Wild city // Garden notes

There is good news and bad news. First, the bad news. The drought creeps me out. I have gardened for decades, and never before have I had to water this much just to keep flowers and veggies alive. The watering feels like an indulgence. Each time I do it I think of the state of the planet. Given the looming catastrophes due to global climate change, we may not be able to use water like this in coming years. 

We could do without flower gardens, although we would be spiritually poorer. We could do without backyard veggie gardens, although growing food locally is one constructive response to climate change. But wherever they are grown, food crops need water. Seeing the drought’s effects up close this summer, I was aware of the trouble we are in. Without rain, we can’t eat. Without my intervention, my whole garden would have fried.

The good news: native prairie plants are drought resistant, and did a lot better than the others. You can’t eat them, but they are pretty. I am planting more natives each year because they are tough, and because the bees love them. Bees in our yard this year were most active on food plants. They seemed to adore the cucumber and squash blossoms, and they were all over the basil flowers, which you are supposed to snip off. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

We had a stellar pepper year, growing bell, Anaheim and banana. Never before have my bell peppers done this well. In mid-August I looked at my colander, at what I’d been picking, and realized that basically what I’d been growing was gazpacho. I’d never made that cold soup before. 

So I got going. I made three different kinds. One had a zucchini base, one a tomato base and one a watermelon base. They all had onions, garlic, peppers, cukes and herbs (parsley or basil) in them. And something sour: lemon juice or red wine vinegar. You clean the veggies, chop them up and toss them in a blender. Easy to make, and oh, the rewards. The taste was off-the-charts fabulous.

The best news of the summer was these good eats. All season long I exclaim at how much I love picking vegetables in my garden, cooking a meal and eating this food. A simple stir-fry of bright yellow zucchini, French green beans and heirloom tomatoes is pleasing just to look at.

But this summer I’ve sensed that something remarkable is going on here. Maybe it is because I grew more of our food than usual, and cooked a wider range of dishes with it (spaghetti sauce with eggplant and zucchini, Szechuan green beans, Italian sausage and stir fry veggies cooked with white wine). Maybe it is because I was home all summer finishing a book, and kept a closer eye on my plants than in previous years, checking on them virtually every day. My book is a memoir, but it is in part about an oil spill that happened years ago on a Minnesota river that we used to visit when I was a kid. Reading about that spill, and subsequent oil spills, and their consequences, has made me think we have to turn away from oil. Now.

Or maybe I was just sensitive enough this year to notice that when you grow your own food, and when you eat it minutes off the vine, there is something in it that is not in produce you buy at the store. Even organic produce. There is a spark of life in fresh veggies, which you take in. That a person can cooperate with the earth to create this life force is beyond satisfying. I felt a full-body pleasure and vitality as a gardener and an eater this summer that I am going to miss all winter long.

The most sublime moment out in our flower garden this year happened in mid-September. We’d had friends over for dinner. The five of us meet periodically, and we make space for each of us to talk at length about our work and about how we are doing in general. This particular evening the conversation went especially deep.

Afterward my husband and I walked our guests to their cars. Partway down the walk I noticed that three of our vining moonflowers were open. I have tried to grow these for years, only to see their buds killed by frost. The white flowers are luscious and broad, about four inches across. They smell like gardenias. 

All five of us, happily sated with a dinner that included green beans from the garden, and with intimate talk, went from bloom to bloom looking and sniffing. Then we went home to our beds.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the 

Loft Literary Center.