Now that December is here, this post about wrapping things up in my little spot in the Brighton Community Garden is way overdue. But I must write this final post as a conclusion to the unforgettable experience it has been digging, weeding, watering and reaping alongside my fellow Brighton neighbors.
My neighbors and I have shared watering and weeding responsibilities through a hot dry summer. Our tomato patches bursting with more than one family could possibly consume, we’ve traded beefsteaks for exotic varieties such as the green-striped zebra or tiny yellow jelly bean.
Sue Gardiner-Smith, the manager of the garden, made sure that we kept up with our commitments to clear the common paths of weeds and not let our own plots get too overgrown (that meant taming my wild pumpkin vines!) In return, she gave me carte blanche to take as much Swiss Chard as I could cut from her never-ending crop of the green leafy stuff.
My garden experience ended on Veteran’s Day. The kids had the day off. First, we paid a visit to the brand new Veteran’s Memorial sculpture, just next door to the garden:
Then, we got to work. We pulled out the last of the vegetation, blackened and dead as a result of a hard killing frost that descended over Rochester a night or two before:
We pulled up the fencing and the poles ( the boys had to have a stick fight with them atop the compost heap, of course):
Harvested our last pumpkins and carrots, and finally, chopped down the remains of that sunflower that grew to be about 10 feet tall.
Putting this garden to bed would be the first of many lasts for me in Rochester.
Like clearing out this garden, I’m literally pulling up my roots again. Rochester may not be my hometown, but it is for my kids.
When I cleared the last weeds with my kids, I knew I would never garden here again.
I would not be putting down my $25 deposit to renew my lease on this 10’x10′ piece of land that gave me so much delight. Next spring, this plot will be cared by someone else.
Next spring, I’ll be well on my way to finding our next home, and hopefully our next garden somewhere in Michigan.
Sue Gardner Smith, manager of the Brighton and South Wedge farmers markets, stands with a old abandoned barn along Westfall Road in Brighton. The barn is part of a site proposed as the Brighton Farm and Farmers Market expansion and renovation project. / SHAWN DOWD//staff photographer
Perhaps it is no coincidence that a woman with a surname derived from an old French word meaning “gardener” would become a grass-roots champion of the sustainable and organic food movement in Brighton.
With humble determination, Sue Gardner Smith turned her activism into a career in managing farmers markets — first in the South Wedge neighborhood of the city and now in Brighton.
Gardner Smith was the oldest of seven children growing up on a 70-acre farm in Wayne County that had been in her family for a century. She remembers walking through its cherry orchards with her father and tending to the family garden with her mother and siblings.
Being the oldest in a large family, Gardner Smith developed the nurturing traits of a “mother hen” by cooking meals and caring for her younger siblings. In her early culinary experimentation, some dishes were tastier than others. Even into adulthood, she still gets teased by her siblings at her first attempts in the kitchen.
“When I was nine, I came up with a dish called chipped beef on toast. It was wretched. … I have to say that my cooking and tastes have improved vastly since then,” said Gardner Smith, who now prefers making dishes like ricotta cheese and onions stuffed into Swiss chard leaves she grows at her 10-foot by 10-foot plot in the Brighton community garden, a project also under her charge.
In her experiences of living in cities abroad and in the United States, nothing unites people more than food. She has shopped for fresh produce in the open-air markets and dined in the cafes in the plazas of Brussels. In London, there was the tavern and pub culture, “neutral” places where local neighbors could gather for a meal and a drink at the end of the day.
During her 15 years living in the San Francisco Bay area, she visited restaurants like Chez Panisse and markets such as the Berkeley Bowl, where the air buzzed with a sense of what she called “food energy.”
“It’s not just about eating. It’s how people gather at markets to socialize and catch up with neighbors as they shop. It’s the sounds of local musicians playing among the produce stands. I have long felt that Brighton should have this kind of gathering place, and I’m glad to watch its success,” she said.
Since 2008, the market held each Sunday in the Brighton High School parking lot from May through October is a testament of Brighton’s desire for high-quality and locally grown food. One thing Gardner Smith admits is that from a short-term perspective, eating organic and local is a bit costlier. Also, a recent Stanford University study recently concluded that organic food is no more nutritional than conventionally grown food.
However, she believes these factors will not curb the organic, locavore trend. This is because people are starting to put values on reducing their carbon footprint and the use of harmful pesticides, and developing a direct and trusting relationship between the grower and the producer at local markets.
