Backyard economics

Look at this pretty picture! These are most of the kinds of vegetables we grew in the new raised beds this summer. It’s only photo-shopped a little bit, the reds brightened, the cropping tightened, the whole thing tweaked a little bit brighter than the original.

And here is the bowl of soup I made with those vegetables, sans the tiny beets. (Tiny because we really didn’t water enough) They would have been odd in this soup anyway.

The beets ended up in a salad. As I had to buy celery, onions and garlic, not to mention the olive oil and parmesan cheese, this soup was only locavore-ish.

Did the notion though, that the bulk of the ingredients came from the backyard, make this soup taste extra good? Maybe so. It was a lovely soup. Delicate and subtle. The colors were almost nicer than the flavors: gold carrots, pale purple and creamy white beans, reddish shreds of tomato, a dark green chop of sage and a swirl of green olive oil, staining the heap of parmesan on top. It did taste good although I wished I remembered to squeeze a teaspoon of lemon juice in, just as I put it on the table.

I was most excited about growing the shelling beans. They’re hard to come by up here. I think I’ve seen some sorry-looking, old borlotti beans once at Pike Place Market.  Our yield from the garden was barely enough for one pot of soup so I filled in with dried cannellini.

I guess this is how it goes for beginners. I’m a total novice gardener and I still have a lot to figure out. This is my first serious attempt at growing a variety of produce. Until now, we’ve pretty much only grown tomatoes and a few herbs. The tomatoes grew up to be gangly plants, throwing themselves over their wire cages onto the ground. I know we’re supposed to prune them back but it’s really hard to cull those baby tomatoes in the interest of the bigger redder ones. I’m not a true farmer at heart I guess.

And anyway, no farmer could stomach a $350 pot of vegetable soup. Which is what it cost when you add up the cost of plants, the raised beds, the soil. Even Thomas Keller would blanch. The raised beds will last for years though. I’m almost positive I can maintain my interest in growing food. And I also think, as we get better at this, we’ll choose plants more carefully. The tomatoes have actually been pretty great this year. The carrots (all 7 of them!) sweet and a gorgeously yellow gold. The beets were tiny but still delicious, thin skinned and perfect though small. I am sure if we had actually watered regularly, they would have been a lot bigger. The kale and the cauliflower, not so much. I have to admit to being squeamish about those freaky fat green caterpillars. They’re vicious to boot. The kale was wraith-like after they were through with it and the cauliflower bored black with holes. I was supposed to pick them off but their wiggly little caterpillar bodies gave me the heebie-jeebies.

So the question is, in the end, is it worth it? The planning, the planting, the building of hoop houses to nurture delicate baby vegetables through a very cold spring? (I didn’t remember to count the materials for the hoop houses, so I guess that brings the cost of that pot of soup to $450. Ouch.) Growing vegetables on a small city lot isn’t really about saving money I guess.

For me, yes, it was worth it, though this probably wouldn’t be true for everyone. We still have lots of tomatoes and tomorrow I will start my first of several batches of tomato sauce for the freezer. There will be more batches if the warm weather holds and more tomatoes ripen. So I guess it wasn’t just one pot of soup. There will be a few other dinners completed with produce from the garden. The kids learned a few things too. I’d send my 4 year old out to get some basil (“How many leaves, Mom?!” “Ten!”) then distantly hear his little voice counting followed by ten squished leaves in his hot hand. My older two saw the kale fail and the tomatoes and beans thrive. They tried a few new vegetables. My daughter attempted to grow fennel. It doesn’t seem to be hot enough here to get a fat bulb but she loved nibbling on the fronds. These little things add up. I bet every year we’ll get better at growing our own vegetables.

Am I painting a more rosy picture of our vegetable patch than I should? Like the photograph, I’m tweaking my interpretation of the experience, imagining it was prettier and richer than it really was. I really only made one simple pot of vegetable soup after all. Many people here in Seattle have very successful productive vegetable gardens. I really can’t say that about mine. Does it matter? I’m thinking about it…

Nope. It doesn’t. I loved my garden and my single pot of soup and I’m sure next year will be even better.

If you’re curious about the soup, it’s the first recipe I wrote up for Notes on Dinner. You can find the recipe here. If you do have shelling beans, just cover them with water by  1 1/2 inches and simmer for 20 minutes.You may want to add a bay leaf or two. After 20 minutes, start checking to see if they’re ready. Add salt to taste. Save the cooking water for the soup.


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