2021 gardening report card: a belated basil assessment

This annual recap of my gardening efforts should have been written last month, but then I got distracted by other topics–much as the return of travel in the second half of last year distracted me from tending to plants during what were, in retrospect, some critical parts of the summer.

In fewer words, I’m still figuring out this gardening thing, more than two decades after my first successful experiments with growing herbs in pots on an apartment balcony.

(For your reference: my 202020192018201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Herbs: A

Parsley was not as prolific as in previous years, but basil was 2021’s pleasant surprise, between the two plants I bought at the farmers’ market that kept yielding gorgeously green leaves through fall and the smaller crop I got from seeds in a pot in the dining room. Mint and rosemary grew reasonably well too, and the the same indoor pot yielded enough dill to flavor the occasional plate of scrambled eggs.

Arugula: A-

My most reliable green lived up to past performance in the spring but then took a mighty long time getting in gear after I planted a second crop of seeds in September. That second batch looked to be finally coming into its own after we returned from Christmas travel–and then we had snow while I was out at CES, and I think it may be done for now.

Beans: B

We repeated last year’s apathetic strategy of trying to grow beans in random containers around the back patio, but they were not quite as productive this year. My being around less often to tend to them after July also probably figured into this shortfall.

Lettuce: C-

Someday, I will figure out what I did right to get lettuce to grow as well as it did in 2017. That day did not come at any point in 2021, so I had to content myself with just enough lettuce for some springtime sandwich fixings.

Tomato: D+

This grade would have been a D or lower had it not been for all the plum and cherry tomatoes that either volunteered or grew from seeds that I didn’t expect to do much of anything. They contributed to some delicious pasta sauces–but the slicing tomatoes I value most for their contributions to sandwiches fell victim to my being out of town in mid-July and again in August.

Spinach: D

Here’s another vegetable that did much better before, even though I tried growing it in almost the same spot this year and gave it the same overall amount of care. But there’s nowhere to grow but up in 2022, right?

Recipe: farmers’ market gazpacho

About this time of year, farmers’ markets are all about the tomatoes. And the more cost-effective ones are all about tomatoes with issues. Sold as “seconds tomatoes,” “sauce tomatoes” or maybe just “scratch and dent,” these specimens have enough cracks, blemishes or other surface imperfections to require them to be sold at a substantial discount–think $1.50 a pound instead of $3.

GazpachoThese tomatoes also fall right into one of my favorite summer recipes: gazpacho. A soup that barely requires you to turn on a burner is easy to cook even if it’s 98 degrees; paired with a baguette, it makes for an ideal dinner on the front porch or maybe at an outdoor indie-rock concert.

My usual recipe mashes up the directions from two stories that ran in the Post in an earlier millennium (from July and August in 1998). It was an insane amount of work when I had to chop all the ingredients by hand; with a food processor, everything’s done in under an hour.

Farmers’ market gazpacho

Makes about 6 cups, or 4-6 servings

  • 1/4 pound sweet onion, cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound cucumbers, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound bell peppers of any color, seeded and cut into quarters
  • 1 rib celery, chopped (optional)
  • About 2 1/4 pounds seconds tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and then smashed into paste with the flat side of a knife
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1/2 cup high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 dashes Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun or other spicy seasoning (optional)

Cut an x pattern across the bottom of each tomato. Fill a pot with enough water to cover them, bring it to a boil, drop in the tomatoes, and cook for two minutes. Dump the tomatoes into a strainer (pour ice over them if you’re in a hurry) and let them sit.

Throw the onion, cucumbers, peppers and (if using) celery into a food processor and finely chop until barely chunky. Pour the resulting mix into a 6-cup container. Pull the skin off the tomatoes, cut out any blemishes or cracks, cut them into quarters, and push out their seeds. Process about 3/4 of them and pour into the container.

Process the last quarter of the tomatoes with the garlic, tomato juice, olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt and (if using) sauce and seasonings. Pour into the container and stir to combine; eat the next day, preferably with a locally-baked baguette (current favorites near me: Leonora in Arlington, Bread Furst in northwest D.C.) and outdoors.