“The study missed the point and had too narrow a focus. When you buy local and organic, you develop a sense of trust with the farmer, and you are also helping to support the local economy,” she said.
In addition to buying locally produced food, Brighton residents also expressed a desire to get their own hands dirty in avegetable garden of their own. In 2009, the creation of a community garden in Brighton seemed like the next step.
“It seemed like an obvious sister project to the market,” said Gardner Smith, who with a committee helped build a fence and a gate system around 100 10-foot by 10-foot plots on Westfall Road by the historic Groos house. Outside of a few stubborn groundhogs that managed to breach the fence, Brighton residents have enjoyed the bounty of their harvests.
Now that the shorter days and cooler nights of autumn are here, it is time for Gardner Smith and the other Brighton gardeners to put their plots to rest for the winter. But that doesn’t mean that plans for coming years will be put into hibernation.
Her ambitions for future years include using funds from a $250,000 state grant awarded to the town to preserve a farmhouse, a barn and some of the farmland on Westfall Road. The proposed project aims to create a permanent location for the farmers market and an expansion to the community garden with educational opportunities for schoolchildren to learn more about agriculture.
“Not only is my job rewarding, it’s also a lot of fun. I’ve met so many wonderful people in Brighton who are committed to this meaningful work that really has made a difference.”
Indeed, Sue Gardner Smith’s name suits her well.
It’s been more than a few weeks since I’ve written about my garden. I’ve had to pack the kids for camp. I was away visiting family and friends in New York City. There are several writing deadlines I must complete before the end of next week. And the family is in a bit of transition. More on that in a later post.
But, at the beginning of the summer, I said I would post about my garden, and I’ve got to get back on track.
Since early May I have been tending a 10 x 10 foot plot in my town’s community garden. I have been watering diligently
through this very dry summer.
When I was away, I left my garden in the care of some friends who have a plot adjacent to mine. They have a garden that is not only well cared for but is sealed like a fortress against any critters that may want to feast on their crops.
After a week of being away, I was tempted to drive out to the garden the night we arrived home. But there were kids and suitcases to unpack and get into the house. The garden would have to wait.
No one can tell me that there isn’t a time difference between New York City and Rochester.
Maybe its just the pace of time that moves faster “downstate” because when we returned from our week away in good ‘ol NYC, I was exhausted and slept until after 8 that morning.
I tried to push some energy into my voice when the phone rang and woke me at 8:15.
It was my gardening friend.
“Have you been over to the garden? I didn’t wake you? Did I?”
No, of course you didn’t wake me, I said, faking a wide awake tone into my voice. But, considering I just got home at nine the night before, and my garden would not be visible in the darkness.
I thought, is she mad? I’m still in downstate jet lag…why don’t Rochesterians get that there exists jetlag when returning from New York City? And you don’t even need to fly to get it!
“Well, you should get over there soon. Your garden is becoming known as the Garden that Ate the Community Garden!”
Indeed. In just one week’s time, my garden had exploded.
Now, compare my community garden at its humble beginnings back in May:
I cleared it and planted tiny seeds:
Sunflowers have grown taller than my tallest child.
Both the sunflowers – and the children
Pumpkin vines are creeping everywhere. I’ve actually received gentle reminders from my garden neighbors to please retrain my vines back into my garden plot and out of the common garden paths.
And, unlike a sun deprived pumpkin vine, not only am I getting blossoms that have been host to a number of pollen-intoxicated bees, but I actually have 5-10 pumpkins taking shape. I’ll need to make a lot of pumpkin pie this fall.
Not to mention a lot of tomato sauce:
The full sun of the garden has produced such strong leaves on my tomato plants, it looks like they’ve been going to the gym.
There have been some failures, of course every garden has them. My eggplant plants were eaten first by beetles and then strangled and overgrown by the invasive pumpkin vines.
The basil seeds I sprinkled never made it in this dry summer without a good daily watering.
But so far, this experiment in community gardening is paying off. Harvested my first crop of purple beans for dinner last night:
It’s post-July 4th – time for corn.
No self-respecting Northeasterner eats corn before the July 4th holiday and even then, some Western New Yorkers won’t partake in those yellow ears until at least August when they can be assured that their corn comes from a farm no more than 60 miles away.
