I love my garden, but sometimes it makes me feel like I’m a contestant on one of those cooking shows where amateur chefs are given a basket of incompatible ingredients and have to make a gourmet meal with them in less than 30 minutes.
When I started gardening, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I thought it would be more like having my own personal grocery store stocked full of everything I could ever want and ready to go whenever I needed them. Laugh out loud. That couldn’t be further from reality, where I’m lucky if my nightly basket of random has enough material to build a single serving of salad.
That doesn’t make me sound like a great gardener, and after three years it certainly feels like I should have more to show on a nightly basis. However, considering where I started back in 2020, consistently eating anything from the garden is a major feat that I have worked hard to accomplish. That might sound like I’ve barely grown anything to eat but to the contrary, I’ve grown a lot to consistently eat — my struggle has been consistently eating what I grow.
This has been one of the biggest learning curves I faced in gardening. If that sounds like a strange predicament, trust me, I was equally confused when I realized how truly difficult I found incorporating the things that I (theoretically) wanted to eat into my diet. Unpacking the reasons for this struggle hasn’t been easy. There’s been a plethora of mental hurdles I’ve had to jump over, many of which I think a lot of us newbies to gardening encounter that just aren’t addressed in gardening books. A big one, as presented in the beginning, is the expectation that our gardens are going to be just like grocery stores.
But a garden — and this becomes apparent almost immediately — is not a grocery store. In fact, it operates exactly the opposite of a grocery store for many reasons.
At the store, you’re generally looking at the produce sans soil and the rest of the plant it came from. In this case, we trust that there was a farmer on the back end making the calls about whether something was ready to be picked or not.
In the garden, however, it becomes your job to make these decisions, and while there are plenty of resources out there describing what each crop looks like when it’s generally ready to be harvested, that doesn’t stop you from second-guessing yourself about whether you genuinely know what a cucumber or green bean looks like. And that’s just food above the surface. Roots and tubers are a completely different story. Pulling up one wimpy, half-grown carrot is enough to inspire avoidance of pulling up any carrot no matter what it looks like up top. At least with beets and radishes, the greens are just as edible as the root should they fail to form, but good luck feeling comfortable right off the bat tossing those in a pan with butter and garlic.
Seeing produce in a new setting and not in a perfected commercial shape kept me from recognizing what I was growing, in any form, as something worth eating. A lot of potential salads and sautés ended up being tossed to the chickens. (And don’t get me started on that subject.)
At a grocery store, you can usually get the exact amount of what you need when you need it. The garden, on the other hand, gives what it gives when it gives it. There are ways to plan the general timeline for getting the give, but I’m not going to pretend my garden space abides by seed packet predictions or that what I planted can be counted on to make it all the way to the finish line. I either end up with the underwhelm or the overwhelm — my awkward basket of one radish and two beets, or all my tomatoes deciding to turn red at the same time, conveniently after I cut back the basil.
Things aligning just right is a rare but delightful occurrence. However, I’ve learned there’s no good reason to wait when food is ready to be picked, even if you need a lot of a particular crop to make anything substantial. I had a tendency to put off picking things, like very time-sensitive shelling peas, and would tell myself I had to have something special planned for their use before bringing them inside. Spoiler alert: Nothing special was ever planned. Hesitation kills the dream. If you can’t make a meal, make a snack.
Eating from the garden is as much a skill to practice as sprouting seeds and nurturing plants. It’s a new relationship you have to foster with yourself and with plants, and it’s complicated. Forcing myself to abandon the idea of grocery store perfection and putting my amateur chef’s hat on to make do with what I have is still a struggle, but a vegetable of any shape in any amount flavored by the sweat of my brow tastes more and more perfect with each bite.
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