Onward and Upward in the Garden: from the New Yorker

The Garden’s Tiny Culinary Transformations

Don’t worry; it’s perfectly normal. You live in a city, but nurse secret fantasies of growing your own supper: brimming handfuls of sweet green peas, squeakingly fresh spinach; new potatoes rolling like unearthed treasure over the soil. Well, dream on. Did you think that all those brick-and-mortar bookshops and fascinating friends and classical-music recitals you always mean to go to but are always too tired for came without a price?

If you want home-reared beets, move to the country. Cabbage, ditto; a single one is a slug amphitheatre, in which, over many months, ever beefier and more psychopathic mollusks will compete to render your lovingly tended leaves filigree nightmares of holes and rot. Apples? Difficult. Plums? Forget it; last year, after five summers, my tree produced a harvest of one. It’s time to face the heartbreaking facts: we city-dwellers will never, ever, grow enough of any crop to be sick of it. Ignore the books that claim that edible paradise is possible with a hanging basket and half a plastic pipe; you are being toyed with. The only way to have a sufficiency of cherries is to take out a bank loan and buy them; they’re not what town gardens were invented for. But what we can grow, we owners of yards and balconies, is tiny bursts of flavor, which will enhance everything: our salads, our lunches, our lives. Trust me. I learned the hard way.

Take strawberries: the point of summer. Imagine having a surplus of the plump, store-bought kind, for baking, bottling, with cream and without. Well, tough. To succeed in growing those strawberries requires a considerable private income: the barley straw to prevent botrytis; the netting to fend off children and other garden pests; the twenty-four-hour armed anti-snail patrol. And, even then, you’re unlikely to fill that punnet. Wild, or Alpine, strawberries are a far better bet than tame ones. They grow (cf. Nature) anywhere—in a pot, along a wall—and they are gloriously fragrant, sweetly sharp, the essence of wooded childhood holidays. Add four tiny ones to your overpriced city-bought granola; they will taste like magic.

Similarly, it’s time to rethink lettuce. Anyone can trot to the corner shop and buy a head of romaine, and we all should. There is absolutely no point in growing one from scratch; the fun begins, however, when you cultivate more flavorful salad enhancers. Not only are sweet and mustardy Asian greens and the mouth-crumpling pepper of rocket (arugula, if you must) more gastronomically exciting and more space-efficient than basic green lettuce, they’re more expensive, too, and easier to grow. Add the bitter glories of jade-and-cream escarole and cardiac-red radicchio and you’ll have the best of Italy (beauty, glamour, sophistication) without the bureaucracy or unusual drainage.

Why stop there? If you have space for a decent-sized pot, you can cultivate climbing beans: purple Cosse Violette or yellow wax, for easy post-work picking in the twilight. Their tendrils are fascinating, their height impressive, and, if you keep picking, they keep on growing; it’s like being in a fairy story, minus the giant.

Then there are herbs—sorry, “erbs”—arguably the most transformative plants you can grow. Thyme, bay, rosemary; I can barely cook without them. The smallest quantity of basil—whether purple-edged Thai, spicy Cinnamon, tiny-leafed Greek, or simple Italian—will make a salad glorious and, even better, render its grower beside herself with pride. Tarragon is the god of flavor, and one plant will be enough for a summer of roast chickens. Shiso, a.k.a. perilla, or Japanese basil, is a special obsession of mine, bringing an aromatic whiff of superbasilly mint to fish and rice and eggs; French sorrel and mint freshen everything; lemon verbena plus boiling water is the only herb tea worth offering to guests you actually like. I can’t grow parsley quickly enough, and I seem to be insufficiently Scandinavian to master dill. No matter. A few golden raspberries or a sniff of marjoram will make my day, or vastly improve dinner. If I have a pot of thyme, preferably lemon-scented, life can be endured.

  • Charlotte Mendelson is a prize-winning British novelist and the author of “Rhapsody in Green,” a memoir about her passion for gardening

Onward and Upward in the Garden - from the New Yorker

The Accidental Urban Gardener

Once upon a time, like most sane people, I was utterly uninterested in gardening. I wasted my time and money on reasonable things: secondhand books, dramatic spices, jackets that I hoped might transform me into the well-groomed and self-possessed novelist I still intend, one day, to become. Like opera, gardening was for the old people, posh, English. And I, youngish, the proud descendent of Mitteleuropean immigrants who had lived, like me, in dark London flats, had far better things to do than grow a cabbage. Isn’t that what shops are for?

