On an August day in 1994, Carl Klaus stood with his basket overflowing, gazing at his large vegetable garden. “Gazing because it’s the day I’ve been waiting for since the first hard frost of last year–the day when all these warm-weather plants are pumping out their fruit again, all at the same time.”
So many days, so many hours devoted to bringing on so many vegetables all at once that he is overwhelmed by vegetables–more than he and his wife can eat, freeze, can, or even give away.
Several times each year, Klaus asks himself why he does it. But none of the obvious answers convey what he goes through in the garden or why he goes through it, day after day, month after month, year after year. In an effort to make sense of it, he resolved to take stock of his garden and his gardening every day during the gardening year of 1995.
The result is this completely delightful memoir of life in the back year, a new gardening classic. But this book is about more than a garden–it’s about all of the things that influence this gardener: the weather, the neighborhood, his wife’s possibly recurring cancer, the changing nature of the academic community, his impending retirement, his children, his grandchildren; about the last months in the life of his twenty-year-old cat; about his dog, his gardening friends, and all the other human and animal inhabitants of his gardening world.
A love of good food and of cooking is a special and delicious feature of this memoir. (Klaus spices things up in the kitchen as eagerly as he tends things in the garden.) Both he and his wife are clearly imaginative and impassioned cooks, turning everything he grows into memorable meals that he vividly describes throughout the book.
Reactions & Reviews
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“My Vegetable Love makes me green—nay, red- ripe-tomato and purple-eggplant with envy. This is a book rich with the good black earth of living.” —Sam Pickering, author of Trespassing
“A lovely memoir. Beautifully written, tender, and wise.” —Gerald Stern, author of Old Mercy
“Beneath the simplicity of this beguiling gardener’s journal lies the captivating story of a good life and a true love. In the spirit of M.F.K. Fisher’s writing about food and drink, Carl H. Klaus has found in his garden a model of the enduring passions of life and death.” —Patricia Hampl, author of A Romantic Education
“Klaus is a gardener’s gardener, inventive and adventurous. His acute observations transform gardening chores into voyages of discovery.” —Jim Wilson, author of Landscaping With Herbs
“Part Gilbert White, part Henry David Thoreau, this chronicle of an Iowa gardener’s year has drawn from the heartland a calm, compassionate harvest.” —Roger B. Swain, science editor, Horticulture, and host of PBS’s Victory Garden
“You don’t have to be a gardener to love this book. I was totally enchanted by each of these charming essays, which reflect the total gardener, cook and canner, teacher, philosopher, and one man’s love for this earth.” —Ann Zwinger, author of Run, River, Run
“Home gardeners, cooks and nature lovers will savor this delightful account of the 1995 growing season in Iowa.” —Publisher’s Weekly
“A serenely informal gardener’s companion…. Any gardener, true-blue or armchair variety, will want to settle down and read Klaus.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This is a good book for anyone who has ever planted a vegetable. Or eaten one. Or even thought about it.” —Chicago Tribune
“Flowers may spell romance, but his vegetables spell love.” —Boston Globe
It’s high summer, and I’m out in the yard, gazing at the back vegetable bed, the sun-filled site of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Gazing because it’s the day I’ve been waiting for ever since the first hard frost of last year—the day when all these warm weather plants are pumping out ripe fruit again, all at the same time. Tomato vines along the back row more than five feet up the seven foot poles, their red and green fruit entwined with leaves from top to bottom, like della Robbia garlands in the garden. Three foot tall Cubanelle and Italian pepper plants along the next row, branching out like fruit trees—tropical fruit trees—bullhorn peppers dangling from their branches. An eggplant at each end of the row, their purple-veined leaves and long purple fruit framing the yellow-green, dark green, and red peppers. Bell pepper plants in front, branches beginning to bend under the weight of their fruit. Cherry tomato plants at each end of the row in large clay pots. A monument to Mediterranean cooking.
