Tomatoes!

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The Garden Detroit (the nonprofit where I volunteer) had a stellar tomato season. Most of Michigan, I imagine, had a great tomato season, as it was a hot, hot summer.

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Planting seedlings at the Newport garden.

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Young plants at The Garden.

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Mature plants (though not at full height).

We did get some wonky fruit due to the drought and over-watering (some done by us but also mother nature, the few times that it did pour), but overall, our plants were happy and lush.

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We grow only heirloom tomatoes at The Garden and we had thirty (? I can’t remember, but it sounds right) different varieties. Red, orange, yellow, striped. All so lovely.

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Tomatoes are fun to pick, as they are relatively easy to find and when ripe and the girls enjoyed helping me harvest them on a couple of occasions.

Once while they were with me, I spotted a humongous tomato, which I ate (no one else in the family likes raw tomatoes) over the course of several days. Best BLT ever.

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I have tons of tomato sauce and soup in the freezer. Of all my batches, only one tomato soup batch was thrown out, mainly due to my frustration. I probably could have saved it, but it would have taken some effort (too watery and flavor lacking).

I also made several jars of tomato compote, which is my favorite way to eat them. Slow roasted with garlic and swimming in olive oil.

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My own tomato plants (which were gifted to me by The Garden and planted as seedlings) didn’t do as well as those at the Garden, I’m guessing due to lack of sun.

Also, the squirrel population in our yard is ridiculous and most of the time, if I waited until the tomatoes were ripe, they would disappear. I found many a tomato in random parts of the backyard, half eaten (if you’re going to steal them, could you at least eat the whole thing!?).

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Using green tomatoes was a first for me. I have yet to try them fried, which I may do as I still have a handful of green tomatoes on the counter. I did make a green tomato sauce with bacon and onions and garlic, which turned out surprisingly good.

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Tomatillos are also something I have never cooked with before. Their husks look like lace when they are dried out – so beautiful. I asked around and went online and meshed two separate salsa verde / chicken enchilada recipes.

I roasted the tomatillos with onion, garlic and jalapenos and then blended. Baked with chicken, onions and cheese. They were divine. My husband and I both were wowed by the simplicity and goodness of this dish. So glad I have a jar in the freezer! Yum!

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We began taking the plants down last week. I went through and pulled off any salvageable tomato – the above photo is our very last harvest at our Newport location.

I am already excited to start planting for next year!

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Saying Goodbye: A Tribute

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I wrote about one of my first encounters with my neighbor Shirley here. I met her in the spring of last year, while she was in her backyard (and I in mine) tending to her garden.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that she played an integral part in getting me excited about my own garden. At most, I’ve watched my Hawaii family expertly grow and care for flowers (orchids, roses, bird of paradise, red ginger) and produce (mangos, papaya, peppers, jackfruit, tomatoes, ginger root), but hadn’t done much of it myself.

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On top of that, gardening is so different in the Midwest than Hawaii or California. In Hawaii, you plant something and it just sort of grows (except my mom/auntie have not had success in growing cherry tomatoes, whereas they grew like weeds for my grandfather, who planted in the same spot). San Francisco is a little trickier because of the fog and cold, and I didn’t get much opportunity (except for pruning) to work with plants while we were there because we had a shared backyard and finicky neighbors.

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Here in Michigan, zone 5 (didn’t even know what a hardiness zone was and that you even had to pay attention to them), the weather plays a huge factor on what you can plant and when. And shade plays a big part as well, which is tricky with our backyard, which is bordered by massive maples and evergreens. And let’s not forget soil acidity. GAH.

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Sedum, ground cover. The first plant we transplanted together.

She taught me how to divide plants, how to transplant them – what soil/compost mixes to use for planting, which plants like shade vs. the ones that like sun, which ones are good for ground cover, perennials vs. annuals, etc.

She reminded me that transplants take a year or two to really flourish (she gave me so many last year. Half my beds are filled with flowers/plants from her garden), so this spring was very exciting as I watched the different plants rise up from the ground, strong, healthy and happy.

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I was aware that Shirley had cancer. I had heard from a couple people (bless this town), though never from her personally. On the outside, she was just as healthy and happy as those spring plants, but this summer it hit hard, and she passed away Saturday morning in her sleep.

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I didn’t have a chance to see her during her last days. By the time I figured out that things weren’t going well, her visitor list was limited, as she needed to reserve her strength. Fortunately, I was still able to communicate with her through email – via her daughter, who relayed sentiments from me to Shirley and vice versa.

I was able to tell her how much she meant to me. More than a teacher or a mentor, she was someone who came into my life when I was feeling not so great about having moved here (small towns are hard to crack, especially as an adult). And being able to work the land gave me a connection to Grosse Pointe that I desperately needed.

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Her daughter wrote back… “Did (Shirley) ever tell you how she became interested in gardening?” (no, she did not) “It was not from her parents–they never gardened. It was a neighbor who gave her a paper cup with a few seeds planted in it which she put on her windowsill. It was the first thing she ever grew.”

She also expressed that “she is happy to know that some of her favorite plants will live on in your (my) garden” and I promised her that I would continue to have the girls plant with me and help tend the land, even though they might not do things exactly the way I want. I promised teaching with patience, in her honor. It’s going to be really hard, but I am going to try my best to stick to that promise.

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One of the most memorable things I learned from Shirley was to say goodbye and thank you to my garden. One afternoon I saw her and her husband walking slowly around their garden, and she told me she was saying goodbye.

My first thought was, “why? what happened? are you moving?” What she meant was that gardening season was coming to an end, and thus she was no longer fertilizing, dividing, weeding. The plants would be left alone to their own devices until the following spring, so she was thanking them for being a part of her garden and saying goodbye until next year.

And so I say goodbye and thank you to you, Shirley. Thank you for being a part of my garden and goodbye. Until we meet again.

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