Of Turnips and Elderflower

Lilith comes beaming through the garden, bumping a laden wheelbarrow over the mulched paths as we tour the space. “Do you want to see the joy of the garden right now?” she asks, and of course there is only one answer to a question like this. She leads us past the raspberries, to a double row of chard that has a stripe of something else planted in the middle. She leans over and tugs up a white turnip from the ground, perfect and gleaming like marble against the dark soil. She tells us that she has just started to implement this intercropping trick the in the garden, and how very satisfying it is; finally, enough of these sweet white turnips, kept fresh (if swelling) in the soil. The turnips mature more quickly than the chard, so by the time the chard has become large enough to crowd them out, the turnips should be mostly eaten. Radishes are often used this way, too, a way to make use of empty space that will eventually be filled. It’s a kind of garden practice that can make a gardener feel like they are on top of their game, maximizing their space. A feeling that’s meant to savor, held in balance against the inevitable disappointments of weather and pest. These young white turnips are not meant for long storage like their purple-tinged counterparts; these babies are best eaten fresh. Raw or baked or pickled, they remain crisp and light, full of sweetness and moisture. She surveys the row critically. “We’ve fallen behind on the harvesting,” she says, jutting her chin at a turnip she deems too large and past the prime of crisp sweetness. Just a few days can make the difference between utter perfection and…just about perfect.

While the turnip in question (pulled from the soil to be inspected) looks lovely to us, we nod knowingly, because we know that harvesting, as much as planning and planting and amending and watering, is a learned garden skill.
Every gardener strives for abundance, for that satiated feeling of enoughness. We love to share the harvest, be it a morsel of alpine strawberry or a stealthy box of zucchini dropped on a doorstep. We don’t want to grow so much that it becomes a chore to process, but one of the chief joys of the garden is the feeling of being able to share what we have grown with neighbors, friends, family, visitors and even strangers, sometimes. We know how much time and care has gone into these particular plants, and we want to see them used to their fullest potential.
Learning to harvest in rhythm with the garden is a practice that takes some cultivating. It seems as though it would be the simplest and most satisfying thing in the world, to reap all the bounty of hard work that the garden has given. But sometimes, the harvest is the hardest part. When do we know exactly when to harvest? If we wait longer, will that pepper get sweeter, will the beet get bigger, will the tomato redden one more shade of crimson? This is a beginner’s dilema, before the subtle signaling of plants becomes second nature. But even the experienced gardener falls victim to other harvest foibles. Sometimes, honestly, it’s just pure laziness; what’s for dinner? Something from the fridge, while outside beneath the moonlight, the kale soaks up the evening dew and the parsley remains uncut and the lettuce tightens it’s oblong head a little more. Harvesting is a practice, like seeding, like weeding, a task that must be performed lest the efforts of the past weeks be wasted. Gardening tis always nudging us to examine the circles and cycles, and the cycle of reaping is no less important a task than sowing. To have put so much effort (water, sweat, manure, sore muscles, the precious hours of our days) into a crop that won’t get eaten begins to seem like a crazy kind of waste. We strive to make the most of what we have grown, not out of an attitude of scarcity, but from one of respect, a way to honor the plants and the soil and the water that have jointly created the garden with us.

Of course, we do not live in a perfect world. And sometimes the bolting arugula, though it still has tender leaves on it, must be pulled to make room for the young eggplant. Sometimes the chard gets pulled before it has finished setting seed; it’s time to get some new drip lines laid in this bed. This is why having livestock on the farm feels so right as well; if we have fallen short in our chard and arugula eating practice, at least we can take comfort in the fact that the chickens, or the cow or the goat will be nourished by it. Heck, even the compost pile is a worthy end for a spent or culled plant ally. There are those circles again. Some spin fast and some turn slow.

Every year, around this time, the elderflower bloom. Already, the creamy, lacy flower heads are reaching maturity. Sometimes a garden crop can linger, and we may harvest it along the way for months at a time. Not so the wild elderflower. Lest the blossoms turn to berries, the time is ripe to harvest (from well-identified bushes, of course; the red elderberry is poisonous, while the blue is a beloved food). Walk out into the spring air and breathe it in. Take a basket and snip some blossoms, should you have a moment, and make this cordial. Don’t take more than you’ll use; these flowers become an important winter food source for birds. Still, there is enough to go around, and around, and around again. Cheers.