Which reminds me that I’m not just gazing. I’m harvesting things for the first all-fresh ratatouille of the summer. “Vegetable stew,” according to my wife Kate. “Remember, we’re in Iowa, not France. And besides, I don’t cook it to death like the French.” Actually, she cooks it like the Italians, quickly, so the vegetables retain more of their distinct colors, textures and tastes. Which reminds me that on the way in I’m also supposed to stop at the big vegetable garden for a green zucchini, a yellow scallopini, and a couple of onions. Then at the herb bed by the gazebo for some fresh basil, parsley, and thyme. By the time I reach the back porch off the kitchen, my oak basket will be as fit for a still life as a stew.
A strange moment. So filled like the basket with heat and sunlight and color, that I think it could easily last for months on end. Tomatoes and peppers and eggplants galore. Red and green and purple and more. And all the others too—beans, chard, cucumbers, okra, scallopini, zucchini. All the stuff for gazpachos, gumbos, baba ganoojs, and God knows what else. Until I suddenly realize it’s just about time to seed up some flats of lettuce to go in front of the peppers a month or so from now. Fall lettuce exactly where I planted the spring greens back in mid-March. My head is spinning, fast forward and reverse. A month from now, the first cool nights of September. Two months from now, the first hard frost. And not even my row covers can keep those warm-weather vegetables warm enough to keep going for more than three months at most. Three months of high-summer harvest for nine or ten months of planning, seeding, transplanting, and tending. Seven months of harvest for all the vegetables, from May to December.
So many days, so many hours devoted to bringing on so many vegetables all at once that my basket runneth over, like a horn of plenty, with more than we can possibly eat fresh or can or freeze or pickle or preserve. Why is it, I wonder, that I go through all the hassle, when Kate and I can easily walk a few blocks to the nearest supermarket, or a few blocks more to the local co-op, and get all the fresh produce we need, as we do during most of the winter and early spring? Whenever I ask that question, as I do several times each growing season, I always come up with the same answers. The freshness. The taste. The variety. The exercise. The fresh air. The challenge. The environment. The past. All the present virtues, all valid, but none of which conveys what I go through in the garden or why I go through it day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
So, in an effort to make sense of it, I decided one day in mid-December of 1994 that I’d take stock of my garden and my gardening every day during the gardening season of 1995. And every day write a brief report of my activities. From the first outdoor planting in early spring to the last harvest in very late fall, when the gardening catalogues for 1996 are beginning to arrive and winter dream-time is about to begin. A vegetable gardener’s year. But I didn’t want to confine myself so narrowly to the vegetable garden that I ignored all the conditions that influence a gardener and his garden. So, my reports regularly take stock of the weather and the seasons and everything else in my immediate world, which includes Kate, our Welsh terrier Pip, our cat Phoebe, and the other gardens, trees, and shrubs we’ve been tending on our three-quarter acre lot for the past twenty-five years. Especially Kate’s sixty foot ornamental flower border, centered near the back of the yard, changing like a vivid backdrop with the changing seasons. Also the various wild animals that live on our land or that pass through it. Crows, deer, groundhogs, moles, possums, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, and sparrows—all the vermin that trouble the heart of an ardent vegetable gardener. Also from time to time our neighbors, our neighborhood, the university where I teach, as well as other places and people I encounter or think about on my walks in the City of Iowa City where I live.
In the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived, the sun, I assume, shone every day, except for brief periods of refreshing and replenishing showers. The seasons did not exist. Temperatures were continuously moderate—neither so cold nor so hot as to be even slightly uncomfortable. The weather, you might say, was ideal. The only Biblical reference to it describes “the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” shortly after the serpent had tempted Eve and Eve had tempted Adam to eat of the forbidden fruit. Change, on the other hand, is at the heart of my garden—so much so that if it didn’t change, it wouldn’t be an actual garden but some mythic place, like the garden of Eden, where there were no seasons or seasonal changes to be observed.
Like any reports in this world, the ones that follow are only as reliable as the reporter, who in this case makes no special claim for himself, except that he took stock of things every day during the gardening season of 1995.
