At the end of spring planting season, I often think of the poem by Louise Bogan called “Women,” which begins, “Women have no wilderness in them. They are provident instead.” This comes to mind because the females in my neighborhood, myself included, have spent those final weeks frantically finding homes for all our leftover seedlings. It seems intolerable to throw out even partial flats of perfectly healthy tomato plants or cosmos, even if they are a bit leggy and overgrown. Somebody out there must need them desperately to fill a gap in their garden.
My husband, the ever-practical farmer, can see no pathos in throwing out his extra, unwanted lettuce or broccoli, so onto the compost heap they go. He treats our compost operation as a family member, another mouth to feed. It needs its daily ration of orphan plants. He’s right, of course — now’s the time to move on into summer. And it’s not as if we were drowning surplus kittens.
Nevertheless, there’s something inherently valuable in the feminine instinct to conserve, the conviction that nothing in the household should go to waste. This kind of mentality, borne of peasant frugality, leads Italians to create grappa out of grape must, after the juice has been pressed out. Or the French to coat cheeses with the grapes’ seeds — why waste them? It’s part of a cook’s genius to use byproducts and leftovers creatively.
Besides, this little flurry of community swapping between spring and summer is a pleasurable exchange. Certain busy friends, perennially behind in their planting, are always happy to get handouts. Our friend Siri, when she worked with us, used to help find homes for every last plant. Even when forced to compost them she would set them on top of the heap in hopes that someone would come by and rescue them before they were buried for good. Some composted plants, of course, refuse to die — I’ve often raised tomatoes or squash inadvertently from seedlings that were tossed out. A big, deep pile of organic wastes proves to be the perfect place for them to grow.
’Tis the season of serendipity. One year when I was tossing the salad for our farm lunch, and looking for the perfect seasoning, our helper Kennon walked in with a bowl of fennel plants she’d just gleaned when she’d thinned the bed. They were tiny, just like spindly blades of grass, with a delightfully subtle fennel flavor, and all washed and ready to go. A bit obsessive? Perhaps. And my kind of woman.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”