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Giving up the garden

First We Eat: After a lifetime of successful gardening Mom is now giving it up as it becomes difficult to manage

This spring, I stood in Mom’s backyard with a wheelbarrow and a shovel, digging out all the soil in her raised beds. “Take it all,” she said when I slowed down. “I’m done with it.”

“Not even a potful of lettuces?” I asked, thinking of the preceding summer, when she’d grown more lettuces than she and Dad could eat, and wound up giving much of it away to me and my salad-loving crew.

“Not even,” she said.

So I dug out all the soil and hauled it home, where it now nurtures several new vines on the south wall of the house, and amends the soil in the herb bed to the north of the kitchen door. Good soil is never a waste of time to haul home.

Mom’s 83 this year, and intent on divesting herself of what she can no longer manage. It means she’s also made me and several others dig up half the raspberry canes in her patch. I brought my share of canes home and dug them into my own patch. Mom’s raspberry garden was famous among us berry lovers, a magnificent, lush, prolific plot that bore testimony to the power of regular watering.

After I’d dug in the new canes, I stood back to evaluate my own patch — a modest and unsheltered affair, open to the ravages of the west wind, devoid of the irrigation system Dad had installed in town. Remember to water it more regularly, I told myself. But I didn’t, and all summer, my raspberries were small thimbles, far removed from the thumbprint-sized berries I’d picked in Mom’s garden for years.

Mom’s a natural-born gardener, with green thumbs on both hands. She’s tended a garden patch of one sort or another all her life — as a mother of five hungry kids, as a field boss in a busy truck garden on Vancouver Island, and as a market gardener who took her produce to the farmers’ market in Saskatoon. True to her Depression-era raising, she has always frozen her garden’s produce, putting food by for winter. Next year, as I have this summer, I will bring salad greens and vegetables to her and Dad. And maybe, if I remember to water more faithfully, fresh raspberries.

If life is a garden, then my mother is welcoming its late-autumn and coming winter with the same grace and good humour that has seen her through 83 years. So first we eat, then we freeze any leftover berries.

Summer Cobbler with Buttermilk Crust

I take this freezer-friendly cobbler to potlucks, year in and year out. In the summer, I use fruit fresh from the market. In the winter, I use frozen fruits and berries, or apples and pears enlivened with simmered dried fruit.
Serves 12-16 generously.

Filling

  • 8 c. fresh/frozen fruit * (see below)
  • 1 orange, zest only
  • Sugar or honey to taste
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 c. water or juice

*Possible combinations:

Raspberry and grape with rosemary
Apple, strawberry, rhubarb
Cherry and peach with nutmeg
Peach and blackberry with lime zest
Peach and blueberry with nutmeg

Cherry and black currant or blackberry and thyme
Very berry (raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, saskatoon berry) with lime zest
Three cherry (Montmorency, sour or Queen Anne, Bing)
Pear and apricot (fresh or dried) Dried cranberry and apple with crystallized ginger
Plum and peach
Damson plum and cherry
Plum and apple with cinnamon and cloves or cinnamon and basil

Topping ** (see at bottom)

  • 1/3 c. unsalted butter
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1-1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 c. buttermilk
  • 1 egg

Set the oven at 375 F. In a large pot, combine the filling ingredients. Bring to a boil, then pour carefully into a large shallow casserole with a diameter of 18 inches. Place on a cookie sheet with a lip to minimize spillage.

To make the topping, cream together the butter and sugar, then stir together the dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Mix together the wet ingredients in a bowl or large measuring cup. Beginning and ending with dry ingredients, alternately add the wet and dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture. Mix only until blended, then immediately drop by spoonfuls onto the outer edges of the fruit filling. Do not cover the centre with batter — it takes too long to bake through. Bake at 375 for 45 minutes or until done. Serve warm or cool.

** For a gluten-free alternative, mix together 1/2 c. melted butter, 2 c. oatmeal, 1/2 c. rice flour or cornmeal and 3/4 c. sugar. Mix together to form crumbs.

Dee’s cobbler.
photo: dee Hobsbawn- Smith

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