March 16, 1995
A double row of radishes seeded in earlier than ever before, thanks to the exceptional warm-up this week. Cherry Belle, French Breakfast, German Giant, Hailstone White. Planted in the sandy sun trap of a plot along the south side of my neighbor Jim’s garage. Jim wasn’t home, so I prepared the bed myself. And in less than an hour, the seeds were in and topped with one of my spunbond polyester row covers–long strips of gauze-like material, stretched over metal hoops, that give the vegetables four to six degrees of additional warmth. I’ve never planted anything outside this early, so I’m curious to see what will come of them. Then I put in the onion sets–a twenty foot row of diminuitive onion bulbs, centered along the front edge of my own large vegetable bed. Though the soil was still a bit cool just below the surface, I was sweating from the suddenly elevated temperatures in the mid-seventies. Almost a hundred degrees higher than the wind-chill factor a week ago, when the garden was still covered with snowier one week, spring the next. The top of the topsoil already dry enough along the front stretch of the bed that I could easily draw my hoe through it to loosen things up a bit before I leveled the row, set up my string line, and pressed the little bulbs in about two inches apart. They went in so easily the earth seemed as if it was meant for them. And now in a month or so we can begin harvesting every other one for scallions, leaving the others to swell into fully mature onions. Meanwhile, I can look down from my attic study, where I’m writing this report, and see the string line marking the row. And perhaps see their green tips breaking through the soil in a week or so. An extraordinary prospect, thanks to El Niño–that periodic warmup of the ocean off the coast of Peru that seems to be responsible for weather disruptions around the world. It’s a long way from Peru to Iowa, but like many things in this world, they’re connected by the wind.
If I didn’t have a department meeting in an hour, I’d still be outside, transplanting the lettuce seedlings I started in mid-February. But the time’s so short I couldn’t get them all planted comfortably and pleasurably. Twenty-five years ago, I’d still be in the garden, frantically working to get everything in as fast as I could, even if I showed up at the meeting sweating and out of breath. Even if my back ached and my knees were stiff for the next three days. Bodily decrepitude is wisdom, alright. Also the fact that one day sooner or later makes little difference, especially when the gardening season is two or three weeks ahead of schedule, as it is right now.
But then I’m caught short by Phoebe curled up in the window seat behind my computer–her coon-ringed tail wrapped around her reddish-brown body, her faintly speckled head nestled in between her tail and legs. Napping as peaceably as she has for almost twenty years. Just a year ago, she seemed so robust, I thought she’d keep going four or five more years. Now, she’s come up with a cancerous tumor, and I wonder how many weeks or months she has to live. Anymore, I don’t know how to reckon the passing of time, except to note that it’s passing, and a month or so from now when the green onions and radishes are ready Phoebe may already be gone. Some harvest. In this year of El Niño, nothing’s quite in sync or in season. Not even the seasons.
March 17, 1995
St. Patrick’s Day. Traditionally the day to plant potatoes–in honor of the potato famine that brought the Irish to this country. But my clayey soil’s never been dry enough or warm enough six inches down to plant potatoes this early, not even this year. So, I marked the day, instead, by the plantin’ o’ the greens–Arugula, Buttercrunch, Carmona Butterhead, Endive, Escarole, Simpson Green Leaf, Purple Oak Leaf, Romaine, and Radicchio. A double row. Forty three plants in all. Usually an exhausting task given my desire not only to get them comfortably situated and fed, but also to have them attractively arranged from one end of the row to the other. Butterheads at each end of the row gradually rising toward the tall romaines in the center. Ruffled leaves alternating with straight edges. Dark greens or reds alternating with light greens. A compulsive’s delight. But the soil was so easy to work and the mid-sixties temperature so comfortable to work in that it took me only a couple of hours to plant the seedlings protect them against cold and rabbits and deer with a polyester row cover.
Speaking of row covers, I removed all the layers from the spinach I started last fall, pulled away the straw mulch from the sides and top of the plants, and discovered that the entire row had survived all the severe cold snaps of January, February, and early March. So, in a few weeks, we’ll be eating spinach from the garden, thanks to the insulating powers of straw, the cold resistant powers of spun bond polyester, and the toughness of spinach itself. But the two artichoke plants didn’t fare anywhere near so well. Only a few freeze dried tatters of them under the straw. Something there is that doesn’t love an Iowa winter. On the other hand, the artichoke that wintered over in the Plexiglas-covered outside cellarway has been sunning itself on the terrace wall for the past two days. The herb plants have also come up from the cellarway and are taking the sun at the south end of the gazebo.
