Every spring a few strawberry plants re-emerge in the strawberry patch I’ve been attempting to cultivate for the past seven years. They are usually in sad shape, bedraggled and exhausted by the long winter, their brave roots having barely survived. Those tattered shoots produce a handful of tattered flowers, and consequently, a handful of tattered berries. But, I don’t give up. Every year I replant the patch, certain that with enough care, I will get everyone to come back strong the following spring.
After last year’s drought, NOTHING emerged in my perennial beds this spring. No sad strawberries, no asparagus, not even my mint patch returned, which I didn’t know was possible. Mint is usually an invasive species in an herb garden, overtaking the unsuspecting sage and chives by ambush if the ardent gardener is not actively engaged in battling it back. This year the battle was won without a single skirmish.
Last week we had what I hope is our last freeze, and now planting can begin in earnest. A friend found me some flowering, thriving strawberry plants at a garden swap, so I can undertake my yearly failure afresh. I also started quite a few herbs in the greenhouse, and with no mint to compete with, they will have plenty of room to roam all summer long.
That’s not the only positive garden news. At five and almost seven years old respectively, my kids are old enough to finally be more of an asset than a liability. In years past, as soon as one of the rare and precious strawberries turned from green to whitish-pink, it was immediately plucked from its cradle of leaves by the chubby fingers of a child who sweetly asked, “Mama, can I eat this?”
No matter how many times I encouraged them to wait for the berries to ripen so they would be toothsome and sweet instead of hard and sour, the temptation was too great. And, no matter how often I said: “It won’t taste good, you won’t like it,” they proceeded to prove me wrong by popping the unripe pebble of fruit into their mouths and beaming with glee.
Similarly, the allure of the sugar snap peas previously proved to be too great for forbearance. The very moment a tiny triangle of peapod poked from between the petals of the pea flower, it was snapped off and eaten. I’ve always planted a lot of peas, but, it turns out that when the pods are eaten before they are even bite-sized, it doesn’t matter how many vines you’ve got — there still won’t be enough.
On the other hand, I tried out a new variety last year — napa cabbage — which ripens much more quickly than traditional varieties. I’d experimented with planting it in raised beds made out of repurposed pallets and that turned out to be wildly successful. Too successful. We quickly had more Napa cabbage than one family could ever eat. I took to sneaking it into nearly every dish served during the weeks before other crops began to ripen, and there was still always a frightening amount left.
I imagine this year, despite the rough start, there will be, once again, feast and famine in equal measure: a few tastes of imagined sweetness in the form of unripened berries and peas, and enough leafy brassicas to blanket a small village if brassicas indeed made good blankets. Or perhaps there will be an abundance of zucchini but no tomatoes, cucumbers but no beans, cauliflower but no carrots, or whatever incarnation of this principle the weather allows during June, July, and August.
I will remain thankful, in any case. Fresh from the garden, sun-kissed, and still a touch dusty, the fruits of the soil are a gift, even if they aren’t quite the gift we’d hoped to receive. When winter arrives, we will have eaten our fill, and memories of the summer’s riches will brighten the long evenings. Unless the abundance is once again in the form of Napa cabbage. Another year of that might be more than even the most grateful heart can celebrate.