Hubbards in the Cupboard
The complex of beds and borders and compost piles between our house and Willow Creek is, officially, a place, which we call, simply, the Prairie Garden. You can hashtag it, #prairiegarden, and you can check into it online at the Prairie Garden. The sense of place is one good reason for planting a garden, working in a garden, or just sitting with your dog in a garden--to get to know a particular place really well and thus be informed about life on the prairies, its details, its limits, its promise.
Maybe even its metaphors. Right now the Prairie Garden is a symbol of the virtues of broadminded diversity, for even as I near the benchmark of my biblical threescore and ten, we enjoy crops and tastes new to us. Tomatillos have advanced from trial status to a staple, enjoyed fresh and canned (easy-peasy to can, like tomatoes). During tomatillo season, every pork potroast is smothered with the green globes, and all winter, chile verde makes frequent appearance on our table.
Radishes have always been a problem for me here, due to the lack of spring. The things are slow starting, on account of late freezes, and then bang, it’s ninety degrees and they bolt on me. The answer is the new star of the Prairie Garden--Asian radishes, as a late-summer to fall crop. First the Red Dragons, planted around the 4th of July and providing a welcome bite in late summer. You may laugh at the old joke about planting radishes in your garden to keep the wolverines away, but I tell you, planting Red Dragons keeps the Norwegians from raiding your radish patch.
After that, the round Rainbow radishes, or if you’re not woke enough for that name, the Watermelon radishes. Lifted at the size of baseballs, they will keep chilled through the winter and are wonderful as roast veg.
Which brings me to that other great challenge to gardeners on the northern plains, the art of eating from a short-season garden year-round. Old standards can help with this. For instance, Egytian onions--I don’t know why they call them that, I’m talking about winter onions, what some people call walking onions--the Egyptian onions I carried here from my late mother’s garden.
Winter onions are the first vegetable from the Prairie Garden in early spring. We love to throw scallions onto the grill with steaks soon as it’s warm enough to cook outside. Most of our walkers we end up chopping into baggies to freeze and to dump into soups, stews, and chile verdes all winter.
Another old standard that stretches the season: parsnips. Plant two rows, one to lift in the fall, and then just leave the other row in the ground for the winter. My friend Ken Smith in Ellendale pioneered this overwintering idea. Lift the second row when the ground thaws, and they are sweeter to taste in spring than they were in the fall.
Now, the heavyweight item for stretching the produce season: Hubbard squash. Some people say they won’t raise them, because they are too hard to cut up and peel. Perhaps they haven’t discovered you can scrape the skin off with an ordinary carrot grater. Their foremost virtue is they are great keepers. Now, in June, we are still eating fresh Hubbards harvested last fall and stored in the crawl space.
They are long-season squashes, so start them early, but they are heavy producers. Last fall I was laid up from an accident when the first freeze came, and Dr. Kelley was barely able to pull the sled-load of Hubbards from the Prairie Garden to the house. Later this summer--another whole essay about cooking and eating winter squash.
I arrived in North Dakota in 1992, but the garden keeps reminding me that I am only beginning to learn to live here. Whoops, there’s another metaphor from the Prairie Garden.