Spring, it seems, is undeniably in residence. Even though the vernal equinox has not yet taken place. Even though I’ve not yet planted my peas, the ritual with which I traditionally mark the beginning of my spring gardening. Given this Niñoesque state of affairs, I decided to get in the rhythm of things and began the day by starting my eggplant, pepper, and tomato seedlings. Then in further obedience to the season, I moved all the broccoli and cauliflower to the outside cellarway–newly sprouted just five days after being planted last Sunday. Maybe it was just the influence of the full moon. Or the miraculous power of St. Patrick. But all the signs seem to agree that spring is here–at least for the time being.
March 18, 1995
According to my personal gardening calendar, today must be the first day of spring. For this morning, the soil in the west side of my garden was workable enough that I could rake it out, draw my hoe through it, kneel down beside the furrow, and plant a double row of snow peas–usually, the first thing I plant outside each spring. The sky was overcast during the entire process, so the sun never shone on my right cheek, as I like it to do when I’m planting the peas. But it did come out briefly after lunch when I was admiring the finished project. And the temperature was in the low-to mid-fifties, typical of early spring.
Peas. Their seeds are so large that planting them seems like kid’s stuff compared to the smaller seeds of most other vegetables. But from start to finish, the process of planting and tending them is a labor of love that yields abundance and sweetness only to those who are willing to give them the ardent care they demand. During my first few years of growing peas, I discovered they can easily rot before they germinate if sown too deep in a clayey soil such as ours, especially during the cold and damp period of early spring. Or they can break their necks trying to get through the hardened surface that forms on a clayey soil after a spring rain. Peas are by no means so tough as they seem from the hardened exterior of their dried seeds. So, I now plant them no more than one inch deep and cover them with lightweight compost. Before adding the compost, I dust them lightly with a powdered bacterium to help them draw nitrogen from the soil. And when the planting is done, I protect the entire double row with a polye row cover to raise the inside temperature a few degrees, keep the soil from being pummeled during a hard rain, and prevent the sparrows from pecking at the sweet and tender seedlings when they emerge.
But that’s only the beginning of the process. After the seedlings have grown a few inches tall, I build a vertical structure of twigs and brush that arches over the plants on both sides, so their vines can climb up it to a height of about three or four feet tall and remain erect even in winds of sixty or seventy miles an hour. Also so their blossoms and pods are exposed to the air and the sunlight, rather than falling over and rotting on the ground. I learned this structure from observing the garden of my old neighbor Herman, who evidently learned it from his ancestors in Germany before he emigrated to the United States. And as I discovered from an illustration in one of Kate’s medieval books of hours, the twig and brush structure for supporting peas is at least five-hundred years old. Domesticated peas themselves have been dated as far back as 9750 B. C. to a “Spirit Cave” on the border between Burma and Thailand.
So, in the slightly chill air of an overcast morning, I felt as if I were taking part in an enduring primeval ritual, befitting the advent of spring.
March 19, 1995
Spring yesterday, and today I’m already working on summer, starting a few more seedlings of the patio cherry tomato to follow the ones now developing in the outside cellarway. Also a few seeds of the Ecuadorian Relleno pepper and Brandywine tomato that arrived yesterday in the mail. Nothing special about starting them in the house. I just wet down some seed starting mix, put it in plastic six-packs, seed it up, then put the six-packs in a covered plastic tray to keep things moist, and put the tray on a radiator to keep it warm. And germination usually takes place in a week or so.
But there was something about the picture of that Brandywine tomato on the seed packet that caught my eye, just as I’d been captivated by that picture when I first saw it in the catalogue several weeks ago. I guess it was the pinkish coloring of the skin and the faint green stripes on the shoulders that surprised me–so different from the uniformly red sheen of most tomatoes that one sees in the gardening catalogues. Not a glossily assertive modern-day tomato, jumping off the page, but an heirloom tomato that almost seemed to be fading out a bit, like the memory of my first fresh-picked garden tomato.
