Growing food is “outdoors,” too

Ben Moyer

Depending on your definition of “the outdoors” it can embrace pursuits like berry picking and vegetable gardening. This is the peak time to enjoy the rewards of a sun-drenched plot of tomatoes.

Is there anything that equals a home-grown August tomato—red, smooth and warm from the sun? You can tell how it’s going to taste—sweet, tart and voluptuous all at once—by the fragrance on your hands from the picking. And it will not disappoint.

“The outdoors” is a complicated phrase. For some, it holds a narrow, traditional meaning that embraces only fishing and hunting. More recently, especially for younger adults, the phrase has come to convey a wider range of recreational options – bicycling, hiking, skiing, kayaking, and even geocaching among them. I guess I take “the outdoors” a step further. In my thinking, the phrase takes in anything you do to interact directly with your native landscape. So, for me the outdoors includes picking berries and mushrooms, hoarding firewood, and especially now at summer’s peak, gardening. That’s why I enticed you with a tomato at the beginning.

Growing the highest quality food available, and watching my family enjoy it, is one of the most meaningful and deeply satisfying experiences I have savored in life. That’s a bit ironic because when I was a boy my dad grew a big garden every summer, and we used its yield. Back then, I often declared that I would never have a garden as an adult because I chafed at the frequent hoeing, rock-picking, and weeding sessions that my father assigned. But now I can’t imagine living without at least a token attempt at growing some of our own food.

Still, I do sometimes threaten to give it up—like when the deer mow down the bean rows, or when rabbits nibble the lettuce down to nothing. And if I erect a temporary fence that’s forgiving enough for me to access for picking and hoeing, weeds grow up along its base where I can’t mow, and cast their seeds into the planting beds for next year’s “crop” of the un-wanted. But every spring, when the frost leaves the soil and the air smells somehow organic, the roto-tiller beckons and I plow up my plots. By this point in life it’s a rhythm, and rhythm tuned to the earth’s cycles and seasons feels like an appropriate guidepost.

Another irony is that my property is ill-suited to gardening. It’s woodsy here, which means shade, so lack of sunlight is gardening’s limiting factor. To compensate, I built raised beds scattered randomly around the place in those locations I know will receive the most sun. This works reasonably well, even if it looks something like Dr. Seuss’s garden might. It’s also highly inefficient to fence deer out of many small plots, compared to one big rectangle. They seem to enjoy sauntering from one to another, sampling what they can reach over, under or through the barriers.

When I drive around the county, I often find myself gaping at the vast expanses of sun-drenched lawn that the owners permit to be claimed by an impoverished monoculture of grass, which they must mow every week. “What beautiful squash and cucumbers I could grow there in all that sun,” is my private expression of solar envy. But to each his own, as they say.

It’s coming to that late-summer point where my garden climaxes, and we can’t keep up with the ripening tomatoes. That’s when I drag out the canner, call in all my empty jars from relatives and friends to whom I’ve gifted blueberry jam and bread-and-butter pickles, and I make salsa.

I had no experience with salsa as a kid—we ate ketchup, like everyone else. But when my kids were still at home, they demanded salsa and ate it with chips, and slathered over scrambled eggs and other stuff.

“Heck, I could make that,” I announced one summer, and I did—probably canned about two dozen pints. There’s really nothing to it except time and knife skills. You dice a lot of onion, garlic, and peppers—the peppers I use get hotter each year. Then you scald a lot of tomatoes to get the skins off, throw it all in a big pot and cook it down to the texture you like. Add cumin, chili powder, lime juice, cilantro and a little vinegar along the way. Then seal it in jars and water-bath can it.

When I line up the striking red jars on the cabinet shelves, it’s a feeling much like filling up the woodshed with prime aged oak, smugly satisfying. But the best of it was the time I overheard my son announcing to teenage friends at a sleepover that his dad made the best salsa they ever tasted. That will make you drag out the roto-tiller every April.

Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

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