back to the garden

artichokes in the garden

For years, I have yearned to be a gardener. How could I not want to have the power to strew seeds upon the earth, water just enough, and watch green leaves unfurl toward the sun? It’s magic, I tell you. Magic.

But me? As a kid I killed every tiny sunflower that sprouted in a Dixie cup from grade school. House plants must have formed an association to stay away from me, since I killed so many of them inadvertently. And planting a garden — a square space of planned rows with lovely greens and good things to eat — and seeing the hope turn into dinner? It has, until this year, eluded me.

Here on Vashon, being good at gardening is almost a requirement for living on the island. All spring and summer, the weekends are booked with garden tours, open houses to enormous gardens filled with spiraling copper raised beds lavish with French herbs and exotic plants. Almost everyone has a garden worthy of a spread in Sunset magazine.

(As you drive on the island, you’ll see gardens in big cages all around you. We’re not imprisoning our plants. The deer rule this place. There’s a family of five of that lives among the handful of yards on the gravel road where we live. If we don’t build tall fences, they chew down everything. Gardens are fiercely protected spaces here.)

However, since we moved to Vashon, my dream of a glowing garden has been a failure every time.

There were the stray herbs in pots. A handful of small strawberries from a patch of dirt that sprouted them spontaneously. Some Swiss chard leaves. A few bunches of lettuce that turned out to be edible. And tiny German butterball potatoes no bigger than my thumb. Those were my sole accomplishments in the garden.

They were, however, enough to make me keep trying.

This year we have artichokes. Artichokes are growing in my garden! There are gorgeous heirloom lettuces, more than I can eat, even with my daily salad for lunch. There are onion sprouts, baby kale, glossy green leaves of Swiss chard that grow every day, snap peas and snow pea tendrils climbing the fence toward the sun, and broccoli. I’m actually growing broccoli.

And spinach. Oh my, the spinach.

The day we returned from our trip to New York and Italy, Danny stopped the car in the driveway and I immediately walked to the garden. I froze when I saw it.

Holy hell. We have a lot of spinach. 

Seriously, does anyone need a bunch of organic spinach? Because we have about 35 left, and we’ve been eating and eating it for days. Spinach pesto will be part of our dinner all winter long.

What happened this year?

I let go.

Lucy eating peas

In the years past, I have planned and thought and talked and asked questions and researched online. I’ve drawn up drawings of where everything should go. I’ve pestered my gardening friends with questions. I’ve carefully studied the growing tips in at least three books before planting starts.

This year, I turned off my targeting computer and listened to Obi Wan Kenobi. Trust the force, Luke.

Instead of planning, I planted.

Always before, I was imagining the final outcome. Lucy and I are going to wake up in the morning and eat peas, first thing after sunrise. That happened a couple of times in our old garden. But not much. On the way there, I fretted about the ending instead of enjoying it.

This year, in March, I started putting my hands in cold soil. I dug up old plants and weeds. I amended the earth and watered and then I forgot it. A few weeks later, I threw some seeds in the ground. I’m not kidding. I kind of just threw them and patted them down. I planted more.

Every day, I spent 3o minutes in the garden. After a long winter, my skin wanted to feel the sunlight. I just worked, every day, until I had worked for 30 minutes. I dug and pulled and hoed and said hello to the worms and planted some seeds and stood up, wiped off my knees, and went inside. I left the garden where it was.

I did that every day for months.

And one day, I looked around and there were things growing. Baby green leaves and tiny sprouts of broccoli. Little red leaves of lettuce. Going out to the garage one evening, I thought, “Man, it’s cold.” So I cut off the bottoms of the plastic jugs that once contained filtered water we had in the recycling bin and put them over the lettuce and broccoli sprouts to keep them warm. That’s when I knew I had the bug, when I made little warm hoods for my plant sprouts.

I think, this year, I just enjoyed it.

And I’ll refrain from turning this into a metaphor for anything else.

All I know is that enjoying this, thoroughly, has meant that Lucy and I are in the garden, eating snow peas for breakfast, every morning.

broccoli leaves

One of my favorite discoveries of the garden this year? Broccoli leaves.

Our plants have grown stalky and tall, the broccoli florets still tiny. While we were gone, the leaves took all the sunlight and grew enormous. I looked at them the other day and thought, “Wait, those look like collard greens.”

