My vegetable garden never looks as good as it does during the cold and snowy months of winter. There are no pesky rodents chewing holes in my tomatoes; no deer chomping down plants like mowers; no rabbits planning night forays for a little diet variety; no slugs; no blights or blotches and definitely no weeds. That’s because this fantasy garden is all in my head.
Yes, my garden during these winter months is a thing to behold. Deep red tomatoes grow plump and perfect, green beans sway gently on warm summer breezes; radish tops peek coyly from under perfectly formed leaves; and oh, the corn. You should see the corn.
This total and complete fantasy land is fueled by the proliferation of seed catalogs that arrive at my house daily this time of year. They are my favorite reading material when the snow blows and the temperatures plummet. I often immerse myself in these periodicals so I can go into my fantasy garden land, and, at least for a little while, forget what is going on outside my picture window. I will peer for hours at the pictures and description in these catalogs, checking out new varieties of old favorites, deciding what seeds to plant in the spring and reading every little detail about planting zones, yield numbers, and disease resistance.
Then I take out a paper and pencil and start plotting out my perfect vegetable garden. I have seven small raised beds and I sketch meticulous plans on what is going to be planted where. It takes me several weeks to complete this layout because I keep changing my mind but that’s OK. It’s the perfection that I’m striving for.
But drawn out plans and reality are two very different things. Take for instance the year I decided to grow giant pumpkins. On the plotted map, the pumpkin section of the garden was delegated to the back bed where the sun shines the longest and the soil is rich and loamy. The vines were sketched daintily, curving around the box delicately and I even went so far as to pencil in the giant perspective pumpkin I was planning on growing.
I remember vividly the warm spring day I planted the tiny seedlings in their appointed spot. I had grown these little shoots from seeds and they looked small and vulnerable after they were placed in the ground but that didn’t last long. Within weeks the vines were climbing over the fence, into the other parts of the garden and the leaves could have been sewn into formal wear for Adam and Eve. Pumpkins went from tiny green globes to burgeoning volley ball size fruits and then basketballs in a matter of days. The neighbor kids came over and even made forts among the expansive greenery.
I did get a pumpkin out of this eruption of foliage, but it wasn’t the prize winner I had planned. It wasn’t even orange. Needless to say that was the last time pumpkins ever made it into the garden.
And while these seed catalogs add fuel to my imagination, they also kick start my appetite. In fact, my neighbor asked to borrow a couple of my catalogs the other day but I refused to let her have them, mainly because I’m embarrassed of the drool marks on some of the pages. I can’t deny that the pictures do make me hungry for crispy salads dotted with crunchy radishes; for tomatoes still warm from the sun; and fresh peas plump and bright green from the pod.
I am thankful that I can go to the grocery store and purchase fresh vegetables this time of year. While these are not home grown, they do provide me with inspiration to hunt for recipes that I can use when my own veggies come into their own. For instance, the recipe for this week came from a friend who shared it last year when spinach was at its peak.
As I look out the window though, I see my little raised beds covered in a deep blanket of snow. The wind whips flitting tornadoes around the scarecrow pole and tiny caps of white top the fence posts. The real garden doesn’t look very inviting right now but oh, you should see the fantasy version. It’s never looked better.
Sunrise Spinach Salad
6 Tbs. sugar, divided
1 Tbs. water
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp. orange zest
1/4 tsp. salt, plus more for seasoning salad
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
6 cups baby spinach, washed and dried
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onions
Freshly ground black pepper
Lightly grease a 10-inch square of aluminum foil with butter or vegetable oil and set aside. Combine 3 Tbs. sugar and 1 Tbs. water in a small saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, swirling occasionally, until the sugar turns a golden amber color, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the almonds and stir to coat. Continue cooking until the almonds are fragrant and golden brown, about 1 minute. Transfer to the prepared aluminum foil, using a spoon to spread into a thin layer, and set aside to cool completely. With a thin, sharp knife, cut the peel and bitter white pith from the oranges. Working over a bowl to catch the juices, cut in between the membranes to release the segments. Reserve the segments in a separate bowl. Combine 1/4 cup orange juice, the remaining 3 Tbs. sugar, vinegar, olive oil, orange zest, 1/4 tsp. salt, and the cayenne in a mixing bowl and whisk to blend. Transfer the dressing to a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid until you are ready to serve. Put the spinach in a large serving bowl, then top with the orange segments, celery, and red onions. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. When ready to serve, break the caramelized almonds into bite-size pieces and scatter over the top of the salad. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and season with salt and black pepper, to taste. Toss to coat evenly and serve immediately.
Associate Editor Mary Ann Doyle is available at email@example.com.