I’m from Nebraska. My ancestors were pioneers who made their living off the land. My mother’s perfume was tomatoes and dirt. My father’s weekend pants all had grass stains on the knees. Among my four brothers, I am convinced that at least one of them is a Cabbage Patch Kid.
In 2009, I returned to my parent’s farm after spending seven years living in Chinese cities. My mother taught me how irises held the soil. We gathered buckets of peonies and rooted out stubborn weeds and laid mulch. She encouraged me to sacrifice some seedlings to make room for the others. We picked beans and peaches and ate along the way. Last summer I returned again, and tagged along with my mother to the farmer’s market, where the farmers in neighboring stands gave me kohlrabi and radishes to munch on in the heat.
Growing and tending to vegetables, fruits and flowers has always felt meaningful to me and given me a sense of peace. For this reason, since I first left home for college in 1998, I’ve always grown something. It began with houseplants, then herbs. Then, last summer, my first in New York (unless you count a short-term internship in 2001; I don’t), I attempted something more ambitious on my own on our 21st floor east-facing balcony. I planted Brandywine tomatoes and zinnias, hot peppers and arugula, mint, rosemary, basil and thyme. I potted chrysanthemums. But the wind on the 21st floor beat at my pale yellow tomato buds, so I covered my balcony–about a 6′ by 3′ space (my husband requested we leave half of the balcony for two chairs, where we drink our coffee in the morning, which explains the 3′ by 3′ garden)–with plastic wrap to protect the tomatoes and staked them with an elaborate web of twine.
It was a hot summer in 2010, so with the wind and high temperatures the tomatoes had a difficult time setting. But the herbs thrived and the zinnias were bright and abundant. I picked bouquets for friends and kept Mason Jars of flowers on every window sill. I bought thick-cut bacon, crusty bread and lettuce at the farmers’ market and we ate the few tomatoes that made it on BLTs. The chyrsanthemums bloomed in late September and we enjoyed the scent that wafted through our open door.
This year, I decided to narrow my efforts. I wanted to do less, but make more. I ditched tomatoes.
My new goal was greens. I knew that lettuces had shallow roots and could be harvested and resown and they didn’t take long to grow–about eight weeks. So I bought a 56-liter bag of potting soil and cut slits on the bottom for drainage. Then I laid it flat and cut holes about three inches apart on the top and planted a Mesclun salad mix of Black Seeded Simpson, Red Salad Bowl, Lollo Rosso, Royal Oak Leaf, Arugula Rocket and Radicchio Red Verona. Two weeks ago, we enjoyed our first salad harvest. We’ve replanted.
I also bought two types of basil seeds–Sweet Basil and Genovese Basil–and my mother gave me a couple seedling plants of Pistou Basil, and I now have 15 mature plants flourishing on the balcony. Through the summer, Adam and I have harvested basil and made different recipes of pesto, which we freeze in individual servings in ice cube trays. At lunch, if I want some pasta with pesto, I just boil the pasta, and toss it with a cube of pesto and add some tomato. Or if a veggie soup I made needs a little kick, I just drop in a cube of pesto. Voila! Scrumptious lunch! We also make basil chicken, or toss the basil and mint we’re growing, with rice vermicelli noodles and shrimp, or make Vietnamese-style spring rolls with huge mouthfuls of herbs. Now that tomatoes are showing up at the farmer’s market again, we’re also making loads of bruschetta and Caprese Salad with fresh homemade mozarella from the Vinegar Factory down the street.
We’re also growing sage (great with lemon on chicken) and spearmint (lovely in tea), as well as the two enormous pots of chrysanthemums that grew back from last year–though, oddly, they’re already blooming. It’s a little early.
Inside the house, I’m experimenting with succulents and waxy tropical plants.
You can take the Nebraska girl for a Manhattan manicure, but she’ll still want to get her fingers dirty.