Miriam's Garden: A blessing of rain

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After a few scorching hot days, we needed rain. It was forecast and the sky was a promising, gloomy gray. A half-dozen times the clouds teased us with a fine, misty drizzle. I spent the day looking up at the sky and checking the weather radar on the computer.

"A 90-percent chance," I told David. But it didn't rain. All day.

There's this strange thing that happens when the green on the radar hits our Southwest corner of the state. It splits. Part goes north (that's you, Butler), and part goes south (rain every day Morgantown). But it doesn't come to my garden.

Neighbor Frank says the particulates in the air keep rain away. Husband says it's something about the mountains or hills.

Whatever prevents the rain from falling here makes it very difficult for us. We have a different relationship to water than those who reside in cities and suburbs, who simply turn on the tap, flush the toilet, snap on the sprinklers, pay the bill. We get our water from a spring down in the woods. If it doesn't rain, less water flows in our spring. In a drought, it can stop altogether.

The spring water is pumped up to our holding tank, buried near the new quince bush (full of little quinces). From there the water goes out through a pipe into the water filter in our basement. When we turn on the tap, the water comes out, piped up from the basement.

It wasn't always this convenient. When my husband first moved to his land 35 years ago, there was no running water. He took baths in galvanized tubs. He pumped water by hand from a well in the front yard, carried it in a bucket to the wood-burning cookstove, where it was heated. Does this sound like another century? It was, the 20th. I hope he bathed more often than once every Saturday, which is one of his jokes, but I wasn't here then.

I was here last summer, when rain fell plentifully, breaking with a too-dry tradition. Too much rain to produce decent onions, but what a pleasure. We could have sold water. This year, if it doesn't rain, we'll need to have water trucked in. Something we are loathe to do because this water comes out of the polluted Monongahela River.

In a May 9, 2012 article in this paper, Don Hopey reported: "The Monongahela River ranked 17th nationwide for total toxic discharges... Pennsylvania ranked seventh in the total amount of toxics released into its waters in 2010, with 10.1 million pounds."

We don't want to bathe in that river water, or drink it, or cook pasta with fresh garden peas in it.

When it doesn't rain, I only wash clothes when absolutely necessary and some of my neighbors go to the laundromat, instead of using up their precious resources. If it doesn't rain, we limit visitors and try to get our company to shower together, every other day (this hasn't worked yet). Even if it does rain, I try to pour the water from rinsing lettuce or washing vegetables onto flowers and potted herbs.

We don't have sprinklers. We water the garden from rain runoff that's directed from our gutters into a backyard pond and from tubs placed underneath our roofs. We never water the lawn. Sometimes we water the garden every day, with a hose connected to a pump, which sucks water from the pond. Or we dip our watering cans into tubs, and drag them into the garden to water newly planted tomatoes or rows of beans. We're high on a ridgetop, not in the bottom where there's rich, loamy soil and flowing streams. It's dry up here. Our soil is heavy clay and rocks.

When it does rain, like it finally did that Monday evening, I go outside and thank the rain people. I compliment the rain, encourage it, beseech it to continue. And this time, it did. Most of the night. It was a very good rain. Mostly, there are no bad rains. It was a steady rain that soaked into the soil and nourished the plants, strengthening their roots.

My garden flourished. Plants grew taller and greener. Tiny blueberries grew fatter and took a breath before ripening. Peas got a cool, wet reprieve and filled out their pods. Newly planted chard finally sprouted. Red Hummingbird Sage poked up its two tiny starter leaves. Fragrant Blue Spice basil reseeded itself all over the place. I was able to pull out carrots without breaking them.

After the rain, the weeds grew like crazy. I swear I pulled those same weeds a week earlier. The last time it had rained. When I also was so grateful.

Lovely Roasted Beets

This is from a new book by my buddy Fred Thompson. He likes to roast 2 colors of beets in separate packets.

  • 8 medium beets, peeled with 1-inch of stem remaining and cut into quarters
  • 1/4 cup chopped shallots
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Pull off a 17-by-24-inch piece of foil.

Put all ingredients in large bowl and toss to combine and coat. Pour into middle of foil and pull up sides to make a pouch. Place on a baking sheet. Roast until beets are easily pierced with a knife, 40 to 60 minutes. Remove from oven and let beets steam in pouch 10 minutes.

Transfer beets to serving bowl. Discard herb sprigs. Pour the liquid and shallots over the beets. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings.

-- "Fred Thompson's Southern Sides: 250 Dishes that Really Make the Plate" (UNC Press, 2012, $35)

Spinach and Chard Rice

PG tested

This recipe from Tessa Kiros originally was made with just spinach, but I have more chard, so I used both. It would be very nice with grilled sausages or lamb chops, if you happen to have some. It's also nice by itself, and has a smooth and creamy texture, sort of like a risotto, which makes sense, because it's made with risotto rice. I used Arborio.

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion or 2 to 3 knobby garden scallions with greens, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • 1 cup medium-grain rice, such as Arborio
  • 2 pounds mixed spinach and Swiss chard, rinsed and drained, spinach torn into pieces, chard very thinly sliced, about 20 loosely packed cups
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

Heat olive oil in Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion or scallions and cook, stirring often, until pale gold and softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in dill, then stir in rice.

Add spinach and chard, in batches, with a little of the hot water, and press down and turn until it begins to wilt and it's all in. Add the salt and remaining water; turn greens over with wooden spoon, and put the lid on. Bring to boil, then stir again.

Lower heat and simmer, covered, 15 to 20 minutes, until rice is tender. If there's still water in the bottom of pot, remove lid and cook, uncovered 3 to 5 minutes.

Sprinkle in 2 tablespoons lemon juice and a few grinds pepper. Stir gently and taste, adding more salt if needed. Add mint. Cover with clean cotton dish towel and put lid back on. Steam 10 minutes. Taste, adding more lemon juice if desired. Serve hot or warm.

Makes 6 to 8 side-dish servings.

-- Adapted from "Food From Many Greek Kitchens" by Tessa Kiros (Andrews McMeel, 2011, $35)


Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com.


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