Spring gardens, wilted lettuce leaf salad, and strawberries
The lettuce is in and we’ve already had our first wilted lettuce leaf salad with dinner. The lettuce is loving this morning’s sixty-three-degree temperature and rain. The ninety-three-degree temperature, a May 7th record for the St. Louis area, wilted it yesterday. Last week it was the forties, this week the nineties. We must be in the Midwest.
The green beans, cucumbers and nasturtiums are likewise planted and loving the cool weather. Two spindly looking tomato plants occupy the dirt-filled claw foot bathtub next to the rear porch. We picked up a six-pack of them at the local farmers’ market, but younger son Alex made off with the four best looking ones to plant in his share of a Jackson County, Illinois, community garden.
They’ll soon be joined by another half-dozen or so tomato plants, which never do well, but hope springs eternal. Too much shade and too little space, but with the massive haircut I gave the oak leaf hydrangea maybe they’ll do better this year. At least they’ll get a more morning sun.
Somehow, we always seem to wind up with far too many tomato plants for the limited room in the ancient tub, so a few get planted behind the fence next to the compost bin. Although they’re ignored all summer long, never weeded and watered only by the occasional shower they seem to produce better and far longer into the fall than the carefully coddled ones next to the porch.
For some reason only the cherry tomatoes seem to thrive. Invariably the few big tomatoes we get always wind up with a bite, a single bite, taken out of the juiciest, ripest part by the ever-present squirrels. Opa, the yellow Lab, gladly chases any rabbit with the temerity to venture into the yard, but she ignores the squirrels. She’s yet to catch one but not for lack of trying.
We call her favorite would-be prey the Easter Bunny. Opa will start to chase her. The Easter Bunny darts ten-feet away. Opa loses interest. Easter Bunny begins nibbling tender greens again. Opa darts after her once again and the cycle continues. This morning Easter Bunny got her revenge. After taunting Opa with her ten-foot dashes, Easter Bunny slipped through the wrought iron gate to the tender shoots of the front lawn.
Frustrated by the iron bars, Opa growled, barked and paced as the Easter Bunny sat just out of reach grooming herself, all the while ignoring her would-be predator. Luckily for Easter Bunny, the barred owl which regularly patrols the neighborhood had tucked in for her morning snooze. While she has no problem outdarting the middle-aged Lab, her growing plumpness likely makes her an easy target for a hungry aviator.
Easter Bunny doesn’t feed on the crisp lettuce as it’s perched in a gardening table elevated waist high. The squirrels ignore it other than using the table as a launching pad for the sunflower seed filled bird feeders. Like the Easter Bunny the squirrels grow fat on our largesse.
I’m glad the squirrels ignore the lettuce. With the suffocating Southern Illinois sun cutting the lettuce growing season too short, I’d hate to share the crispy delight of the lettuce with them.
As I contemplate the tang of last night’s wilted lettuce leaf salad, tossed with hot bacon grease and acidic red wine vinegar, I want to tell you that there’s nothing better. But then the newly picked strawberries we had for dessert come to mind. These are real strawberries. Southern Illinois strawberries. So delicate they can’t be shipped.
These are strawberries that when you buy them the aroma fills your nostrils. As you drive home from one of our local farm stands, the scent permeates the car and your stomach is growling before you can get home.
These aren’t those tasteless, cardboard textured, plastic packed abomination that come from far away. These are the strawberries from my childhood. A mixture of sweetness and tartness that bring joy to your senses. Plump , red, bursting with flavor, they’re only available for a few short weeks. We’ve been driving by the farm stands for the last three weeks in a fruitless search until yesterday afternoon, when we saw the self-pickers stooped over in the fields. We knew then it was time. Time for strawberries.
We’ve planted them in the past too, but both the squirrels and the rabbits loved them as much as I. It was just too frustrating to pull off the half-eaten berries, while longing to taste them.
Lettuce from the garden, strawberries from the farm stands, soon, but not soon enough it will be fresh, real tomatoes, corn on the cob picked that morning, grown in that black, rich Illinois dirt. Full of the flavor we miss the rest of the year. And did I mention the blackberries are blooming?
Audio production by: Tom Calhoun, www.paguytom.com