It was a hot summer that August in Cleveland. 1940 or 41. I and my older brother Marshall were out for a Sunday afternoon in the country at the farm of my cousin Art, a distant cousin, old enough to be one of my grandparents. The farm itself was more like a country estate, a large white clapboard showplace with a wide wraparound porch. A place that Art and his family used as much for business and entertaining as for a weekend retreat from their two-story apartment in Shaker Heights. I can’t remember who all was there that Sunday. But I can remember Art, the gruff multimillionaire, telling the resident caretaker to “get each of them a salt shaker and take them out to the tomato plants.” And I can remember the caretaker telling me just to pull one of the tomatoes off the plant, take a little bite, shake a little salt on the exposed part of the tomato, take another bite, and so on. The warmth and juiciness and piquancy of those first few bites have been in my mind’s mouth ever since. And ever since I started gning, I’ve been trying to grow a tomato that would taste like that one when I pick it off the vine on a hot day in August with a salt shaker in my hand.
So, when I looked at that haunting picture of the Brandywine on this overcast, chilly morning, I thought it might be the way back to those fifty-year old tomatoes of my childhood, especially because the Brandywine was discovered by a seed-saving New Englander who lived during the first half of this century. You can’t go home again, I know, but an heirloom tomato may be able to get you a bit closer than a hybrid. I’ll know better come August.
March 20, 1995
Meanwhile, back here in March, the first rainstorm of the year finally arrived last night around midnight, complete with lightning and thunder, and more fell this morning. Enough to saturate the soil that had been drying out during the unusual warmth of last week. Also enough to cool down and slow down all the prematurely budding trees, shrubs, vines, brambles, and perennials. The leonine side of March also blustered in with a northwest wind gusting up to thirty-five miles an hour. An uncomfortable day for people, a blessing for things in the garden.
But a near-freezing temperature scheduled for this evening had me shuttling all the tender herb plants from the gazebo back to the house. And the tomato seedlings from the cool of the outside cellarway back up to the warmth of the kitchen, then back down again, when Kate and I agreed they’re sturdy enough to take it down there. Ever watchful and fretful, like nurses in a preemie ward, we continually check on our seedling trays. Are they germinating on time? Have new ones emerged? Are they shedding their seed husks in good order? Do they need their surfaces moistened or bottoms watered? And we’re continually moving them back and forth between radiators or other warm spots at night to windowsills during the day, or the terrace if it’s warm enough and calm enough outside. Kate’s already tending about two-hundred flower seedlings for our yard and the neighborhood park, and before long she’ll be up to about five-hundred. So, my hundred vegetable seedlings are a breeze.
Especially by comparison with the fifty graduate students I was tending last year at this time, when I was still directing our program in nonfiction writing. Students looking for advice about admission, or courses, or manuscripts, or theses, or financial aid, or jobs, or publishers, or agents, or doctors, or writing blocks. Back then, they came to see me or waited to see me almost every day of the week, as I was reminded recently by my colleague Carol, whose office is next to mine. “Aren’t you delighted to be free of all that?” Well, yes, I couldn’t deny that I was happy to be free of all that. To be working on my own writing. But upon reflection, I also had to admit there was a time, and not so long ago, when I was happy to be involved in all of that. To be of help, to have a good influence, to build an outstanding program. Why is it, I wonder, that I no longer care to do such things so much as I once did? Is it just fatigue? Or burnout? Or is it also selfishness? Or some irrepressible desire to withdraw? en to be estranged, as a way of preempting the inevitable estrangement to come? Now, at last, I think I’m beginning to understand why some of my retired colleagues seemed to behave so strangely in the years shortly before their retirement.
March 21, 1995
Though spring arrived for me last Saturday, when I planted the Oregon Giant snow peas, I could hardly ignore its arrival today, in keeping with the vernal equinox. The most ancient and reliable standard for determining the onset of spring. What better way to mark this season of rebirth than by dating it from the moment at which the earth’s orbit around the sun begins to yield a greater amount of daylight than darkness, of warmth rather than chilliness, of growth rather than decay. And on all counts, this day fulfilled its promise–from a light frost and a clear sunrise to a mild afternoon in the mid-fifties with scattered clouds moving across the sun. And a few daffodil buds beginning to make their way above ground in Kate’s perennial border, and a few tulip leaves beginning to break ground by the edge of the terrace.
