Drawing Myself Up from My Roots


Learning and Ignoring Negativity

I manage Martha’s Kitchen Garden, a fledgling Llc I started after my divorce that is cultivating culinary culture in the neighborhood. I have been doing this segment at the end of the last few radio shows, in which I read from an unpublished manuscript From Virgin Gardener to Canning Queen from thirteen years ago and offer some updated thoughts and information. I’ll continue now with an entry from September 22, 2010:

Today I haven’t had much time for the garden, but I did go out in the hot mid-day sun to snip some basil. In another week or so this abundant basil will be past its prime. I planted the seeds in March, originally under the tree shading the kitchen garden. It didn’t have any leaves at the time, and I underestimated just how much shade it would cast. So, I moved the basil starts where they would get more sun. Now I have more than anyone could possibly use or give away. But I’m doing my best not to let it go to waste.

That tree, casting shade on the kitchen garden back in 2010 was a Callery pear, which at the time I didn’t know is one of those banes of the south, like kudzu, a non-native and invasive tree. I didn’t know much about native plants in general, or the existence of native plant societies, or why I probably should. I could be called an invasive non-native myself. The tree is long-gone now, but I’m still here, with my ear to the ground, the caretaker of this land I’m living on. At the time I was more focused on my little garden and the things that I wanted to grow, which, I consider now to have been haphazard choices not based on anything more than what my family wanted to eat. Not even what I wanted to eat. Back then I was also proud of learning how to preserve food and herbs by dehydration.

I have jars full of basil that I dried in an electric dehydrator. The thought of doing such a thing used to be beyond my sphere. Once, in California, I bought one at a garage sale and then left it sitting outside. It got rained on and I got rid of it. Then I got another one at the thrift store for three dollars and kept it in my kitchen. I still didn’t use it but swore that one day I would. Once I get an idea in my head it’s very difficult for me to let go. I even insisted on bringing it when we packed up and left Vallejo. It fit into our general plan to be as self-sufficient as possible where we were moving to. Generally, anything new, anything I lack practical experience with is intimidating.

Thirteen years later, I still use a simple electric dehydrator for some fruits and things, or no electricity at all, just air drying for herbs. But I also just used my new freeze dryer for the first time, and I did find it intimidating as usual, because I never even watched someone else use one. It requires an oil pump, for one thing, and even though it doesn’t need a dedicated double circuit, it’s recommended, but I bought it because it said it’s not required, so then I was conflicted about plugging it in and using it after reading that in the manual. The idea was to replace my chest freezer with freeze dried food in jars. What I didn’t expect was for the process to take almost twenty-four hours to freeze dry four trays of cubed zucchini that wound up filling just four one-quart jars. First it got really cold, and then when it was drying, it got really hot. I do have solar panels, but I’m not convinced that I have taken a step in the right ecological direction using all that energy to process my homegrown food. My grown children were quick to tell me that there is a trend to freeze dry certain candies, which inflates their size and renders them crunchy. That is something I would not choose to do because it would only add to the energy cost of something that already cost energy to produce and has no nutritional value. Back in 2010 I was also learning to infuse oil. …

I never infused anything before this summer, but it’s very easy. One oil is a mixture of olive and palm kernel. I stuffed a bunch of basil in the jar with the oil and put it in a sunny windowsill yesterday. Today I strained the basil out, put some fresh in, and put it back in the sun. I’ll keep doing that every day until the oil smells really basilly. Then I’ll melt some beeswax and shea butter into it, let it cool, and use it on our skin and for a hot hair oil treatment. I’m looking forward to that. I also took a bottle of grapeseed oil I got on sale, and dumped some dried basil, thyme, mint and stevia into it, all from my herb garden this summer, sealed it up and put it in the sun. That one’s destined to be a salad oil, or bread dipping oil. Southerners don’t seem to be familiar with dipping oil. I use my husband as a litmus test for southern appeal since he was born and raised here in Greenville. But one out of three of my boys likes to dip his bread in oil. He even packs it for lunch! I have a lot of dried basil, plenty to last me until next summer and give away to family and friends. Next year I won’t plant so much.

It’s been a while since I was married. I’m learning to just make what pleases me for a change of pace. But it’s been a while since I infused any oil too. I find that if I haven’t worked a certain routine into my overall routine, then I tend to forget about it. Now that I am reminded that I used to do that, I might get back to it as part of my campaign to try to eliminate single-use plastic containers from my daily hygeine. But 2023 is the first year that I have not had more basil than I can use. July is almost over and it seems that the basil is only beginning to take off. Despite breaking records the heat came late this summer, and there has also been a lot of rain. The tomatoes are also only now starting to pile up in my kitchen, the ones that didn’t rot prematurely on the vine.

I remember another summer like this, with a lot of rain, and unhappy tomatoes. Not last summer though. The heat and drought of last year spurred me on to hook up rain barrels to the gutters and be prepared for this summer. But the rain barrels are all full now. They have been convenient for watering the animals, but barely needed for the garden. After reading books like Resilient Agriculture by Laura Lengnick, and The Ecology of Care, by Didi Persehouse, I now know that changing seasonal conditions here at Martha’s Kitchen Garden are part of a larger trend of more volatile weather brought on by climate change and that the days of uninterrupted global food distribution are already pretty much over.

When I was done with the oil and basil, I pulled the figs I picked last night out of the fridge. I fished my food mill out of the gadget drawer. I didn’t know what it was when I spotted it at the thrift store, but it just looked useful. Now I use it to skin tomatoes and figs. After turning the handle and squeezing the fig puree out of the figs, I spread some plastic wrap on the drying trays of the dehydrator and spread the fig puree on top of the plastic wrap. That will be ready in a couple of days. The kids were all hot to bring homemade fruit roll ups in their lunches until their classmates said it looked yukky. If it’s not cut to perfection and bright red it has to be yucky. But they like it well enough when they’re at home.

So, back then, I felt like an exotic plant. I was sneered at too, by the parents of those kids, and the wives of my husband’s friends, who looked at me like a throwback and snickered at my compost pile. Even so, I was eager to learn. And I can say now that I have kept on keeping a compost pile, which would add up to a serious pile of soil after thirteen years. I’ve kept on learning, reading, following my instincts and ignoring negativity as best I can. Traveling that road I have become more aware of my place in the natural world, what I take, what I give back. The most important thing I’ve learned is just to take root where I am, to draw nutrients up from those roots into my heart and mind that will nurture my endless imagination and capacity to learn, and to pass it on.

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