April and May showers brought May flowers, and the herbs are green and growing vigorously in the garden. Herbs tend to bridge the gap between seasons, thriving in the (late, early, cool) in-between times. Because we generally eat the leaves rather than some form of the flowers or fruits, herbs can be ready to enjoy before the summer staples are long in the ground. This week's recipe for herb jelly is a gentle beginning to the season of harvest and preservation that awaits us as the months stretch on. Clear and piquant, sweet and savory, changing with the seasons and what is ready to harvest in the garden, this is a recipe that ages well, constantly reinventing itself, over and over each season. Like the proverbial river that we come to, over and over, it is never the same jelly twice. Purple basil and fennel this time, lemon balm and verbena the next. Rosemary almost always. Lavender, sage, marjoram. A love letter on a spoon, flavors like a scattering of flower petals in an envelope from the beloved.
I stayed away from the homestead for just one night last week, and when I returned, just before dusk, I had to hurry out into the garden to see what needed tending. Nothing dire, really, but I watered by hand, my thumb over the hose end, spraying long sparkling arcs of precious water onto the newly planted ground in the fading light of evening. Somehow, all the first sweet peas had opened while I was away (my overwintered sweet peas are late in blooming this year, I'm not sure why). In the dim light, I picked a bouquet of blooming flowers, all pale shades of white and pink and violet and cream, gleaming brightly in the gloaming. It contained April in Paris sweet peas, coriander/cilantro flowers, bolting kale and arugula flowers, a white snapdragon, white Jupiter's Beard, salvia apiana and salvia leucophylla, and some pale, lacy artemesia stems. (Portuguese kale makes the prettiest white flower, larger and shapelier than the usual brassica mustard yellow.) A moonlight bouquet, brought inside to scent the evening, a celebration of home and moon and returning cycles. Before the dusk dwindled entirely to night, I planted a packet of Rattlesnake Pole bean seeds, at the base of a hazel branch arbor I'd made a few days earlier. The moon, just past full, hummed overhead, and while it wasn't, technically, the best moon phase to be planting seeds, (ideally, plants with seeds in their fruit should be planted between the first quarter of the moon and the full moon) I was sure that it was another kind of lunar blessing, to be planting them in the gentle moonlight in the beloved garden. It may take them longer to sprout, but we're not in a rush. Take your time, beans, and sprout when you are ready. We have the whole summer ahead of us.
The soil was warm that evening, from recent additions of compost and fertilizer, and from the sun, and from the beginning of decomposition in the long rows of fresh straw bales that I use as retaining walls in my steep mountain garden. I got the idea to do this about 10 years back, after reading about the benefits of straw bale gardening. As the damp straw breaks down, it generates heat, making the soil warmer and more welcoming for heat-loving summer plants, especially earlier in the season, when the heat is most welcome. Usually, straw bale gardening is done by making rectangles with the straw bales and filling them with soil, but with my method, I just use them as building blocks, to retain a face of soil on the steep hillsides of my home garden. A bale will usually last for about 2 years as I use them, before having to be replaced, although the warmth is only generated in the first couple months after installing and wetting it down. Over time, the straw bales break down to become beautiful organic matter in the soil, lovely dark sponges that absorb moisture and build up the soil. I use the half-rotted bales as mulch to keep moisture trapped in the soil between established starts. So those beans should be off to a beautiful start, whenever they decide to send up their first cotyledons. Peppers enjoying the straw-based warmth in the ground, and the tomatoes as well, but I am still waiting to find my favorite eggplant varieties in stores, and the basil I seeded a week ago is still much too small to transplant for a few weeks, yet. I'm about halfway done planting winter and summer squash, but the cool herb game is already on point. Hence the jelly. And would anyone like some kale or chard? I'm kidding, kind of, but I need to remove the last of those winter staples, to make room for more squash and brassica. But oh! the bees are loving the flowers, and I am loving the abandon with which the impending summer forces me to harvest whole plants at a time for every meal. It isn't woody, yet, or tough, just tall and abundant and lush...and in the way.
Sometimes it's easier to talk about the garden, than it is to talk about more difficult things. After all, it is such good medicine, to share joys, our hopes for the season, and the dynamic, growing, thriving parts of life, all so readily found in the garden. The world needs more of that engagement and connection. But there's a cloud scudding across these sunny springtime skies, as it relates to these weekly offerings. Small business has it rough, folks, in case you hadn't noticed. And Mountain Feed and Farm is no longer going to be able to support these weekly journal musings that I write, at least for the time being. Our partnership has shifted many times over the years and seasons, and this isn't the end of our collaborations by any means; I'll still be chatting on social media, maybe teaching some classes, and dropping in to the store to keep an eye on new offerings and old friends. This is the second-to-last newsletter that I'll be writing for a while, though the recipes and store updates will continue to arrive in your inbox as usual. I'll be working on some new projects as well, and I hope that anyone who's found value in these offerings her will consider following me on Substack, as soon as I get that new platform all figured out...stay tuned. In the meantime, I think it might be time for me to head back out into the garden today. Even when there is other work to do (a post for Substack, or the stack of this morning's breakfast dishes) sometimes I find my best reflection and consolation comes in the form of garden labor. Next week, I'll say goodbye proper...but it won't really be goodbye, will it? I'm still here, and so will you be, I hope, too, all of us gardening and growing and doing the best we can on this dear round earth, beneath the sun and moon.
By Jessica Tunis