It’s been a lovely summer and autumn of eating in my vege patch. Every day since November I have been harvesting herbs, rambling for raspberries, slurping shockingly sweet strawberries and, when the alliteration got too much, unearthing spuds from mulch, snapping leaves of kale and silver beet and devouring zucchinis. The only disappointment of the season was the tomatoes, which resented the foot of rain we got in one weekend in January and sulked throughout the extended warm dry period we enjoyed until yesterday. I’m not bothered. That wet summer and long autumn made growing everything else easy. I still have strawberries!
Easy is good, because I am not diligent in the garden (or many other places, if you really want to know). I am prone to fits and starts and sometimes ignore things. I’m not always cooking so I don’t get to things in time. In the garden, this forgetfulness can have spectacular results.
These Hollow Crown parsnips looked so pretty in the vege patch that I was loth to dig them up, but maybe I shoulda done it sooner, because they got a bit … large (that’s a full size 1940s sink they are sitting on). Notice the rather ladylike limbs on the top one? I did wonder if these were really mandrakes (or ladydrakes), but luckily they did not scream when cooked. Parsnips get a bad rap, as this story about Don Burke ripping Donna Hay a new one for daring to promote them reveals. He is wrong. Parsnips are delicious. Which doesn’t explain why I ignored them so comprehensively they grew legs.
But then my marrows got into a similar state, as you can see with this cucumber, modelled by my lovely assistant Aaron, who adores cucumbers but is not sure about this one.
I’ve blogged about the advantages of overgrown zucchinis before, but I love baby beets and slender parsnips, roasted with brown sugar and balsamic, so there’s really no accounting for letting things go to this extent.
Yet this neglect has had benign – nay, wonderful – results. OK, if you ever saw a parsnip the size and shape of the ones above in a shop, you would never buy it, and neither you should. It would be tough, woody of heart and bitter of taste, because it would have endured long periods in transit and storage. But when taken straight from the earth (with a giant fork and a lot of grunting), even massive parsnips are sweet, juicy and yielding. I casseroled some with a jointed chook, a cup of white wine, preserved lemon and a bit of sage and tarragon and the result was a sauce that looked like I’d added a cup of cream to it. I nearly died of pleasure eating it. I also made them into a vegan soup with vege stock and white wine – they smelled apple sweet.
Same goes for the beetroot, which were so overgrown they stood up out of the ground but united heaven and earth when cooked into a soup with coriander and served with a dollop of tart yoghurt. But again, you wouldn’t buy beetroot like that in a shop. You’d surmise it would be past its peak of perfection, but you would be wrong.
It’s made me think a lot about how aesthetic notions of shop-ready produce lead to waste. What do the farmers do with the produce that does not meet Coles-Woollies specifications because it is too big, too small or looks like mandrake? I suppose some goes to canneries, but precious little would be returned to the earth via compost.
Growing to order can also afflict home gardeners, to their cost. If we only eat when vegetables reach a defined size, we miss the early tenderness of baby vegetables and shorten the eating season. If you cut the head off a cabbage or silverbeet or lettuce you kill it, but if you harvest outside leaves as you need them it will bear for months and months – over the course of a year a bunch of kale will become a palm tree. Peas and beans produce longer if harvested constantly, so it makes even more sense to pick early and often. If you leave things in the ground there is always something to salvage when you are hungry. And although most gardening books would tell you beetroots and parsnips take a lot of space, the fact is I’ve gotten almost six months of eating from stuffing a couple of dozen plants into a square metre of garden, and have not tired of either food. You see, even the instructions on seed packets guide you to producing shop-ready vegetables.
My slack gardening habits have led me to an epiphany. It’s time to break free from supermarket values. Don’t follow the directions on the seed packet but overplant and eat as you thin – the plants left over will fatten in the extra space and be there when you want them. Eat the leaf the caterpillar has chomped on, grow the artichokes to see their beauty, let the beets and parsnips stay in the ground until you are good and ready for them and save your harvesting energy for turning summer peaches into bellinis or racing the autumn frosts to tuck the tender things into the really deep freeze.