The Zen of Gardening: Lessons learned


Cucumbers, green beans, yellow zucchini, and turnip greens.

Gardening has taken me on a journey unlike any other activity in my life. The value of gardening has exceeded my expectations. It has morphed into a life force for my creative expression.   My absence from blogging during June and the better part of July is another indication how gardening has consumed me.  “Caring about food is tantamount to treasuring life” says Carolyn Steel in her article “A seat at the table.”  She summarizes my feeling about gardening.  It is a “caring” process that continues to change me.

Early morning hours when hardly anyone else is there my garden becomes a therapeutic sensitivity session for me. Cultivating my garden has given me a heightened sense of creativity.  It anchors me in the present moment, so to speak.  I slow down the mindless chatter in my head ceases.  My thoughts become fixed on the task at hand:  planting, weeding, mulching, and if done correctly, harvesting.  Sometimes I am there quietly observing and witnessing nature.

Herbal Garden

Herbal garden and various “hot” pepper plants.

Recently, I have recalled visions of my deceased mother sitting motionless on a stool in her garden.  ”What are you doing,” I say.  Her response:  “I am watching my garden grow.”  I now understand what she meant.  I too am often quietly observing, or meditating with nature.  Enveloped in the moment is how I describe it.  Thinking about what I am growing how it influences my health.   Maybe more important, how this gardening process is positively affecting my mental health.  As I have said, gardening has changed me. I will return to this topic in future posts.  For now, let me share with you more specifics about how my garden grows, and how it grows me, so to speak.

Working my garden plot has kept me busy.  This year’s plot is double the size of last year’s, but I now have a window of opportunity to write.   Because of the intense heat, three-digit temperatures lasting for days in both June and July with little rain, has ripened all my vegetables earlier.    Tomatoes love the heat, and this season’s crop might be a banner year.  (I have already picked one tomato–”Early Girl” near the beginning of July.)


Not only tomatoes, but many of my vegetables have ripened early.   I have harvested four-quart-size bags of edamame (edible soybeans).  For this region, it is typically a mid-to-late August crop.  Other vegetables particularly the dark leafy ones such as flat-leaf kale (or rape) have been prolific.  I will plant a second crop for the fall.  It is a cool weather vegetable and will tolerate some frost.  If timed correctly, fresh kale, and other dark leafy vegetables from my garden will be part of my Thanksgiving dinner.  The second week of August I will begin in earnest to plant my second crop.  I will include lettuce, arugula, tatsoi, turnips, kale, collard greens, beans, parsnips, carrots, pak choy (bok choy), and herbs–parsley and sorrel–the baby leaves are great in salads.

Browning garlic, crush red peppers, and onions for cooking kale.

In addition, gardening has affected my cooking.  This year I have cooked many vegetables using a pressure cooker:  a wonderful cooking tool.  This has helped me to keep pace with fast growing vegetables.  Growing up I would often hear horror stories of cooks being burned, or scolded from using a pressure cooker.  Today’s pressure cookers have been greatly improved with more safeguards to avoid accidents.  A friend has gifted me a new “Platinum Classic 3.5 quart pressure cooker.”  I prefer using it when cooking vegetables freshly picked from the garden.

Cooking rape, for example, I first brown chopped garlic in olive oil in the pressure cooker.  (I have included below a recipe for dark leafy vegetables posted earlier.  I have modified it for  using a pressure cooker.)  A milder tasting dark leafy vegetable,  rape cooks in less time–8 minutes in the pressure cooker.  The short cooking helps to retain rape’s texture resembling spinach.  (When it is safe to remove the cover.  Add the thyme.  Stir it into the vegetables, and then return the lid.  Let sit until cool.  Then store vegetables in quart size bags and freeze.)

This season’s spring kale (rape) and turnip greens have been bountiful.   Kale is flavorful, but not as assertive as other dark leafy vegetables (turnip, collard, or mustard greens). It remains one of my favorites.  This vegetable is loaded with antioxidants, rich with minerals, vitamins,  and lots of fiber.  Nutritionists have listed Kale (rape) as number one when compared with other dark leafy vegetables.  Also, a treat is cooking Tokyo Cross–a prolific turnip green variety that produces a deliciously-sweet white turnip. Cooking them in a pressure cooker is ideal.  (I have roasted them too and will share the recipe in my next post.)

Early morning picking

Crook neck squash, Zucchini, cucumbers, scallion, tomatoes, yellow wax peppers.

Sharing my bounty of vegetables with friends and neighbors is ongoing.  However, this year I am selling vegetables–cucumbers, green and yellow peppers, and zucchini–at a nearby convenience store.  This helps to keep up with my garden’s production while earning money to defray some of my gardening costs. Many locals love buying garden fresh vegetables at their neighborhood store.  I often get requests for other items that I am growing, or special requests to grow specific herbs or vegetables.