I’d never eaten broccoli leaves before. Dope that I am, I wondered if they were poisonous. I googled recipes for broccoli leaves from the garden, which yielded lots of good advice, before I stripped them from the plant.

Turns out they’re a little like young collard leaves and a little like dark lacinato kale. You heard it hear first, people. Eat broccoli leaves. Slice them into thin ribbons — even thinner than the ones you see pictured — and throw them in a hot pan with oil. Chile flakes, a little garlic, a tumble of sea salt. Shake them in the pan until they are wilted and soft. Done.

After we grow so tired of spinach we feel like Popeye in the middle of a hallucination, we’re going to start having sautéed broccoli greens for breakfast every morning.

It’s an eat-from-the-garden kind of year.

24 comments on “back to the garden


    Not until living here in SW France, have I been interested in gardening. Here, it is a lifestyle.
    Even for people in apartments, towns have solutions by renting out plots for us apartment dwellers to grow some greens.

  2. Harsi

    Oh, man… A few days ago, I stopped by both of my nearby farm stands looking for fresh spinach with no luck. I caved and bought a package at Thriftway. Wish I had known that I could have just stopped by your place. I’d have gladly taken some off your hands. *grin*

  3. Marla

    Oh the lessons to be learned in letting go 🙂 I also had no idea it was safe to eat broccoli leaves and we eat a lot of broc! Congratulations on your garden. Lucy looks darling eating her snow pea.

  4. Lee

    Perfect post today since I just posted on flickr about my new Garden Grub group. I’d love to have you so I’ll send an invite. xoxox

  5. lauren

    Congrats! I love love love our garden. We have 5 square foot gardens in our backyard and it is a joy to walk out back to collect herbs for dinner. But this year we have something even better! Strawberries!!!! Each morning my husband picks strawberries for our breakfast. I feel like a queen 🙂

  6. Mira C

    Beautiful post! I love the meditation of waking up early on summer mornings and watering the plants. They give so much to us, and it feels good giving them what we can in return.

    If you are a Deborah Madison fan, you should check out her new book Vegetable Literacy (they have signed copies at Book Larder!). The book is broken down by vegetable families, and she tells you about all kinds of plant parts that you didn’t know you could eat. It’s really informative.

    Enjoy the sunshine and the gardening!

  7. Ann Morgan

    Every year while I was growing up in Michigan, and still, my mother and uncle – an uncle who is an ACTUAL FARMER – would have a garden contest. My uncle would spend the winter consulting the Almanac, drawing up plans, evaluating weather patterns, ordering things from various catalogs…you name it. My mom would knit, suddenly remember the garden, get a bunch of random stuff, dig for a week and then throw the seeds on the ground haphazardly. I think she might have been skipping and singing “la, la, laaaaaa, la” too. Anyway, she always won the contest by a landslide! (Also I always felt fantastic in the summer, no one knew why, until I got diagnosed with Celiac – turns out I only ate veggies from the garden because my mom stopped baking in the summer. Go figure. But I remember being very small and eating raw snow peas and raw green beans every morning.)

  8. Kyle

    When I started gardening after college, I started with a container garden. My basil would just not thrive. Eventually, it was so sad that I gave up entirely and quit feeding I watering it. Surprise, surprise…within a week it sprang to life! I’d been killing it with my good intentions!

  9. Jenn

    I’ve been putting off starting a garden for the past three years because I have been trying to plan the perfect one. I usually kill all of the plants. This post inspires me to just do it – try and see what happens. Thank you for the reminder to ‘let go’. It’s hard for me to do but things seem much easier once I manage to do so. (Ps – your artichokes look spectacular!)

  10. Victoria Smith

    Holy moly, look at those artichokes! Our’s got our of control while we were in Italy, and now they have the most amazingly-humongous purple flower that looks like a sea anemone. It’s already too hot in our garden for most leafy greens … the lettuces are bolting, what’s left of our snow peas and sugar snaps are gasping and going to seed, and our first planting of green beans has almost finished. Would love to trade tomatoes for spinach, we’re picking several pounds daily and have 5 1/2 months left in the season. The Juliettes are large, sweet, meaty, and perfect for roasting with whole heads of garlic! We will definitely stir fry some broccoli greens this fall and winter, and we’re looking forward to cooler weather so we can plant the beautiful endive seeds we found at Esselunga.

