Gifts From the Garden – Part Two

I couldn’t bring myself to write about the end of the gardening season this year. How could I say goodbye? Who can find words to express the way you feel when you are separated from someone – or something – you’ve held so dear, even for just a season? It was hard to bring closure to all the experiences I had, nurturing seedlings to maturity to reaping a harvest-full of memories with my husband and children.

Harriette Jacobs from South of the Gnat Line asked me if I “winter garden.” I chuckled at the thought. I would if I could, but frigid Illinois winters prevent us from planting cold weather crops. Even though our imaginations remain alive   with dreams and plans for next year’s garden, the ground must rest.

This year, most of the vegetables were harvested long before the frost came. Due to too much rain in August, the tomato plants shriveled and turned brown by September, a good month before the chilling temperatures arrived. Unlike most years, when my fingers – numb with cold – fumble under broad green leaves for the last home-grown tomatoes, the children and I picked the vines clean in 70-degree weather with the sun beating down upon our backs.

Finally, October 12th, dawned. A surprise blizzard barreled down on us from the North, mocking our attempts to keep the garden permanently fixed in our affections. I donned a pair of gloves, boots, and my warm winter parka. In-between squalls I sloshed up to the garden to take pictures of the remaining snow-covered vegetables. Anna joined me, and as we walked the garden path, we recited the opening line from James Whitcomb Riley’s poem, “When the Frost is on the Punkin’.” The weather radio forecasted a hard frost that night and sure enough, by the next morning, Jack Frost had stole ruthlessly across the fields, scaling the garden fence, icy sword in hand to slay my heart.

I knew this day would come, and even though I made a conscious effort to spend more time up in the garden than I did last year, I still couldn’t believe the growing season was over. Gone were all the joy-filled mornings of sitting under the young walnut tree, watching the American gold finches flit from one sunflower to another. Gone was the hallowed spot of earth next to the bean trellises, where from my chair I surveyed my garden with delight. Sitting there, shaded from the hot sun with my Bible, journal and cup of coffee, I listened intently to the words and phrases that God brought to mind. Pictures and analogies formed, causing my heart to understand the truths that He was teaching me – lessons that could only be learned from observing young pole beans inch their way to the sky or heavy cucumbers  hang from thin tender vines. The time spent walking the garden paths brought deep contentment as I drank in the heavenly fragrance of milkweed in July and the spicy odor of tomato perfume in August. And here it was December…and no words came.

As much as I like to be prepared, I ran out of time to put together a present for our dear neighbor, Mrs. Kraft. Sarah, as she likes to be called, is 90 and there isn’t much she needs or wants any more and there isn’t much you can surprise her with unless you give her a one-of-a-kind homemade gift. Over the last few years I have given her a lot of nature-related gifts because the land we live on belongs to her.

One year, we gave her a DVD filled with nature photography and drawings that we had captured of specimens that she and her family just take for granted. Another year I gave her a series of watercolors, painted from wildflowers that grow on her two hundred acre farm. Another year I gave her a book full of journal entries recounting the stories and comments she had said to us over the year’s time. This year I found myself wondering what kind of gift would really bless her – something that I hadn’t done before.

I looked at my canned goods shelf. I had already given her several different jars of pickles at harvest time. And then I thought about my garden journal. She hadn’t heard these stories yet. I got my binder out and thumbed through the entries. This would make a wonderful gift along with a jar of crabapple sauce from her favorite little crabapple tree. There was one more thing. Our pet goose Peep-Peep (also one of Sarah’s favorites)just started laying again. We had a large white egg we could give her. I carefully wrapped it inside a vintage Christmas hankie with red embroidered poinsettias that my sister had sent from Maine.

When Sarah opened her presents she was so thrilled. She thanked me over and over again for the “priceless” gifts. I knew once again that we had given her a gift of gratitude from our hearts to hers, and that’s when the words came – the story of how my garden journal found its way to Sarah’s hands on Christmas Day. It was the perfect ending to a joy-filled gardening season…and “priceless!”