Preparing rape for cooking

Often, while preparing my garden vegetables for cooking, my thoughts return me to those meditative moments I have enjoyed while weeding, mulching, or watering my garden.  For some, this is work; for me, it is a labor of love for the food that will nourish me.  Even while eating vegetables from my garden, I reflect on the growing process.  It seems this reflection causes me to slow down to savor the flavors of my food, and to appreciate the subtle differences in textures I somehow earlier missed.  Yes, everything tastes better.  Eating has become a spiritual practice–an integral part of my gardening journey.

Continuing with this journey, I have begun planning my second crop. However, I must first battle bugs.  The heat has challenged my gardening skills in dealing with bugs, particularly the harlequin bugs.  Frequently I would pick these bugs off leafy vegetables. Drop them into a jar containing a mixture of one part Cleaning Clorox and 2 parts water.  Within two days, they disappear in the solution.  Surprisingly this has worked in keeping the infestation down.

Another pest to battle is white flies.  Jerry Baker’s “Bug Off” suggest creating sticky traps, using yellow paper smeared with Vaseline, and placing the paper nearby the infested plants.  White flies are apparently attracted to the color yellow.  Once they land on the Vaseline prepared paper they remain until discarding the paper.  (I will give you an update regarding this.)

Preparing for second crop.

With tools and materials in place for bugs, my second crop is my next concern.  Planting seeds requires a lot more attention.  Seeds directly sowed in the ground need warmth and moisture to germinate.  The benefit of starting from seeds is cost saving.  This can be disappointing, however, when the seeds fail to germinate for any of several reasons–too wet, too hot, too deep, too shallow; soil too firm, or too loose.   Sometimes the seeds are not viable, or worse the birds have eaten them.

One way to ensure germination is to cover the seeds with a  single layer of newspaper.  Then randomly place an occasional rock to hold the paper in place while the seeds germinate.  This helps to keep the seeds moist during this period, shielding the seeds from direct sun, and prevents birds (especially robins) from eating your newly planted seeds.  Watering and policing the newspaper covering become the next task.  Remove the paper after germination is underway so seedlings can fully develop.

Buying sample packets from Artistic Gardens/Le Jardin du Gourmet is ideal if you wish to buy a small quantity of seeds.  Despite finding one or two packets mislabeled, the company stands behind its products.  After notifying this seed company via e-mail of my problem within days, I received replacement seeds in the mail.  So, Le Jardin du Gourmet is the mail order seed company of choice where you can buy a small quantity for your second crop.   Meanwhile, let me know if you have any suggestions for planting.  I will keep you inform about my Zen gardening journey.



  • 4 Tbs olive oil
  • 14 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups water per pound (1 cup water per pound for pressure cooker. Do not exceed 2/3 volume
  • of pot.)
  • 3 lbs greens (collards, mustard, turnips or kale)
  • 1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves,
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper seeds (or to taste)
  • 1 Tbsp of vinegar (if desired)*
  • sea salt to taste


  1. 1. Heat the oil in a stock pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until it starts to brown, about 5 minutes. Add crushed red peppers.
  2. 2. Cover the pot and allow it to cook just until the greens are tender--about 8 minutes in the pressure cooker.
  3. 3. Add thyme when it is safe to remove the lid from the pressure cooker. Stir in the fresh thyme, return the lid, and let cool.
  4. 4. Salt to taste at the very end to keep your greens from becoming soggy.
  5. 5. Serve hot.
  6. Tips:
  7. DO NOT OVERCOOK YOUR GREENS. I repeat, DO NOT OVERCOOK YOUR GREENS. Mushy greens are not what you want. Overcooked greens just stink and also you miss out on their wonderful texture. Cook greens until the leaves are a brilliant shade of dark green and are tender enough to bite through without any fibrous resistance.
  8. *If you decide to use vinegar, then try Champagne Vinegar. It has a higher acidity than regular white distilled vinegar.
  9. If you are really hoping to get the cured bacon flavor while keeping the recipe vegan, try using a smoked sea salt, which you can experiment with a few different varieties. Liquid smoke works too. Add the salt at the very end. Salt leeches all of the water out of your greens, leaving them a gray, soggy mess just as overcooking them.


About Harold McCray

Artist in the kitchen enjoying my three passions: cooking, photography, and writing.
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2 Responses to The Zen of Gardening: Lessons learned

  1. charla shelton says:

    Harold, this is lovely – the description of your work is full of love and passion. AND, the phtographs of your bounty are extra specuial showing your photography talent. Keep up the good work.

    • Charla, thanks for taking viewing my blog and sharing your thoughts. How I wish we could work together in developing a recipe using some of various herbs I’m growing in my garden. I am growing Thai basil this year. Have you used it in your cooking?

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