spring, even before the local asparagus comes in. It tastes like the essence of spring. I still think it will taste better, though, when the asparagus comes from my own yard. Oh well.

Asparagus Soup, from the Greens cookbook

The Stock

1 lb. thin asparagus, lower ends only

1 cup leek greens, roughly chopped

1 bay leaf

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

4 parsley branches

½ tsp. salt

8 cups cold water

Snap the lower ends off the asparagus where they break easily when bent. Rinse the ends well and roughly chop them into 1-inch pieces. Combine all the ingredients in a stock pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer 20-25 minutes. Strain.

The Soup

1 lb. thin asparagus (about 12 oz. after the ends are removed)

3 tbs. butter

2-3 leeks, white parts only (about 8 oz.), sliced

½ tsp. salt

1 large potato, peeled and cubed (optional)

1 tbs. parsley, chopped

5-7 cups stock

¼-1/2 cup light or heavy cream (optional)

Freshly ground pepper

½ to 1 tsp. grated lemon peel

Parmesan, grated, for garnish

Cut off the tips of the asparagus and set them aside. Roughly chop the stems into 1-inch pieces. Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the leeks and cook them over medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring as needed. Add the asparagus stems, salt, potato (if using) and parsley. Pour in 5 cups of the stock and bring to a boil, then cook at a simmer until the asparagus are just tender, about 6 minutes. Blend the soup well, then work it through the fine screen of a food mill or through a chinoise to remove any fibers.

Return to the stove, stir in the cream, if using, and thin it with more stock, if necessary. Season to taste with salt, freshly ground black pepper and the lemon peel.

In another pot, bring a few cups of water to a boil with a little salt. Cook the asparagus tips, 1-2 minutes until they are done, then pour them into a colander.

Garnish the soup with Parmesan and a few asparagus tips in each bowl

A few notes:

It’s really worth it to make the stock, which give it an extra essence of asparagus.

I usually use the potato to thicken it a bit, but I’ve never added cream—it’s delicious as is and doesn’t really need it.

I usually use the zest of a whole lemon, partly because it’s easier than measuring and partly because it seems like a good amount.

I have strained it occasionally, but you don’t really have to if you’re not serving it at an elegant dinner.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cats, turkeys and other local beasts

Although I live on a relatively busy road--the connector street between two other busy roads--I also live on the side of a small mountain. My property backs onto woods--lovely when you want to take a little walk into the trees, somewhat less lovely when a tree from said woods crashes into the yard and lands partly on the asparagus bed. (All I can say is, thank goodness for handy boyfriends with chainsaws.) Behind the houses across the street is the oxbow of the Connecticut River--which I can only really see from my house when the river is especially high.

Being between the mountain and the river (and next door to a field) means that, despite the busy street, my house is in the middle of a wildlife corridor. Admittedly, I don't actually see all that much wildlife, at least not notable wildlife. I've only seen a bear in the yard once (and heard about another sighting from my neighbor). But what I do see often are wild turkeys.

I see turkeys fairly frequently, so I'm not sure why I still get a kick out of them. But somehow, seeing turkeys meander into my yard for a spell continues to delight me. I've seen big flocks of turkeys, with show-offy male turkeys.

I've seen a mother with turkey chicks (turklings?) and then, a few months later, what I'm convinced was the same mother with her now teenage turkey children. Last summer, a turkey appeared to be taking a dirt bath in the middle of my perennials.

And I love the way that the domesticated animals interact with the wild ones (as long as those wild ones are, say, turkeys as opposed to bears). My former tenants in the cottage in the back had a dog--a sweet older dog who never got excited by much, though she was bizarrely terrified by my cats, who were then wee kittens. The tenants were down in the basement doing laundry one night, and suddenly I heard them calling me, which they'd never done before. And it was because the dog was frozen in place and refusing to move until I took away my bold little Chaya, who was all of 3 pounds then.

One morning, I was in my study, when I heard some frantic barking from the front lawn and then a sort of whooshing/thumping kind of sound. I looked out the window, and there was Gracie, the dog, barking and barking, and there, in a nearby tree was a disgruntled looking turkey. I think it's the only time I've seen one of them actually fly.

Yesterday, the first turkey of the season meandered through the yard. There have been plenty of turkeys since I've had the cats, but for some reason, this was the first time I'd seen the cats react to a turkey. All of a sudden, both cats came bounding into the study and onto the window sill. I went over to look, and sure enough, pecking in the grass and among the remains of the woodpile, was a solitary turkey. I have no doubt that they wished they could do something but stare.

When I talk about living in India, I often say that one of the things I love is the unexpectedness of daily life, how I never know what I might see at any given time. And I lament, sometimes, that my life in the US--much as I like it--isn't that interesting much of the time. There isn't that much that happens that's unexpected. And it's true that in India I've seen elephants and camels, water buffaloes and cows, as well as the truly entertaining sight of my friends' four adopted street dogs chasing--and being chased by--a fat black wild pig running frantically on strangely tiny hooves.

What I can say about life on the side of my little mountain, though, is that I never know exactly when a turkey--or many--will decide to stop by, stroll around, have a peck at my lawn, and then move on to the next stop on their unknowable turkey agenda.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I hate to start with death and destruction, but I guess that's what I'm going to do. You know how, when you buy a house, there's so much to do that some things just don't register? Until all of a sudden they do? It was kind of like that with the shrubs.

I have flower beds all around my house, and clearly, the previous owners took care with some of these beds. There are daffodils and tulips, columbine and black-eyed Susans, a gorgeous flirty pink peony, three hydrangea bushes in the back. I don't love everything, but there are flowers, and it's pretty, and mostly, that's been enough. But not all of the beds got the same attention, and the one that had been seemingly ignored for years and years, surely through multiple owners of the house, is the one you see first when you go up the driveway. There were 3 sickly fir-type trees, two taller and spindly and one low and spreading. It's not like they really looked like they were enjoying themselves there.

For the first few years, it was like I didn't see them at all, even though I drove up and down my driveway multiple times a day. They just didn't register. Until last year, suddenly, I saw them. And immediately wanted them gone. I started looking up shrubs in my garden bible (Barbara Damrosch's The Garden Primer), and I went and looked at various flowering plants and shrubs at the garden center, but that's as far as it got. Spring moved on, more plants came up, stuff happened, and I got distracted.

But yesterday, a cool spring Sunday afternoon, without even really planning to (I'd been planning to go over to the community garden and visit my newly planted peas), I found myself hacking branches off the low spreading shrub so that I could get to the center, so I could dig it up. And then, once that was gone, there seemed to be no choice but to get rid of the others as well. (I forgot to take a picture before I started digging the first one up, so this is an early-in-the-process shot.)

It's not entirely a clean slate--there was one little non-fir type shrub I wasn't ready to yank out. But at least now I have something to work with. And when I go to the garden center next time, maybe I'll manage stay undistracted long enough to buy something. It's not like my various electric and phone meters are so attractive to look at.

As I was digging the sad fir trees out, I remembered something a friend had said when I moved in (a well-meaning, but often blunt friend). She'd said, "You know, in five years, this place will look really great." At the time, I'd thought, almost simultaneously--"I don't want to wait five years" and, "Well, at least there won't be any rush to do everything at once." (And also, "It's not that bad, is it?") But now, 3 1/2 years in, I know exactly what she means. It took me 2 1/2 years to notice the sad fir trees. And I have no doubt that, next year, I'll notice something else, something that hasn't bothered me at all up til now. Selective blindness. Or maybe some kind of blessing--since there's no way to do everything at once, your mind only lets you see as much as you're ready for. Or something.