In the Garden:
The Hiller family garden is ripe with joy, surprises, and scrumptious food.
The Garden As Play, Education, Dinner, and Dessert
For eight-year-old Jessica, the garden is space to funky dance. Krista, her twin sister, delights in adding flowers and color, especially succulent portulaca, to her veggie patch. Eleven-year-old Julia selects at-their-peak vegetables and herbs to make gourmet family meals. At thirteen, Tori is happy picking strawberries and nibbling, though unenthusiastic about garden chores.
Susan and Carl Hiller home-school four daughters in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The backyard garden is their science lab, horticultural research center, ethnic studies/culinary arts classroom, and entertainment venue, complete with Wi-Fi so the girls can do homework.
Though he's gardened traditionally, this year Dr. Hiller built raised beds for square-foot gardening a la Mel Bartholomew's technique- about $10 of wood for each box, he calculates. Each of three daughters has her own gridded, 4-foot by 4-foot bed with her favorite veggies, herbs, and flowers. Julia tends more. With dedicated boxes, the girls have "ownership" which thoroughly engages them, Hiller notes.
Hiller savors gardening with his girls and evenings relaxing and tomato-watching with a glass of wine. Budding chef Julia and her dad share a cluster of boxes. In early June, Julia picked bok choy and radishes -- delicious, crunchy radishes, the size and shape of 'Baby Ball' beets.
Hiller's corn is tall, tomatoes stocky. "We've planted ingredients we use -- fingerling potatoes, onions, squash, garlic," he says. There's red Swiss chard, carrots, red onions, basil, spinach., and more
Mom Susan is quick to share mouthwatering recipes, appreciate gardening's life lessons, and note the economy in growing-your-own. "I love to see my children work alongside their father each evening to harvest." The experience teaches everyone the importance of a healthy diet and the pleasures of growing, preparing, and eating fresh vegetables and fruit.
"In summer, meals cost $3 to $4 to make. Gardening stretches the budget," Susan adds. The family connects around food. Susan's grandparents hail from Foggia and Abruzzi, Italy. "My Nana cooked those specialties, so we all cook from that region."
Here Julia picks yellow squash blossoms that Nana stuffs and fries. Julia often cooks the week's meals using her produce -- eight varieties of peppers (cubanelle and banana to stuff), rhubarb, lemon thyme, and chives.
Come late summer, twins Krista and Jessica especially like foraging for fingerlings, which Julia roasts with thyme, oregano, salt. The twins demonstrate pushing away the leaves and digging up potatoes. "We like to wash them and put them on a tray for mom to cook." The shapes fascinate - "like a poodle, a llama/chicken/kangaroo."
Jessica's favorite garden chore is "weeding, because I do it in a funky way. I get a hoe and dance. I do the shuffle." Krista's box holds cabbage, portulaca, and a 'Golden Girl' tomato. "My favorite thing is to plant. I like to water, pick, and plant."
Teenage Tori tolerates weeding, thanks to her iPod. She'd rather be horseback riding or playing guitar.
All agree on their "very yummy strawberries" and Julia's culinary flare. After they harvested 140 strawberries, Julia created Strawberry So'Mores. Her recipe: Make a graham cracker crust. Spread with marshmallow fluff. Slice strawberries, add sugar. Chill. Pour onto the fluff. Drizzle with chocolate sauce. Sprinkle more graham cracker crust on top. Freeze.
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