Everyone seems to have a favorite dish that screams ‘summer’ to them. Not being a foodie, I always thought this was a kind of silly idea until I put down roots and began to grow vegetable gardens.
It was then that I realized there is something quite grand about the knowledge that you can wander out into your garden and forage for a different meal every day.
I was raised in apartments and lived in winter rentals, mobile homes and on boats in my 20s and early 30s, so a vegetable garden always seemed like an idea meant for some other person, in some other lifetime, who had a little plot of land to call their own.
It always felt like poking my tongue into the cavity of a pulled tooth for me to remember that I come from a long line of North Fork farmers, yet no one in my immediate family had ever had any land to call their own.
The reasons behind that are as clear as the writing on Southold founder the Reverend John Youngs’ tombstone, next to Southold’s First Presbyterian Church: “He sought God’s honor, not his own.” Farming may have been in my family’s past, but in their blood they were really fishers of men. And owning land was the least of their desires.
The only evidence that remains of Youngs farming on the North Fork are the street names that harken the roads that ran through their farms in centuries past.
When community gardens started cropping up around here, I took heart, planting a plot at East Hampton’s EECO Farm and then at the New Suffolk Waterfront’s community garden, next to the beautiful barn that was the backdrop for so many of my sunrise photographs before it was torn down in order to make way for the Galley Ho’s new septic system.
The only thing you can count on is change.
Six years ago, I finally put down my deepest roots yet as a charter member of the River & Roots Community Garden on Main Street in downtown Riverhead, an oasis filled with raised beds that this time of year is a testament to the fecundity of nature.
Inside those gates, down by the river, with the sound of rushing water and Main Street goings-on all around, you can plant just about anything and be assured of a good crop.
By late June, lettuces and beets and carrots are growing with fervor, and it’s time to begin harvesting peas and the first overwintered garlic planted last fall.
By early July, the pole beans and monstrous zucchini plants are producing more than you could ever eat. Nasturtiums, the great edible wonder-flower that I’ve grown to love more and more each landlubbing year, are creeping everywhere, threatening to overtake the most vigorous of your plants, while a steady stream of cucumbers comes in just a bit too late to serve up with the dill that’s gone to seed, and your butternut squash begin to multiply and ripen.
On any given summer week, you will find more abundance than you could ever cook in your little four by ten plot. My refrigerator overflows this time of year with unidentifiable bags of green leafy things. When the green bounty gets to be too overwhelming, I mix up a quick batter of eggs and milk, flour and sea salt and pepper, and just begin frying everything I can find — from nasturtium blossoms to green beans to zucchini and, later, eggplant.
Gardening to me is a strange mix of enjoying nature’s great big show of life and knowing that what you’re doing by cultivating plants is not really a part of nature, but of human desire to play god. We train plants like we would train a pet dog, but perhaps with better results.
Agricultural disaster is really never that far over the horizon, and most of that has to do with water. River & Roots has installed drip irrigation in all of their beds, so drought doesn’t touch us there the way it might when you forget to water your home garden.
But these days, cycles of drought might easily give way to pounding rainstorms that dump buckets for days onto already damp soil, leading the way for fungus, pests and, one of my least favorite scourges of the community garden: powdery mildew. I now carry with me everywhere a spray bottle filled with a baking soda-water mixture that will guarantee you can put powdery mildew to rest.
When community gardens were a new thing around here, powdery mildew was everywhere. Now, it seems, fellow gardeners have gotten wise to their responsibility to prevent the spread of disease from one garden bed to the next. We are all learning.
I became a gardener during a few solid years when late blight — the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine — was hitting tomato plants all over Long Island. It got so bad that Cornell Cooperative Extension was making sure anyone who had a trace of late blight on their farm quickly destroyed all their tomato plants and sometimes their potatoes too. Late blight hit the community garden plots, it hit in the pots in my backyard, it hit commercial growers, and once you were infected, that was it. Your tomato season was over. But that, too, passed, and now it’s just a memory.
Now that I have my own little plot of land in Flanders, I’m dealing with another gardening conundrum. I’m smack dab in the middle of the pine barrens, and the soil is all sand and acid, underneath towering oak trees that don’t let in an iota of sun but do provide habitat for all kinds of genuine wildlife.
It’s taken me four years living here before I found the one spot in my yard where I could be guaranteed sun any time of day. But after four years of adding lime and compost to my garden bed, nothing here seems to grow.
This spring, I decided to pour four years of compost, made up mostly of coffee grounds from my incessant coffee habit, into my two largest flower pots. Half of the four tomato plants I grew from seed went into these pots, and the other half went straight into my so-called garden plot. As of today, the plants in pots seem poised to take over the world. The ones in the garden look like they never asked their parents to be born. I feel a little guilty, but then the scientist in me takes over and I realize that I’ve just done a pretty cool experiment. And I need to drink more coffee, so I will have enough compost to achieve all my wildest gardening dreams next year.
That’s the great thing about gardening, and about turning 40. You finally reach a point in your life where you have enough perspective to say there’s always next year.
After finally achieving my lifelong desire to have dirt to call my own under my feet, I realized this year that, despite my decidedly non-foodie nature, there is a dish that screams summer to me: Corn-zucchini ricotta fritters. I’ll probably be making these every July and August until I die. And that will have made this life worthwhile.
Corn, Zucchini & Ricotta Fritters
kernels from 1 ear of boiled or grilled corn
1 grated medium zucchini
2 tsps chopped chives
2 tsp chopped parsley
2 large eggs
1/2 cup ricotta or cottage cheese
3/4 cups all purpose flour
sea salt, fresh ground pepper, minced garlic
and grated lemon zest to taste
Olive oil,for frying
blue cheese dressing, for serving
Grate the zucchini and strip the kernels of corn from the cob into a large bowl. Add in chopped herbs, then the eggs and ricotta or cottage cheese, salt, pepper, garlic and lemon. Stir well and then mix in flour. Add a splash of milk if consistency is too dry.
Heat olive oil in a frying pan (ceramic or stainless steel recommended) over medium-high heat. Spoon in fritter batter into 3-inch wide fritters, turning over when cooked just more than halfway through.
Serve immediately with blue cheese dressing. Leftover fritters are best reheated in a 325 degree oven to restore crispness.