After spending an enormous amount of money constructing a greenhouse and fenced-in vegetable garden, I decided it was finally time to learn how to garden properly. Luckily my friend Jane Kasten, probably the Berkshires’ most gifted gardener and herbalist, wanted to teach a course called “A Year in the Garden,” so three lucky ladies and I embarked on that journey with her. So we started a year-long adventure learning to love our gardens in such a way that they would love us back.
We began our weekly meetings enthusiastically , and finished them a year later with a wistful feeling of “where did the time go?” In between we learned more than I could easily retain, but luckily I take excellent notes, so all is not lost.
Now I know the best places to order seeds, and what dried herbs to use as remedies for ailing vegetable plants. I’ve taken to heart Jane’s dictum that one must fertilize the garden in autumn because the soil is the most active over winter. I know to scatter spinach seeds in late October because they create fertile soil for next spring’s tomato planting.
I haven’t committed to memory which herb goes with which ailment (although I do know that fennel is good for gas pains), but it’s easy enough to hit the search button to find what I need for which physical problem. Jane’s most favorite remedy is cayenne. Believe it or not, the four of us in that class now brush our teeth with cayenne (no, it doesn’t hurt) and have much healthier gums than prior to the class. Cayenne worked so well on me that my dentist now uses it.
In addition to learning about seed selection, natural treatments for vegetable plants, composting, and herbal remedies for the sorts of things that ail us, Jane shared many of her recipes. She’s a remarkable cook, gaining much of her knowledge by hanging out in her Swedish grandmother’s kitchen.
My favorite class was when we learned to can peaches. Since that hot August afternoon in Alice Wislocki’s kitchen 15 months ago when we mastered the fundamentals of canning, I’ve become obsessed with it. This summer I canned almost two dozen quarts of peaches, along with a variety of salsas, and an amazing tomato chutney courtesy of Leslie Shatz. When I can find the time, I’m going to put up pears in honey syrup, which, along with ginger ice cream, make a delicious dessert.
Here’s one of Jane’s Swedish grandmother’s recipes—a delicious tea bred that freezes well, so you’ve always got something to take to a friend or defrost should someone decide to drop in unexpectedly (although that’s not behavior to be encouraged). This rhubarb bread recipe is in the “must save” niche. Not only is it delicious but it’s wildly flexible. Wait, you don’t freeze rhubarb? Fine, use blueberries or diced peaches. So your grandson is allergic to nuts, skip them and add more raisins. You don’t like raisins—use currants. Yada yada. It makes two loaves, so eat one and freeze the other. Or eat both but don’t tell anyone.
Jane’s Swedish Grandmother’s Rhubarb Bread
1 c brown sugar
½ c granulated sugar
2/3 c oil or butter or a combination
1 t salt
1 t baking soda
½ c nuts
½ c raisins
1 c yogurt or sour cream
1 t vanilla
1 ½ c flour
1 ½ c diced rhubarb
Preheat oven to 350. Grease 2 8” bread pans or a large loaf pan.
Mix sugars and oil/butter. Add eggs. Add remaining ingredients. Pour into pans. If you like, you can drizzle 1 t melted butter over the top and sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake for 1 hour.