, Gloucester, MA

August 23, 2013

Gad, zukes! Fighting to enjoy fruits of labor

Journal Pages
Susan S. Emerson

---- — We expanded out vegetable garden this year. Now that we’re all grown up, we know our favorite veggies, and of those, we know which grow best for us.

So we decided on peas, broccoli, tomatoes — both “cherry” and the big guys, zucchini and summer squash, green beans, and Swiss chard. We also planted a variety of herbs in individual pots that could come inside when the weather got cold.

We were disappointed when the peas didn’t show, but conceded that peas can prove tricky. You must plant them early enough in spring so they will yield before the hot weather arrives, but not so early that they might freeze, and it had been a cold, rainy spring. We filled their empty bed with green bean seeds.

Every evening after the rest of the planting, we sat on the upstairs deck in anticipation of watching our garden grow. The first couple weeks we spent pulling up dense, robust weeds so the tiny vegetables wouldn’t have to fight so hard to claim their space. The weeds were endlessly assertive.

One morning, my husband chimed the happy news that the beans were up, and then, before you could say “Jack Rabbit,” the plants were 5 inches tall, tender leaves unfolded, followed by tiny pinkish-white flowers, each bearing promise of a string bean. We could almost taste them, steamed with a dot of butter and a sprinkle of salt.

But not long after, my husband stomped into the kitchen, announcing with horror that the beans were gone. “Gone?” I asked incredulously, “What do you mean, gone?” I dutifully joined him in accessing row after row of green skeletons, every leaf and flower stripped naked, leaving only skimpy, naked stems. A smug, handsome mother rabbit leapt out from the tall grass and dashed away, followed by several fluffy brown and white baby bunnies.

Frustrated, my husband headed off to the nearest plant nursery, inquiring of the clerk, “Is there some product that discourages rabbits?” He motioned toward the far end of the room. “Go stand in that line of people over there.”

So again, we faced the empty bed after pulling up the beans, this time setting in several pumpkin plants and some hearty marigolds, which lifted our spirits with their vibrant color while keeping away the beetles. Undeterred by rabbit spray, the bunnies also nibbled on the broccoli leaves, but were uninterested in the thick stalks and flowers, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

Meanwhile, the squash plants grew like teenagers. Ever hear that joke about zucchini? It goes like this: “Do you know why people in New Hampshire keep their cars locked in August?” Answer: “So other people won’t put zucchini in their cars.”

If you miss a few days of picking zucchini, there’s a price to pay — you can hardly lift the squashes. It’s like trying to lift a 2-year-old child with one hand when there’s already a 2-year-old child under your other arm.

Ways to enjoy zucchini every day: zucchini soup, zucchini pancakes, zucchini bread (excellent with walnuts and dried cranberries), steamed zucchini with red and white onions, halved zucchini stuffed with various ground meats, sliced zucchini and summer squash baked with Parmesan cheese. I could write a cookbook — Oh, that’s already been done, you say?

The tomatoes are right on schedule: they’ll all be ripe when we’re gone away for 10 days. I gave the neighbors a head’s up: “Go get tomatoes!” Their reply: “Thanks, but we’ve got plenty of tomatoes.”

I do not have a single complaint about the Swiss chard. I’ve eaten every bit of it, boiled up, drained, with a little butter, dash of salt. It keeps coming, but I know a secret: it looks great in a flower arrangement, as does arugula. I can’t say the same about zucchini.

Gloucester resident Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times resident.