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The Garden Grew

Tamara O’Brien’s vegetable garden on Bird Park Drive took on much larger proportions this year, as a result of pandemic downtime and the desire to feed friends and neighbors.

Which came first—the chickens or the eggplants? Who cares when you get the chance to turn your spacious yard into a suburban farm that not only supplies your family with an abundance of produce but also strengthens ties to the community?

Tamara O’Brien spearheads her family’s outdoor projects. The family of five–plus pets and, recently, chickens—for years has grown vegetables and pollinator plants at its Bird Park Drive property. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its stay-at-home directives during the spring, allowed the O’Briens to expand things.

Already there were five planting beds and a beanpole tepee, and O’Brien at first downplayed the scope of the expansion this year—until she started recounting everything. The O’Briens put in two new beds; expanded, and added strawberries as a companion planting to, a years-old asparagus bed; expanded the wildflower plantings; added another beanpole teepee; expanded the tomato bed; added a small orchard of apple, pear and peach trees; added blueberry bushes at dad Duff’s request; added a potato patch; and built a chicken coop for the newest, egg-laying additions to the property residents.

“We decided to put some more effort in this year,” Tamara says. “With everybody home, we’ve eliminated, like, 90 percent of the lawn on one side of the house. I’ve been imagining this for a while now.”

Tamara has not worked the past few years since their third child was born. Duff was out of work as an electrician because of the pandemic and social distancing rules, so this spring he was available to do some of the heavier labor that goes with putting in new beds and other landscaping. The two older children, with schools and their various sports and activities shut down, have pitched in, too. The O’Briens are not vegetarians but enjoy the huge variety of produce they grow. So do others, as they often share what they reap with friends and neighbors. That includes Tamara’s homemade zucchini bread. After the killing frosts this fall, they might still be able to share some of the abundance; Tamara planned to take an online course on preserving produce–canning and jamming, as she calls it, and it reminds her of the days when everyone’s grandparents had cellars full of jarred goods.

Adding a second beanpole teepee was one of the augmentations to the O’Briens’ garden this year.

With the new beds and things installed during this spring that was unlike any other, the O’Briens will be able to maintain, and share, their huge bounty for years to come.

“This community we live in, it’s really nice,” says Tamara, adding that her family got some assistance and good service from several people.

Monster Tree Service took down a large tree to make way for the orchard and donated a lot of wood chips to be used as mulch. A company with ties to Duff’s electricians union was putting in a french drain for the family and agreed to use its excavator to level another part of the yard. And the O’Briens called on old high school pals at Wild Purveyors in Lawrenceville to deliver what Tamara calls “amazing soil, like crazy organic.”

“We would not have been able to do this with our yard without enormous help,” Tamara says.

The O’Briens had a large garden when they lived near Mars, Pennsylvania, a few years ago. When they moved to Bird Park Drive, things started slowly—one salsa garden with tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Then it grew considerably before taking a huge step this year.

Tamara is an involved gardener who favors heirloom varieties. She is a staunch advocate of pollinator gardens and is part of a movement to track bees, some of which are threatened. She has joined Facebook groups. She saves seeds, such as from her sunflower patch. She starts some plants indoors from seed before the growing season. She does succession planting for fall crops of some vegetables.

And this year, she and her family have had the chance to go big and stay home—a silver lining to what Tamara calls “the terribleness” of the pandemic.

What to do with all that bounty? Here are a couple of recipes from Tamara O’Brien’s kitchen.

Dutch Oven Ratatouille

INGREDIENTS

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more
for serving

1½ pounds eggplant (1 large or 3 small),
large dice

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1½ pounds  zucchini or summer squash
(3 to 4 medium squash), large dice

1 medium yellow onion, diced

2 to 5 cloves garlic, minced, to taste

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

1 pound tomatoes (3 to 4 medium), large dice

1 large bell pepper, large dice

½ cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, thinly
sliced, plus more for serving

DIRECTIONS

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned in spots, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.

Add 2 tablespoons more oil to the pot. Add the zucchini, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned in spots, about 2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the eggplant.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the remaining  tablespoon oil and the onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened.

Add the garlic, thyme and bay leaf and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and bell peppers. Add the reserved eggplant and zucchini and gently stir to combine. Save basil to stir in during last 15 minutes of cook time.

Bring to an almost boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low. After about a half hour turn heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 1½ to 2 hours. Remove the bay leaf and thyme. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve, sprinkling each serving with more basil and drizzling with more olive oil.

This recipe can be doubled and adapted to use whatever vegetables you have.

 

ZUCCHINI BREAD

Grate zucchini in a sieve over a bowl to drain any excess moisture while you prep the other ingredients. I give each handful a good squeeze as I move it to the batter to get extra moisture out.

INGREDIENTS

3 to 4 cups grated fresh zucchini (700 to 900 ml)

*4 cups will yield a slightly more dense, moist zucchini bread. You can sub out any summer squash or pumpkin. I am growing a new-to-me squash variety this year and will be making a bunch of bread from it!

2 teaspoons oil for greasing the pans

*I keep a Costco tub of coconut oil in my cabinets for this purpose (among many others).

3 cups (390 g) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

3 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger (fresh or powdered)

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 1/3 cup (270 g) sugar

2 large eggs, beaten

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup (170 g) unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons flax or chia seed (optional)

Pour combined ingredients into 2 9×5-inch loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-55 minutes

 

Photos by George Mendel