  11. wendy

    I have dug up the front garden and planted veges. It gets the most sun! Have all sorts under rose bushes and amongst strawberries. Broccoli leaves are getting big will try them this weekend.

  12. Jenn Sutherland

    Oh how I long for a wild and lush garden like yours…I love my home in the city and near the water, but we don’t have the space for our own plot to grow spinach, so I shall live vicariously through your gardening adventures. And the bit about creating “little warm hoods for plant sprouts” just made me smile. What a beautiful image.

    1. Julie

      Oh Jenn, you should try gardening in pallets. You can lean them up against a wall or fence, and they grow beautifully. Check them out online, and see if that method might work for you. They are perfect for inner-city gardens.

  13. Heather

    I so enjoyed this post. This year was the first year I didn’t have straight rows. I let my 5 & 2 year old help me & the joy in that was far greater than everything coming up clean & organized. I had extra beets, radishes & lettuce, I threw them in last night, no real rhyme or reason to where they went. For the first time I’m also not thinking of the end result, how many tomatoes I will can before winter, just enjoying it, being clever with it & bringing healthy dishes to my family, and of course, eating peas for breakfast every morning. The peas are my most favorite part, well, them and the pineapple heirloom tomatoes. The yellow sunburst has a bit of a peppery flavor that I recommend for ‘mater sammiches. Good for you kiddo, you are so inspiring and I personally learn so much from you & your views about life, not just food. Thank you for sharing your heart.

  14. diane harris

    There is an expression “let go and let go”…I’ll amend it to…”let go and let mama nature”…you did that and are reaping the rewards…….enjoy the abundance!!!

  15. mary

    I’ve been throwing my broccoli leaves in my smoothies for some time now, along with the stalks, and any other parts of veggies that I wouldn’t normally eat on their own. I never even thought they might be poisonous! lol I guess I’m glad they weren’t…waste not, want not.

  16. Julie

    My twins and I love to do this very same thing, only they call them “Baby Peas!” with exactly that enthusiasm. We started out like you did, just a little bit of gardening every day. Because I am a school teacher, that’s about all the time we have in the evenings when we get home, but that small bit of time each day refreshes my soul and allows me to spend time with my children. They have their own raised bed that we keep stocked with whatever flowers are pretty and in season, and I buy seeds for them to plant, wherever they like. Their favorites are snow peas and sugar snap peas, green beans, and strawberries. Gardening with children is such a delight, and teaching them how to grow their own food, and eat it, is one of the greatest gifts you can give to them. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

  17. mary purdy

    What a gorgeous artichoke! Fabulous vegetable for supporting healthy liver function and optimizing detoxification…..perfect for Spring! And , wow, do I want some extra spinach? Are you kidding? If I lived on Vashon I’d be over immediately! 🙂 – Mary

  18. Kari

    Visiting my great aunt and uncle on Vashon when I was a kid, I remember the extreme measures they would try to keep deer out of the flower beds. The most amusing was the radio playing loudly at night on the back porch. The deer, of course, quickly adapted to the evening concert.

  19. Stephanie

    Now I want to grow Artichokes! Can you eat those crazy, amazing leaves?

    I love gardening, and my low bar for satisfaction is set at having enough food to snack on while I’m weeding! My big change this summer has been to buy organic fertilizer and add it periodically instead of relying on my compost to be sufficiently rich. The tomatoes are getting taller, and I’ve harvested a radish, garlic scapes, and a hot pepper thus far. My pea plants are climbing my Jerusalem artichokes (woah do those babies multiply!), and are beginning to flower. I’m hopeful that I’ll get more than last year, which wasn’t much of a year for the tomatoes and peppers, but in the meantime I’m enjoying microgreen and herb salads, garlic scapes, the sun on my skin and the dirt on my hands.

  20. Donna Vieira

    Shauna, plant some broccoli seeds in the very late summer. . . Autumn “cole” crops are even sweeter then. My Kentucky Wonder green beans are climbing their trellises, and Boston crunch cukes doing the same. Oh, the joys of getting your hands into the good earth! A Blessing beyond compare. Lucy is darling, as always. . . So are You.

  21. Shana

    Broccoli leaves are amazing – I always save them for myself as a cooks treat. You are much nicer than I to share and tell everyone on the internet 😉 I like mine cooked and tossed with garlic, chili flakes and noodles.

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