My sister-in-law Maureen worked on a Francavilla Farm in Fairfield, NJ starting when she was 13 until she became a mother at age 30. She was in charge of dumping corn on the farm stand and selecting corn for special orders.
This makes her the family authority on corn. We were shucking corn for our July 4th BBQ when she noticed that two ears my mother purchased had been partially peeled.
This is a cardinal no-no and the inspiration for this blog post.
So, here are Maureen’s tips for properly selecting and preparing corn:
- Only buy corn when it is local and fresh – that means the summer and the summer only. No January corn!
- Look at the corns husk and make sure it is green and the bottoms are not dry.
- The silks should be a hue of pale yellow (we just used the word Hue in a Bananagrams game. It’s a good word game word.)
- Inspect the husks for possible worm holes and other imperfections. This usually happens at the end of the season.
- Fondle your corn. Check it all around to make sure it is fully formed and not missing kernels.
- DO NOT open the corn at the farm stand or store. It will immediately lose its freshness. This means NO SHUCKING corn at the store, unless you will immediately cook it. I’ve been known to give many corn shuckers at Wegmans dirty looks. Do they not know that they are murdering their corn?
- If an ear of corn is particularly good, you can eat it raw and it will be full of sweet flavor.
- Steaming not boiling is the best way to eat corn.
- It only needs five minutes in the steamer to completely cook.
- Maureen loves butter and salt. You don’t have to butter and salt your corn if it’s good, but she still does.
All welcome the season of corn!
First, I have to tell you that my inspiration to write this blog stems from three sources:
222 Million Tons – This is the amount of food we waste each year. This food blog wants to put a change to that by offering delicious recipes and ways to take action on how to waste less food;
Your Kind of Salad: Another food blog where I found this beautiful recipe for watermelon pops;
and, my daughter.
If you were confused at the headline of this blog posting, you are not alone.
When my daughter was about 16 months old and was being watched by her aunt on a hot July afternoon, it was this occassion that my daughter put together one of her first sentences beyond “I love you.”
It was: “I popeese”
Translation: Ice Pop Please.
It was on this hot day that my daughter wanted what most of us want on a hot day, something very cold.
An ice pop.
So, she repeated this sentence over and over to her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend who could not figure out what she was trying to say.
Now, any other infant would have had a meltdown tantrum at this point. Not my daughter. She simply walked over to the refrigerator, and, with her tiny hand raised above as if she was holding the torch like Lady Liberty, she patiently, and a bit more slowly, repeated
I -Pop – Peeze!
She finally got what she wanted:
Flash forward 15 years:
The other day I came home with one of those cute, personal sized seedless watermelons
I will not make that mistake again.
While it was cute as a button on the outside, inside, it was a mealy, mushy disappointment.
But it was $3. I couldn’t just toss it away. What a waste of food and money.
So, following the recipe I found on Your Kind of Salad:
I scooped out the watermelon flesh:
Pureed it in a blender
Passed the pulp through a strainer.
Then to this I added one cup of corn syrup (I know this sounds like a lot of a bad thing but the corn syrup adds a nice smooth finish to the pops) and the juice of one lime:
And poured it into the molds:
Then the hard part. You have to wait about six anguishing hours for the pops to freeze.
At last, they are frozen.
So, when the world hands you mushy watermelon, don’t throw it out, make ice pops!
Long ago, in another state, the Garden State, my neighbor Joe, a retired chain-smoking fireman, chided me as I put a tall tomato cage around the tiniest tomato seeding in my garden.
“Yeah right, like that’s gonna grow,” he said with smile as he pulled the waistline of his polyester pants over a plaid short-sleeved shirt.
Two months later, I teased him right back.
We were up to our ears in cherry tomatoes. Picked ’em by the basket. And beefsteak tomatoes too. I had so many cherry tomatoes I had to give them away, and my city-dwelling co-workers in Manhattan gladly took some of the perfectly ripened produce off my hands. And of course, I gave some to Joe and his wife Pat because I was a good sport.
This year, I could have purchased some tomato plants that already had flowers or, heaven forbid, green fruit, and stuck them into the ground in my spot in the community garden for instant gratification.
But it’s far more satisfying for me to know that from seed to ripened fruit, I grew a tomato all by myself. When you grow from seed, you can control the variety and are not at the mercy of whatever is sold at the local greenhouse or big box hardware store. It’s also a lot cheaper.
So, once again, I plant a tiny tomato seedling in the ground: