From rhubarb to tomatillos

“But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and prophyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.” – Edna Ferber

raspberry with a heart-shaped centre

There are so many stories in my garden. Stories of the people who worked the land before me, clues to its history, scraps of tile, old nuts and bolts, snail shells, marbles, grubs masquerading as marbles; even a giant ring left by a troll. Towering over it, a huge cross, part sentinel, part scarecrow, one hundred percent repurposed metal streetlight post, now used as a laundry line. No wonder my maternal grandmother visits me there. Disguised as a butterfly, her white wings flicker past as I kneel on the earth.

This is my first year gardening, my first year since I was a young girl, helping my grandmother with hers. My help mostly consisted of watching, harvesting and eating. My favourite thing to do was pick raspberries for the table and it was understood that I would eat as many as I picked. My second favourite thing was eating rhubarb, delightfully sour, dipped in sugar.

I grew the tomatillos on whim, watching them fill out their papery husks.

Fast forward: My partner and I moved into our new space in the fall, so we didn’t have the opportunity to do much in the way of planning or even preparing the soil. Nothing to do but dream, and the garden I dreamed of included raspberries and rhubarb. The garden we inherited was 5 feet high with weeds, and in mid-September the landlord unceremoniously chopped it back to a 5 o’clock shadow of stubble. Sadly the raspberry canes did not survive the purge.

For the months of October, November, December, January, and February, the soil was frozen, and I existed in a tense state of anticipation. March brought seed shopping and research, trips to the dollar store for supplies, advice seeking and more research.

In late April I was finally able to start planting seeds indoors. The lighting was less than ideal, some survived, some didn’t. The greenness of my thumb seemed to be more of an indication of my inexperience rather than my success. In early May, corner grocery stores beckoned with small plants that looked hardier and more likely to survive than the scraggly seedlings I had been sprouting. In late May, the planting finally began. Still in a corner of my mind was the regret that I hadn’t been able to source a rhubarb plant, and I had discovered that the raspberry canes would take two years to start bearing again.

The garden we inherited was 5 feet high with weeds, and in mid-September the landlord unceremoniously chopped it back to a 5 o’clock shadow of stubble.

After weeks of weeding, hours spent mixing in manure and organic fertilizer, watering, waiting and hoping, it finally started to fill out. In the end there was bok choy, sweet and hot peppers, celery, celeriac, strawberries, arugula, leaf lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, tomatillos and so many herbs, cilantro, rosemary, culinary sage, thyme, lemon and African basil, lemon balm and a prickly borage plant that attempted to take over. Later I was brave enough to try planting okra and then the calalloo sprung up on its own, a happy surprise which required next to no tending. At some point I started to muse about how much my eating had changed and how much food had changed in Hog Town over the years. I grew up in an avocado-less household, where spinach was always cooked into an unseasoned fir-green mush. No one I knew had eaten okra, heard of tomatillos, tasted fresh cilantro or added anything other than ice berg lettuce to their salads, never mind arugula.

tomatillos, tomato, blackberries, pepper, green beans, calalloo  (in background)

It was a childhood culinary experience full of baked potatoes smothered in butter (the skin really is the best part) hot roast beef sandwiches, a uniquely named family casserole dubbed “suppog”, root beer floats, vanilla ice cream in cantaloupe boats, freshly picked raspberries, carrots still warm from the earth, and on holidays pies and cranberry sauce made from scratch. On the flip side there were canned peas, Kraft dinner, and to fill in any nutritional gaps, the requisite dose of cod-liver oil. The variety wasn’t horrible but it was limited, fortunately the gastronomic landscape has shifted tectonically over the years. Now Toronto is renowned for having some of the best and most culturally varied cuisine in the world.

I grew the tomatillos on whim, watching them fill out their papery husks, even though I had never tasted one. Now the fridge is home to sweetly simmered tomatillo jam with lime and a hint of lavender tucked up against the jars of savoury tomatillo freezer jam, speckled with hot peppers. It might seem like that’s a long way from my grandmother’s garden but I know she would like them both because the tomatillos (a relative of the gooseberry) carry the slightly less tart but still very definable flavour of rhubarb. Seems like in a roundabout way, I got my wish after all. No wonder all the butterflies in the garden are dancing.

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” – Rumi