But for me the most special gift of the day arrived first thing, when I went to the radiator in the living room to check the tray of eggplant, pepper, and tomato seeds I planted last Friday and discovered that almost all the Enchantment and Whopper tomatoes had emerged, their seed husks shucked and seed leaves fully unfurled, seeking the light. A few came up yesterday, but their husks were still clinging so tightly to their leaves that I was fretting to Kate about my potentially stifled newborns. “Just keep them misted with the spray bottle, and they’ll take care of the rest. There’s nothing else you can do, except to stop fussing over them.” So, thanks to Kate and the mist and the plants themselves, our main crop of tomatoes is safely underway, just five days after the seeds were planted. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the vernal equinox itself had something to do with their swift emergence. But then I’d be hard put to explain why only one of the Big Beef tomatoes had emerged–a delay that can only be attributed to the fact that Big Beef’s a later tomato and thus takes longer to germinate.
Every hybrid, it seems, has its own internal clock and thermometer that determine the number of days and the temperature it will take to germinate, mature, flower, bear fruit, and die. Within the span of those days and temperatures, individual variations will depend on soil and weather conditions. But the boundaries are firmly fixed by the genetic control of the hybridizers. I’ve often wondered about my own boundaries, but my parents died too early–from breast cancer and post-operative blood poisoning–to reveal anything about the genetic controls that have been bred into me. All I know is that my clock’s still ticking and my thermometer’s still rising on this equinoctial day of days. And for that I’m grateful to the sun and the soil and the vernal weather of my life.
March 22, 1995
The University’s spring break started last Saturday, so for the first time in several years it’s actually coordinated with the beginning of the season itself. The only problem is that the ground’s still so wet and cold from the recent rain that I can’t get into either of the vegetable gardens to plant any more seeds or seedlings. And the ones I planted at the height of last week’s warmth are now cooling their heels under the row covers, as I discovered this morning when I went out to check on things and take a few snapshots for the records. The onion sets haven’t yet begun to put up any green tips, the lettuces have grown just a bit, the radishes by Jim’s garage are just breaking ground, and the snow peas haven’t shown any signs of emerging. For all I know the peas may be on the verge of rotting, so I’m thinking about adding another row cover to heat things up a bit more and possibly bring them on a bit sooner. Ever fretful, ever fretful. And now, in keeping with my fretfulness and the overcast sky, I’m worg about the rains predicted for later this evening. Yet just last week I was worrying about the dryness and the lack of rain. In the world of a compulsive gardener, there’s always something to fret about. Maybe that’s why Kate was musing yesterday about my fuss over the emergent tomato seedlings. “Sometimes I wonder what goes on inside that head of yours.”
Maybe she’d not be so puzzled about the inside of my head if she were a vegetable gardener rather than a perennial gardener. Every spring I have to start my whole garden over from scratch, uncertain of what might happen with every vegetable at every point along the way, whereas she’s sitting in the catbird seat, everything in her bed already well established and she just calmly waiting for all her things to emerge, each in its turn. But then again, I wouldn’t trade places with her, given all the digging and dividing that has to be done every year in a perennial bed just to prevent overcrowding and to make room for new varieties. Whereas I can easily make wholesale changes in the selection and arrangement of things in my garden without any trouble at all.
Actually, I’m far less troubled about the spring vegetables right now than I am about the spring break. It’s not that I have anything against it as such. Who in his right mind could possibly be at odds with a spring break? It’s just that I don’t really feel as if I’m having one. Because, when all is said and done, I don’t think my work load this semester has been so heavy that I need a break from it. Just teaching one course, serving on one committee, directing a couple of theses, and writing these gardening reports. So light a load I sometimes feel as if I’ve been on a break all along. In fact, I didn’t even know when the break was coming this semester, until someone asked me what I planned to be doing this week. Usually I can’t wait for it to come, just to catch up with the mail and all my other professional obligations. I suppose that I oughtn’t to be worrying about it, since I’m being paid a part-time rather than a full-time salary. And besides, the light load this semester can’t begin to compensate for overload of theses and committee assignments and administrative work I carried during the past two years of my phased-in retirement. I guess it’s just that I’m having trouble making sense of this transitional season in my life, when I find myself so betwixt and between that I still can’t decide whether I should put on another row cover or be happy with the temperatures just as they are.