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Daily Gullet Staff

Letter from the canyon

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1154103508/gallery_29805_1195_2965.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">By Priscilla

I used to say I’m a more enthusiastic than good gardener, but not anymore. Oh no way have I suddenly become a good gardener -- I just lost my enthusiasm.

In a way, it’s all Carey McWilliams’s fault, him and his California microclimates. In the canyon here, days are shorter than they are in the Flatlands, or up on the Mesa, as locals refer to the somewhat closer-in and certainly more built-up nearby suburbs, which do in fact have proper names. But said names don’t get much use around here. Locally, the paved road in our neighborhood is the Main Road, also not its real name. I find myself using these terms too sometimes, so that I can make myself understood, although I acutely remember the utter oddity of having no idea what people were talking about a lot of the time when I first moved here.

Which is something I’m used to. It was not unlike working in the local newspaper backshop years ago, where I felt like a foreign spy. (A good spy, though -- no one but me was aware!) It makes me think -- made me think at the time -- of how Gertrude Stein said living among Francophones was good for her writing. There is something to be said for not being able to eavesdrop, or having currency in, conversations and goings-on all around you.

But anyway -- microclimates. And fava beans.

When Ivan and I lived in the Flatlands, we had a dependable full day of full-on HOT Southern California sun, and the correspondingly fantastic tomatoes, eggplant, basil -- anything we wanted. Petunias, even, which are not a flower I especially like, but there was a day I wanted some “annual color,” as they say in the gardening brochures, for a planter destined for other things later, and I was there, and they were pink, and well, I planted them and stood back and marveled at how they bloomed all that spring and through summer.

Here in the canyon, even if I wanted to and I don't, but still: I know I couldn’t get a petunia to go beyond the weary, bruised blossoms already on the six-pack sitting there at Home Depot. And that, Dear Readers, is because our Carey McWilliams microclimate is preternaturally short days, with the sun rising behind a ridge and setting behind another, and while it can get hot as blazes in the middle there, ten degrees hotter than the one mile distant soi-disant Mesa a lot of the time, things just don’t grow the same.

Tomatoes, for instance. We’ve had spotty success, notably Brandywine one year, whose flavor and production puts all other tomatoes we’ve grown to shame. A Costoluto Genovese grew into something like a small tree, but bore only a couple of fruit. An anonymous and undistinguished yellow tomato which eventually belied the Russian Black Prince marker stuck in its pot at the nursery; grew, bore--but we really wanted the Black Prince. Genericish Romas bore some, enough for me to put up several quarts with basil according to that crazy-like-a-fox Eleanora person's I saw on Martha Stewart’s show, but were not mind-blowing, which is the criterion, of course. Crazy Eleanora's canning method is absolutely superior; I highly recommend it.

Overall, demoralizing as hell, to the point where one day I announced to those assembled, Ivan and the 14-year-old, that I was through with tomatoes. Ivan, who does a lot of the garden stuff anyway, said, like Nero Wolfe says, “Pfui,” and has indeed planted some. But I don’t hold out much hope, even for the Sun Gold, already sprawly and loaded with blooms. I know this because the plant is right over there by the giant beautiful fava bean plants -- I can’t help seeing, but they are no longer my concern.

The favas: gorgeous plants, big old square stems, six feet tall, the most lovely mildly-sweet-pea-scented black and white blooms. Shelly beans and peas of all types have been another conundrum. A harvest of six or so peas, for instance, was so not reflective of the time and fuss invested.

Ivan and the 14-year-old demolished an old shed, revealing some ungood soil in a sunnyish spot, and so we thought we’d plant favas, which are supposed to enrich the very soil they use to sustain themselves. The two varieties we grew were D'Aquadulce a Tres Longue Cosse and Windsor Long Pod, from Bountiful Gardens, whose catalogue also suggested an inoculant for the seeds at planting that may well have been the secret to success.

We took to throwing a few pods on the grill while the fire was burning down, letting 'em char before shelling and eating. We also made a raw fava relish from Marcella Cucina that was so good. Favas are just good.

Edward Giobbi, my model for holistic art/cooking/life, says for dried favas leave the pods on the plant until they are dried and then harvest, so that's what we'll do with some. And since we grew them in the first place to enrich this particular patch of soil, and Ed Giobbi says he leaves his in the ground a long time to that end, so shall we.The tomatoes meanwhile, sprawl even more, bloom, set fruit -- not that I care.

However, I recently lost an interior argument and acquired a small, sturdy-looking shishito pepper plant at the Japanese market, and Ivan accommodatingly gave it its own little drip emitter. Inchoate wisps of butter-soy shishito like they make at our favorite sushi bar float just subliminally, threatening to gather form. Resolved: Hold out no hope, not a whit not a mote not an iota.

Priscilla writes from a Southern California canyon populated by the typical mix of old hippies, wannabe off-the-gridders, equestrians running the gamut from 20-acre Thoroughbred full dressage to clip-clop nag-riding busted flat in Baton Rouge, schoolteachers, artists, wealthy entrepreneurs, and law enforcement officers (for some reason).

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Dear Sister in the Soil,

Having lived with tomatoes that thought they were shrubs, basil that couldn't withstand a whisper of a breeze and even mint that didn't grow, I share your pain. However, I moved into the sunshine, a place with the most bizarre 'earth' I've ever encountered. It digs up in clods so dense that you have to whack it to the ground to see if its dirt or a rock (seriously. I'm not exaggerating in the least). When it rains, it immediately turns to this viscous mud. But stuff grows like magic.

I feel for you, having had the good garden, to now have more memories than tomatoes.

Keep the faith.

Learn to love shade gardens,

hathor

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Hathor, when I whack a clod in my garden with the shovel, it nearly always is a rock, a big old granite river rock. Of some use in the garden hardscape, and especially charming with bonus imbedded fossils. Good for pressing accused witches to death, too, I would think.

I am glad you appreciate your rich growing medium. It sounds lovely.

All is not lost, however. Tomatoes burgeoning (had the first ripe one last evening, a large Brandywine, alongside grilled wild sockeye), Sun Gold in profusion, Mortgage Lifter loaded with green fruit, a Lebanese variety with smallish fruit for which Ivan has high hopes, flavor-wise.

Of course these are not my doing, and I only know these details because yesterday, after we'd been out there attempting to civilize escaped Red Flame grapevines, (excellent crop of potential dolma wrappers, and even fruit if we can beat the raccoons to it this year), assiduously not paying attention to tomatoes, Ivan poured me an icylicious sake and made me go look. And, OK, as I passed by I mindlessly picked a few of the deepest-orange Sun Golds, the tomato that tastes like a perfect tomato sauce, right off the vine.


Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ● Twitter Instagram

 

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I grow two sorts of fava beans: purple flowered, a heritage variety that has purple flowers, and short, 3 or 4 bean pods of good flavour; and Epicure, a red seeded variety.

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