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