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When you have a garden

(article, Deborah Madison)

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When you have a garden, magic can happen. 

And it often happens with thinnings, odds and ends, sprigs of this, and leaves of that. The garden itself is what makes the food at Ubuntu or the pictures in Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty so compelling. These works of art make me feel as if I’m actually right there, in a garden.  

No big surprise here, but then sometimes it’s the obvious that gives us pause. I’ve noticed that every time I plant something that I habitually have in my pantry — say, cumin — when I open the package and tap the seeds into my palm, I always have this little moment of surprise: “Oh look, it’s cumin seed! I have that in my pantry!” 

Did I expect something else? Not really, but then I hadn’t thought about it, so there it is, that little shock of recognition. And that happens when I stoop down and take a close look at what’s going on in the garden.

I’m a fairly novice gardener, and I got a late start this year, so I’ve got plenty of crowded rows that need thinning. Even my cardoons need thinning — I had no idea they’d grow with such enthusiasm. But they are too tough to eat and in fact, they look a lot like some thistles that are coming up elsewhere in the garden. 

The softer leaves, though, are different. While in the midst of making a birthday dinner recently for a friend, I wandered out into the garden to see if anything had happened in the past hour (where are those beans, and when are they coming up?) and decided to do some picking and thinning to augment a salad of limestone lettuces from the farmers' market. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="The thinnings go into a salad."]

They’re all in the photo: a sprig of chervil, some celery leaves, and the thinnings of Mercado amaranth, along with a weed thriving in another bed that looks about the same because it’s in same family. 

I also plucked some wild spinach, some little red lettuces hiding under the arugula, and some entire (small) arugula plants. The golden purslane needed thinning as well, as did the carrots and beets. I forgot about the sprouting leeks and basil, and the chive blossoms were done for, but the parsley umbels were small and tender, so I plucked some of those.  

If I had a mass of these greens with all their different hues and textures, I’d use them as a little salad on their own, probably atop something else, like sliced golden beets doused with some of Katz’s Gravenstein cider vinegar. But I didn’t have a mass. I had just enough to make a lettuce salad more interesting. 

There was nothing special in this combination. It could have included any number of leafy things, but any and all of such tidbits are what can make something good into something better.  

I love the mystery and magic such little plants impart. They are at once both exotic and unfamiliar, and as ordinary as carrots and beets. Purslane is nothing new or secret, and the amaranth looks like a lot of the weeds in my garden, which happen to be in the same family. The thing is, you can’t buy these gems at the grocery store no matter how fancy and costly the offerings. You can’t really find them at the farmers' market, either. But you can find them in a small square of garden. 

I may never grow an enormous cabbage, but today it’s these tiny possibilities for wonder that make me doubly appreciate my garden.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

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