I have always had a personal conflict between growing your own vegetables in a home garden and buying the best, freshest, local produce during the summer at farmer’s markets, fruit stands, or the “honor system” roadside carts in front of many area farms. My conflict really stems from the fact that I just don’t like gardening very much: dirt, mud, bugs, weeds. I’m a desk jockey. That said, I certainly do like the products that the garden produces.
Where I start, and have no conflict at all, is with herbs. Basil, oregano, sage, chives, rosemary, cilantro, etc. Plant them in pots, stick them by the back door, water them once in a while, and eat them often enough that they don’t grow crazy. Fresh herbs are fantastic, and they also win the argument that they are better than what you can buy. Better not necessarily because of taste, but because bought-fresh herbs tend to be expensive and they have a very short shelf life.
With vegetables things start to get a little murky. Is a green pepper from my back yard really better than a fresh picked pepper from Brad’s? What about tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash and all the rest of the beautiful variety of bounty from the farm? For me, the mud-averse, it is just not worth the trouble if you are growing the standard varieties. They are readily available and cheap. For the green thumbs out there who find your Buddah Center wallowing in the weeds, God bless and have at it. The home grown stuff is certainly very good, as good as a farm stand, but not better enough for me to be tortured by a roto-tiller.
One conundrum is corn. There is no doubt that an ear of corn, picked fresh from the back yard and immediately boiled, is a sublime experience. Every kernel is a mini flavor-bomb, exploding with freshness enhanced with a dab of butter and pinch of salt. The problem for me with home grown corn is that it takes up a huge amount of space if you want a reasonable yield. Lots of roto-tilling per ear. I go for the farmer’s market or roadside stand but also work hard to weasel dinner invitations to friend’s homes where they grow corn.
Where I surrender, and put on my overalls, is with heirloom vegetable varieties. Over the past five or more years we have seen a huge resurgence of older varieties of vegetable and fruit plant stock that was developed for taste, not shelf life or shipping characteristics. Look at the strawberries you can buy in the grocery store in the winter—they are huge, bright red, never bruised, and taste like nothing. I bought two boxes of strawberries at the Bel Air Farmer’s Market (www.belairfarmersmarket.com) yesterday and they tasted like strawberries – a sure sign that spring is here and summer is around the corner. But, I’d better eat them fast because they don’t last too long in the refrigerator (actually they don’t last too long anyway in my house).
With heirlooms you get the best of all worlds growing in your garden: super fresh, fantastic flavor, and a vegetable that you simply cannot get in the market. This is worth the effort. Today we planted two Sungold tomato plants, a bright yellow small cherry variety that is sweet, sweet, sweet. We also planted the Paul Robeson tomato, a purple/black Russian variety. In years past we have tried Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter and many others. Check out www.tomatofest.com to see the literally hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties available. We also did two varieties of Asian eggplants, two heirloom peppers, one sweet and one chili, green beans, snap peas, and Thai basil.
Did I tell you that I could live all summer on corn and tomato/mozzarella salad? One of my favorite corn recipes is to quickly boil fresh corn, cut it off the cob, mix with finely diced roasted red peppers along with butter, salt and a heavy grind of black pepper. Serve warm. For tomato/mozz, slice up a bunch of tomatoes (bite size – either whole slices or half), the same number of fresh mozzarella slices, thin (use real fresh mozz, not grocery store. Savona’s in Bel Air is a good source (www.savonabelair.com), layer the tomatoes and mozzarella standing up is a shallow dish (vertical, not lasagna-style layers), sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder, fresh chopped basil, good quality olive oil, and a few dashes of balsamic vinegar. Swirl around to coat and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
Another option that I didn’t mention is the CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, where you can buy seasonal “shares” of a farm and get a designated, usually weekly, amount of whatever is being picked that week. Brad’s in Churchville does CSA shares (www.bradsproduce.com), as does One Straw Farm (www.onestrawfarm.com), the largest organic produce farm in Maryland, which distributes on Thursdays at Boordy Vineyard in Baldwin. We have done this in the past but did not this year because we are only two people in the household and would simply be overwhelmed with veggies if we didn’t draw the line somewhere.
We certainly have a wide spectrum of choices to take advantage of the summer growing season here in Harford County, Maryland. Do whatever fits your lifestyle, but definitely support our local farmers and their great products. Throw in a few crabs from time to time, or some grilled local steaks from Deer Creek Beef (www.DeerCreekBeef.com) or Hickory Chance Beef (www.HickoryChanceBeef.com), invite a few friends over, add a cold beer or glass of wine, and enjoy the “Land of Pleasant Living.” Life is good.