Patricia Nell Warren

Victory Garden: Starting Over

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | June 26, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: recipe, starting over, swiss chard, victory garden

It was sad to leave behind a lot of things -- a neighborhood I like, some favorite neighbors, the fruit trees I planted. The new owner is doing a remodel -- the building is already gutted and undergoing a complete transformation.

rose2.jpgOn moving day, I made the immigrant trip with my laptop and my cat, from Los Angeles over "the Hill" to Glendale. As the truck and trailer roared along the 2 North, I thought about the thousands of LGBT people who are going through the same rupture -- short sales or foreclosures on their homes or condos. As I said in an earlier post, "Surely we LGBT people form an identifiable percentage of this 7-million disaster-stricken base of mortgage holders. If we posit the traditional 10 percent, that means that 700,000 of us could be in dire straits on home debt. Even 5 percent means that 350,000 are out of luck right now." Yes, the recession and mortgage-market collapse are definitely LGBT issues.

So yes, starting over is definitely an LGBT issue. In my personal circle, several other people are going through the same short sale or foreclosure experience, and experiencing the imperative to migrate -- even if it's just for a few city miles.

But starting over has its bright side. Among other things, I took my Victory Garden with me -- most of it anyway.

Into the move went a window box of alpine strawberries, a collection of perennial kitchen herbs in big pots, along with cherished varieties of chili peppers potted up, and random volunteers I had spotted -- like the cocky little pepper basil seedling that was coming up in a corner. And two loquat seedlings from the now-mature fruit tree that I planted in 1996 -- itself a seedling that I had carted from a previous home in Malibu.

Best of all -- I dug up my favorite rosebush, "Surprise." Pruned hard so she could migrate without transplant shock, she now sits in new soil in a big pot, beside an unused trellis that waits for her to sprout new canes. My breath will be bated till I see the first green shoots popping out.

My new landlord and landlady are old friends -- retired engineer Dennis DuVall and Elizabeth, his daughter, who is especially enthusiastic about the idea of communal and environmentally responsible gardening and eating. They have a compost pile ready to go, and we are launching a joint garden.

In short, my Garden Goddess made the migration over the Hollywood Hills with me, and is rooting Her shrine in a new land.

This has been the pattern with me -- ever since 1955, when I left behind the childhood family garden that I helped to tend in Montana, and moved to New York state. There, through long years of college, closet marriage, career and coming out, I left behind some footprints of gardens in cities and towns where I lived -- Yorktown Heights, White Plains, Bedford Hills, Pawling. In 1980 I moved back out west and left a few more gardens up and down California -- in Nevada County, Mendocino County, and Malibu, before moving into Los Angeles.

That's the thing about gardens -- you don't really leave them behind, because you can always take something with you. The new garden is going to be bigger and better than the old one -- and I intend that my new life will be bigger and better too. Even at 74 (my birthday was last week), anybody can start over. And if circumstances tell us we have to start over, we'd better make the most of it.

Plants and People Move Around

Edible plants have always leapfrogged around the planet with immigrants. And usually those past immigrants moved because they had to.

Examples: Ancient sea migrations spread the sweet potato across the Pacific Ocean, on an arc between Southeast Asia and South America. When my First Nation greatgrannies migrated anywhere, they always took seeds with them...which was probably how a Central American tropical plant like pumpkin reached the tribes in North America.

As Europeans shuffled around their own continent, they did the same thing. Case in point: a humble green called chard, aka silverbeet or seabeet. The most ancient varieties can be traced to Sicily, but chard migrated into northern Europe, maybe with the Romans, and today it's best known as "Swiss chard." When Europeans took ship for the New World, they took chard seeds with them -- along with seeds for favorite varieties of other vegetables and fruit known to Europeans.

When I moved into my rental space at the DuValls, they already had a healthy crop of Swiss chard coming along. We plundered it for a big pot of soup, which we shared.

