Gardening on Martha’s Vineyard starts to slow down

Goals to aspire to: Paul Jackson's impressive display of home garden produce at the 2011 Agricultural Fair. — Photo by Susan Safford

All the signs point to it: pesky yellow jackets, heavy dewfall, the katydid and cricket chorus, roadside banks of goldenrod. Summer is cresting and Labor Day looms.

Pensive thoughts are also signs of the season. I sometimes find myself wishing for a stronger American formal garden tradition because, in a formal garden, as summer winds down it would not be so obvious that we are leaving it behind…. Formal gardens of severe classic demeanor project a kind of timelessness, and they change little as seasons pass. Think Italian or French gardens. They often feature hardscape and statuary, greenery such as clipped hedges and lawn, and strong geometry. In contrast are blowsy or informal gardens, composed of flowerbeds, where abundant color and flower forms are of primary importance.

American summer gardens can be thought of as waves of the different flower families. We enjoy our way through iris and peony, delphinium and poppy, the daylily and rambler rose explosion, divine hydrangeas, and phlox (and all the rest). When we come down to dahlias and the golden crescendo of Compositae — goldenrod, helianthus, heliopsis, and rudbeckia — we know we are about to consign our children to school and summer to history. Asters, chrysanthemums, and sedums bring up the rear.

Keep harvesting

In the vegetable garden, keep everything stripped, even if you cannot use it. Freeze, share with friends, donate to a person or group in need, or compost it. Vegetable crops such as squash/cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, or sprouting broccoli physiologically must not be allowed to mature to seed. Harvesting them stimulates their production, similar to deadheading annuals in the ornamental garden.

Cut-downs and mulch

Garden tending includes less fun jobs, cut-downs and mulching for instance. Many perennials that have finished their flowering cycles may now be cut down. Late summer is an okay time to mulch. Some new basal growth will grow right up through it. There are advantages: plant locations are known, cut down or not, and smothering avoided. Windborne seeds such as goldenrod, sweet autumn clematis, and milkweed are thwarted. The job won’t have to be done in winter.

Preserve something

Preservation is the other half of growing the garden, along with its corollary activities: cooking and eating. It is time to consider, if you have not already, the ways you want to take the garden yield with you into winter. The beautiful food that comes out of our gardens needs to be turned into the best-tasting dishes we can create, and then we need to sit down and enjoy them until next spring.

Growing a crop of paste tomatoes should be high on the list for supplying useful culinary products year-round. Their meatiness, heavy yield, and all-at-once ripening demonstrate the breeding for purpose that went into their creation. While so-called heritage breeds and varieties have taken center stage in growers’ markets over the past decade or so, main croppers ‘Roma’ and ‘San Marzano’ have been mainstays for half a century or more.

From the website Chocolate and Zucchini:

“Six ripe ‘Roma’ tomatoes; 1 tsp. sugar (optional); salt, pepper; dried herbs (optional); olive oil. Preheat the oven to 210ºF. Halve the tomatoes, and run your thumb in the cavities to remove the juice and seeds. ‘Roma’ tomatoes have a very thin stem, but if the tomatoes you are using have a tougher stem, cut it out. Put the tomato halves, cut side up, in a non-stick baking dish (or a regular but greased baking dish).

“Sprinkle with sugar, season with salt, pepper and dried herbs if using. Drizzle with olive oil. Stir gently to coat, using a wooden spatula. Make sure all the tomatoes are back cut side up. Put into the oven to bake, keeping an eye on them, for two to three hours depending on the variety and the desired consistency. Use warm or cold in pasta, salads, sandwiches….”

I sprinkle with thyme leaves and omit the sugar. The tomates confites will keep refrigerated in oil, but I place convenient amounts in small freezer baggies to freeze immediately. They go into soups, casseroles, sauces, and vegetable dishes like the following recipe:

Aunt Enza’s Overstewed Green Beans, a recipe that can be made from fresh or frozen beans, or put into the freezer fully prepared, is from Faith Willinger’s “Red, White, & Greens: the Italian Way with Vegetables” (Harper Collins, 1996):

“1 small onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 cup tomato pulp

1 pound green beans, stem end snapped off

freshly ground black pepper, fresh red hot pepper, or dried chili pepper flakes

coarse sea salt

1/4 cup boiling water

2 tbsp chopped basil

1. Put the onion and the garlic in a heavy-bottomed 3-quart pot, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, and stir to coat the vegetables.

2. Place the pot over low heat and cook the onion and the garlic for 10 minutes or until tender.

3. Add the tomato [I substitute either Tomates Confites or Garden Special], green beans, and pepper (or hot pepper) and season with salt. Bring to a simmer and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cooking time will depend on the quality and freshness of the beans, which should be tender and soft. Check after 10 minutes to make sure that cooking liquid is sufficient. Add one-quarter cup boiling water if necessary. If beans expel too much water, uncover and cook over high heat to thicken sauce.

4. Add the basil, cook for 2 to 3 minutes, remove from heat, and stir in remaining 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.”

5. Bag portions in freezer baggies and freeze. To use, thaw and gently reheat.