Snakes underfoot, voles on the run: From our Cooking Light Garden Guru
Mary Beth Shaddix and her husband, David, run a nursery in Sterrett, Alabama, and created the Cooking Light Garden for us. The garden yielded the heirloom veggies, herbs, and fruits used in the June 2013 annual Summer Cookbook. Mary Beth is a passionate gardener who happens to have a vivid way with words. Here she talks to me about crazy-feathered chickens, voles, poisonous snakes, her favorite tomatoes, and the pleasures of watching purple martins fly.
SM: People who buy their produce at farmers’ markets often forget the hard work that goes into all this. What are the pests, varmints, and predators that have appeared in or done damage to the garden in the past year? Have you had to dispatch any?
MBS: Luckily, no deer. We’ve had to outsmart pesky cutworms as they feasted on tiny bean and pea seedlings with their guillotine ways. The third planting was the charm: Mini tinfoil collars on the seedlings deterred any repeat performances. Something attacked our perfectly ripe White Wonder watermelons, and we have those insane tomato hornworms, which will eat the hell out of a tomato plant in one day flat. They do turn into a spectacular hummingbird moth, though. The most vile and frustrating have been the pine voles—little rodent tunnelers with long, yellow teeth, lured into the pillowy soil of our raised beds by the scents of carrots, chicory roots, and Swiss chard. They are infinitely happy. Like in a cartoon, we see the carrot top wiggle from above as they eat in the cover of darkness underground, pulling the whole thing into a perfect little hole in the soil.
SM: I’ve seen snakes even on our office property here in Alabama. I assume you have scads of them.
MBS: Last summer in July, possibly delirious from heat exhaustion and carrying heavy baskets of tomato harvests, I finally sat down to pick what seemed like hundreds of golden cherry tomatoes. In my stupor, I nearly sat on a 7-foot—and very fat—black snake. I think I made some sort of squeal perceptible only to dog ears. The snake immediately slithered and curled into the tiniest of holes under the wooden bed border. As much as the sensible part of me should have prevailed, I grabbed the tail end of this fat guy and tried to pull him out. Do not ask why. Maybe I didn’t want him to escape before David ran to the rescue. As soon as I got a good look at him, I realized he was the very sort of snake that should be welcome in a garden or farm. This king snake had found his mecca: our frustrating colony of voles. I will crown him if he defeats the vile voles!
SM: How many snake species have you seen?
MBS: Three: king, garter (cute, tiny green snake = harmless), and a baby copperhead (extremely poisonous, especially due to his age and concentrated venom). I left that experience out of the blog last year. I stepped on the baby copperhead while wearing flip-flops. I did not realize it, obviously; I thought a stick or limb had brushed my anklebone. When I looked down, though, I saw his wide-open, bluish white mouth and could see that I was standing on him. Luckily he did not successfully strike with full fang action, as I think my shoes collared him too tightly to get a nice coil for striking. I shook for about seven days afterward.
SM: Those purple martin nests that David made populate your property like little gourd-shaped condominiums. How many nests do you now have?
MBS: David tried for seven years to carry on the practice of hosting purple martins, learning from his grandfather’s example 30 years ago. He remembers his grandfather Shaddix’s huge vegetable garden and gourd houses for purple martins and vowed to uphold the tradition. In 2011, we had our first two pairs. We named the first couple George (after first president George Washington) and Martha. They are seasonal inhabitants from February to midsummer, migrating to South America for the other months. In 2012, we had 22 pairs who each reared two to five offspring. Watching them fledge—leave the nest to learn to fly—is a momentous day at Maple Valley. These birds are our happy-hour entertainment. David planted seeds for homegrown birdhouses made from hollow gourds. We have more than 100 houses and have had 20 pairs nest here thus far. More arrive daily, and we currently have the northernmost subadult sighting in the U.S. (David’s addicted and tracks their migration with thousands of other Purple Martin Conservation Association folks at purplemartin.org.)
SM: Tell me about your gorgeous flock of very fashionable chickens.
MBS: It’s too big. We got seduced by the romantic and colorful descriptions of the heritage breeds and wanted to have them all. Last year, we bought 25 one-day-old chicks and crossed our fingers that they were not cockerels. It’s hard to tell when they are powder puffs with beaks. Blue Laced Red Wyandottes, Silver Laced Wyandottes, Buff Orpingtons, Buff Laced Polish, Australorps, Araucanas … too many breeds to count. We have about 30 birds in all, including four big, beautiful, boastful roosters. In the height of sunny seasons with long daylight hours, we get about 18 eggs a day, some pink, splotched brown, speckled, tiny white, and blue. A few older gals just lay an egg when it suits them. Only two have names: Henrietta, a Columbian Wyandotte, and Peaches. She’s the Buff Polish with the perfect Phyllis Diller hairdo.
SM: What was the most delicious dish you made in the past year using garden produce?
MBS: David’s vote is baked stuffed sweet peppers. We used Chocolate Bell and Golden Treasure, an Italian roasting pepper with few seeds, as the base for goat cheese, basil, Georgia olive oil, and golden raisins. My absolute favorite has been using the plethora of hot peppers for sambal oelek, recipe courtesy of Charmaine Solomon (passed on by Scott from his favorite Asian cookbook). Prior to growing all of these hot peppers, I couldn’t withstand a jalapeño on a pizza slice. Now I crave it and use our stash of jarred sambal oelek and our homemade (HOT!) crushed red pepper flakes on everything, even in the base for pizza sauce. I made crushed red pepper flakes and another batch of yellow flakes from Lemon Drop peppers, which have a more palatable, sweet, citrusy heat. The Cooking Light recipes that we’ve used are too numerous to name. I tested so many from issues past and for the CL Pick Fresh cookbook. I love the Spicy Basil-Beef Salad, I regularly make arugula pesto, and one bite of simple glazed carrots explains why I nicknamed them “soil candy.”
SM: What is your absolute favorite new variety of anything?
MBS: Can’t do it! Who’s your favorite child?! I’m enamored with Golden Treasure sweet pepper, Lemon Drop hot pepper, and the gorgeous Fish pepper and have vowed to always have them as part of our garden. We will always have fresh carrots, too. David’s all-time favorite from 2012 was Yellow Brandywine tomato. Big, big fruits—easily more than a pound—and amazing tomato flavor.
SM: I’ve walked and picked in the CL garden, but I really don’t know how big it is.
MBS: We use a space about 45 x 60 feet, plus 10 raised beds that are 5 x 8. The herb garden is about 5 x 60 feet but not fully planted. We also spread out on a long hill overlooking the duck pond for “Pumpkin Hill”—about 100 feet long. Of course, no one needs that kind of space to grow their own herbs or veggies. A few containers by a back door is a great start.
SM: You seem born to the green thumb profession.
MBS: I am having the time of my life sharing our experiences and making the passion for gardening and garden food contagious through Cooking Light’s kitchen and pages. It’s incredible how popular knowing the source of one’s food has become, whether for nutrition, flavor, local and ecofriendly, or health motivations. I hope that beginning gardeners approach it much like they do cooking, in that you might not get it perfect the first time, but learning how to adapt to your soil and weather (just like your finicky oven temps or thinking on your feet with ingredient substitutions) yields both an enjoyable process and a tasty result. When at first you don’t succeed, plant, plant again. And, on a serious note, one gets an incredible respect for food from this process.