Recipe for that big potful (amounts are approximate...since I am a pinch-of-this-and-dash-of-that cook):


Pick enough young chard leaves and stems to stuff into a two-quart pot, complete with the water you wash them in. Put the lid on, set over medium heat and steam the chard till it melts down and is just tender. Don't overcook. Chop it finely right in the pot with the edge of a wide spatula. Or drain and chop on a chopping board with a chef knife.


Make a medium bechamel by melting 8 T. butter in your soup pot, stir in 8 T. flour, whisk well till it bubbles, and slowly add 2 quarts of milk. Bring to a simmer slowly till it thickens, whisking slowly all the while, so it doesn't stick to the bottom and scorch. Add two or three cubes of chicken bouillon, crushed, along with a little salt. Bring to a gentle simmer.

Add 2 baking potatoes, finely diced, and 1 C. minced scallions. (I always leave potato skins on for extra flavor and food value.) Simmer 15-20 minutes longer, stirring occasionally, till potatoes are tender. Add the finely minced chard, together with any liquid remaining on them.

As a final touch, stir in 1 pint (or more) of heavy cream to thin the soup to desired consistency. Add a dash of black or white pepper, and 2 tsp. paprika. Salt to taste.

If you like a cream soup to be pureed and smooth, give the whole thing a whirl in your blender. Personally, I enjoy seeing the different bits and colors of what I'm eating.

This basic "straight from the garden" soup can also be made with spinach, young cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, snap beans, peas, celery, zucchini. In short, it can showcase about anything in your garden that's well as fresh tomatoes or sweet corn. Elizabeth already had a cherry tomato plant started that's now starting to bear some nice crimson clusters, so I have my chef's eye on them.

We shared the soup with laughs and stories. It was a special moment. Yes, starting over can be planted and tended -- and grown towards a real Victory.

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John R. Selig | June 26, 2010 12:34 PM

For those of you that have never had the special opportunity to see Patricia's garden first hand it is quite something to behold. Patricia is as good a horticulturalist as she is a writer (and every bit as good a chef as well).

Coming from a family where my mother had a black thumb (I remember seeing pieces of green styrofoam and plastic leaves on the floor that had fallen from their arrangements) it is always a joy to see a master gardner. Patricia is most definitely that.

To your point about plants migrating around the world, Patricia, I just heard a wonderful podcast last week. One of the many podcasts that I listen to is "Stuff You Missed in History Class." The episode was about the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty. One of the things I learned was that the purpose of the trip was to find a source of food that could be transplanted to the Island of Jamaica to feed the population that was faced with a food shortage. It always amazes me how littel we really learn about most topics as that came as complete news to me.

It is so reassuring to see that you have landed on your feet once again. You seem happy and content and I am thrilled that you will be able to continue your passions for gardening and cooking.

Yes, the Bounty story is a great history footnote. Captain Bligh was charged with bringing breadfruit plants back to the Caribbean. The crew felt that he cared about the breadfruit more than about them -- they threw the plants overboard when the mutiny exploded.

I continue to think about other LGBT people who are starting over right now.

That's a wonderful story, Patricia. Food is a symbol for so many things important to us as humans. Having grown up in "the South," food was love. I recall visiting my grandmothers, my great aunts and others on weekends. When offered food upon arrival, turning it down was rejection of maternal love--the equivalent of spitting in my grandmother's face! So, we ate and we ate and we ate... And even today when my children visit me, my first impulse is to ask, "What would you like to eat?" I think it's transgenerational love.

Resilence and optimism are most certainly your names. So many people with like transitions/death/birth choose to rot like compost that is wasted. Though tears are our necessity of rain. I can only imagine the separation tears from your Family Clans.

Loving you is sharing your journeys as well, I am with you.


I'm so glad some of your wonderful garden made the trip with you, Patricia - especially the loquat!

Sitting in your garden as we talked over your homemade brownies remains a highlight of our trip to LA. I can't wait to come back and see your new home and garden.

I'll bet it's just as beautiful as you are.

That's an admirable commitment to gardening. I guess that's why it's a "victory" garden - even after all you've been through you're still keeping it up.

Right on, Alex. Gardening is healing, and it's also a great way to deal with some of the economic challenges we all face. Like the rising cost of food.