Then something peculiar happened: I acquired a tiny garden of my own, in glorious ignorance, and, accidentally, fell in love.

When I acquired my first garden, technically a windswept, leaky roof terrace, I was expecting our second child and my second novel and had other things on my mind. Too young for horticultural friends, depressed by my dismal new gardening book (sample sentence: “Late Jan. apply sulphate of potash ¾ oz/ square yard.”), I panic-shopped lavender and clematis, and watched them die. This patch of stained white asbestos was nothing like the garden children need: bosky borders, climbable trees, grass on which to lie while contemplating the void. I imagined that, one day, for the children’s sakes or, let’s be honest, for mine, I would attain one.

Except, as it turned out, I couldn’t. Children, the selfish little beasts, require space, and in London it’s either bedrooms or a garden, not both. So, selflessly, heroically, I made the ultimate sacrifice. My second garden was still lawnless, treeless: a largely paved yard, edged with crumbling walls, rampant honeysuckle, low-maintenance shrubs. I sawed them down and resolved to grow vegetables.

I was alone and unguided, and my mistakes were tragic, the expense terrifying; when have common sense and passion ever mixed? Gardening is not innate: there is no such thing as a green thumb. Still, without a childhood spent helping Grandpa with the weeding, how are you meant to identify plants, let alone nurture them? I killed an apple tree; I butchered an olive; I planted sweet little saladings, laboriously grown from seed on my kitchen floor, and, as in the classical epic films my father adores, I watched while hordes of sex-crazed slugs, refreshed by their holidays in my crumbling walls, devoured them.

But I am both cussed and tenacious. As a musically moronic child, I tried to master the French horn; while other teen-agers were acquiring life skills like drinking and clubbing, I decided to learn ancient Greek. So while a normal young adult might have accepted that gardening was for retirement, bought a larger television, and stayed indoors, I persisted year after year.

Nearly a decade on, and still with extremely variable success, my six square metres of polluted urban soil and a few pots have become a bountiful experiment in miniature farming, a city jungle with more than a hundred different things to eat, though, sadly, nowhere to sit. There are eight or nine types of tomato; red and gold raspberries; ten kinds of lettuce and chicory; a dozen Asian mustards, from mild to ridiculous; too many beans, yellow, purple, speckled; ludicrous Italian zucchini, as long as your arm and much, much funnier; about fifty herbs. I make salads with thirty different leaves: the maroon-splashed “speckled trout” lettuce, sorrel, radicchio, bull’s-blood beetroot, and ginger mint. I harvest, by the teaspoonful, wild strawberries, blackberries, wineberries, loganberries, grapes, pink gooseberries, sour cherries, fat figs, fragrant quinces, and translucent white currants. I admire the lolling egg-yolk blaze of squashes, tangerine marigolds, magenta-pink pineapple sage, rose-scented geraniums, and bright-blue borage, which sends insects into private orgies of buzzing.

If you enjoy topiary or, frankly, sanity, my garden would horrify you; real English vegetable gardeners, loyal to turnips, would scoff at my newfangled foreign crops.

“Don’t you like flowers?” visitors ask.

“Of course. Sometimes. Why?”

“It’s just . . . people don’t usually grow vegetables in the middle of town.”

But so what if Italian bitter greens and Thai basil are far more labor-intensive than simple shrubbery? Even now, my failures are manifold, my harvests nugatory. That isn’t the point. As anyone knows who tends a windowsill chili, or thrills when they keep a supermarket herb-plant clinging perilously to life, plants are raveningly addictive. Once gardening has you in its silken grip, drawing you into a lifelong infatuation with sappy greenery, copulating earthworms, and the smell of rain, there is no rest. We recruit; we evangelize; we forge friendships based on a strangers’ reference on the bus to rhubarb. There is pleasure everywhere: trees to admire on the way to work, edible weeds at the train station, a sniff of rosemary in the car park. Gardening enhances one’s world: it is urgency and desire, passion and death, and, if you’re lucky, life.