This article was published in the September 2014 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
I arrived early. The garden was alive with activity; bugs darted behind large green leaves and plants added another centimeter to their strong roots. Straw paths neatly divided the many plants, many identifiable, others a mystery. A strong aroma of dill wafted through the air.
I snapped a few photos of the tomatoes, still green on the vine due to the lack of summer heat. Cathy Busking arrived with a warm welcome: “Hello! I’m so glad you made it.”
Then the tour began.
Busking started by showing me the gardening journal, which is typically stored in a weathered shed.
“We started keeping this journal to coordinate our gardening activities,” she said.
The Squash Blossoms, as they call themselves, are a group of five women (and one man) who are passionate horticulturalists. Together, they farm the small plot in Oak Park, Illinois, and are part of a growing trend toward biodynamic and heirloom farming.
At different times during the week the Squash Blossoms take care of the garden – apart from Tuesday evenings, when they all gather to compare notes and celebrate their successes.
The rain gauge on the South end of the garden was the first item for inspection. Busking recorded 2-and-5/8 inches of rainfall.
“I’m an engineer, so I’m going to be precise about it. They’ll know who wrote this entry,” Busking smiled knowingly.
She poured the rainwater from the gauge into a vase that she later filled with fresh-cut flowers from the garden. In the hour that followed, Busking introduced me to every plant in the garden, her depth of botanical knowledge on full display.
The Squash Blossoms grow beets, carrots, onions, garlic, tomatoes, melons, poblano peppers, Hungarian sweet peppers, two different kinds of eggplant, dragon tongue beans, zucchini, leeks, savory, tarragon, purple basil, mint, sage, dill and chives, to name many of the 40-plus plant varieties. Their pride and joy: the Cherokee Trail of Tears bean plant, which produces a hearty, medium-sized, maroon-and-purple bean.
Busking stopped for a moment in front of the milkweed. A new addition to the garden; it was planted to attract the monarch butterfly, which has become a threatened species in these parts. “There was a monarch sighting!” she exulted as she pointed to a note in the garden journal. “We’re really excited that we’ve been able to attract them to our garden.”
As we finished our tour, the other six or so Squash Blossoms retrieved chairs from car trunks and deep corners of the garden, gathering them around a small wooden table where refreshments and snacks were shared in the backyard city plot that is tucked away behind a café, clothing shop and a yoga studio.
Freshly picked samples from the garden were, of course, sliced and passed around. We also were joined by a few garden mascots in the furry form; Stich and Amy, two tiny Chihuahuas, were clearly at home in the leafy plot, greeting newcomers with a few barks.
“Normally we don’t have an agenda, but tonight we’re working out the menu for the upcoming dinner we’re hosting at the garden,” said Anne White, a planner who pulled out her notebook and calendar and called the group to order.
White and Sunny Hall passed around recipes they had cut from magazines, which inspired a flow of ideas across the table; the menu quickly took shape. “We could use our mystery plant!” exclaimed White. The mystery plant had eventually been identified as a melon, but for months, the Squash Blossoms hadn’t known what had been planted, since it resembled the zucchini varieties planted next to it.
“We don’t know where it came from,” remarked Hall.
“It was probably a stray seed from a grocery store melon,” said Sharon Storbeck, a founding member of the garden and an experienced farmer. At that moment my mind formed a picture of someone eating a slice of melon in the garden, seeds falling from the juicy fruit and implanting themselves into the soil.
Normally, a stray seed may not sprout so easily, but the Squash Blossoms spent five years remediating the soil with lots of compost, so the earth is extraordinarily fertile. Two years ago, the Squash Blossoms switched completely to biodynamic farming.
“The plants seem to have found their natural cycle,” said White. “They just strut their stuff. It’s magical.”
Everyone grew silent and nodded in agreement as they gazed at their bounty cast in the glow of the late evening sun.
Chocolate Beet Cake (from Zephyr Community Farm)
The Squash Blossoms are serving this cake for dessert at their garden party dinner.
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking power
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup oil
3-4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3 cups shredded beets
Combine dry ingredients, sifting or mixing them well. Melt chocolate very slowly over low heat. Allow chocolate to cool then blend thoroughly with eggs and oil. Combine flour and chocolate mixture alternating with shredded beets. Pour into 2 greased 9-inch cake pans. Bake at 325 F for 40-50 minutes or until fork can be cleanly removed from the center. Serves ten.