Gifts from the Garden – Part One

I remember a gift my husband’s sister gave us 28 years ago as we celebrated our first Christmas together. It was a large box of home-made canned goods and preserves from her garden, nestled among red and green tissue paper. I don’t think I appreciated it that much because I had never canned before, but over the years I have come to be grateful for the hard work it takes to fill just one Ball jar.

Near the end of the summer I found a canning recipe in my Ball Blue Book of Preserving called “end of the garden pickle.” I loved the name and the idea of putting up as many different kinds of vegetables in one jar as you possibly could. Waves of melancholy swept over me as I strolled through the garden, red wagon and baskets in tow, gathering the last of the vegetables. I filled a basket with the Spanish onions that Elizabeth had planted. I picked sweet red peppers off of the green pepper plants and green peppers off of what was supposed to be the yellow pepper plants. I reached in-between trellis rungs and pulled out handfuls of string beans off of twisty vines. I loaded the last of the zucchini and yellow summer squash in to the bed of the wagon,and rolled it down the hill to the house.

For the last time, I filled the blue speckled quart jar canner with water from the kitchen tap. After washing, scrubbing, peeling, and slicing the vegetables, I measured 4 cups of vinegar and 4 cups of sugar into a large white enamel pot that I use for cooking large batches. Instead of following the recipe exactly, I stirred in a whole jar of McCormick’s pickling spices into the simmering mixture. The recipe yielded about six quarts and after the vegetables “cured” for a couple of weeks, I opened the jar and sampled a crisp string bean. The texture was excellent, but the vinegar was way too spicy for my taste buds. I realized I had made a mistake by adding a whole jar of pickling spices and found that I could only tolerate a little of the pickle at a time, just as Iong as I ate it with something like a sandwich. I was disappointed and sure that I had ruined the whole batch.

The week before Christmas I boxed up eight jars of home-made canned goods from our garden and sent them across the miles to my sister June in Maine. I bubbled wrapped each jar individually and carefully packed them into a holiday gift box with a New England covered bridge on the lid. It was a tight fit, and soon the box was filled with bread and butter pickles, sweet and sour pickles, piccalilli, apple sauce, crab apple sauce, tomato apple chutney, pesto, and a quart-sized jar of “end of the garden pickle.” Even if it didn’t taste good, it sure looked good.

I called June and told her to open the box right away because there was something perishable in it. I hoped the small jar of thawing pesto would keep as it traveled across the country in cold post office trucks. I also wanted to warn her about a certain item with a rather strong bite.

I wasn’t home when the box arrived at her house and by the time I did talk with her that day, it was too late. She had opened the “end of the garden pickle” first and absolutely loved it – all by itself! I was tickled to no end as she raved on and on about the flavor, calling it “scrumpdillyumptious!” When I asked her later what she thought about her Christmas present she said, “Well, needless to say I was ecstatic to receive the bounty of your harvest. After unpacking each and every bottle and reading their names, my mouth began to water.”

June knew from previous experience what a real treat home-made preserves are. Last year she visited at harvest time and taste-tested each recipe as it was being canned. She especially loved my tomato apple chutney and I didn’t think I could outdo myself, but the “end of the garden pickle” is definitely at the top of her list this year.

If you happen to get a home-made jar of piccalilli or dill pickles, or maybe even a jar of “end of the garden pickle” for Christmas next year, consider yourself honored. You won’t just be getting a jar of vegetables, but a labor of love.


Bread and Butter Pickles


Yesterday we picked 60 pounds of cucumbers from Robert’s Cucumber Haus. We’re going to make Bread and Butter Pickles, so I had him pick up the necessary ingredients form the store: ground turmeric, ground ginger, canning salt, vinegar and yellow onions. I already had mustard seed and whole peppercorns (from last year’s batch), and sugar. Of course we have plenty of cucumbers. Yes, it’s time to get out the Ball jars, lids, and canning equipment. Why is it always 90 degrees out when you want to can?

It‘s been an incredible year for growing vegetables. I’ve never seen the garden look so lush. We’ve had hothouse temperatures and just the right amount of rain – enough to make the garden look like one of those sci-fi movies with 40 foot tall plants (I exaggerate a wee bit). Actually, the sunflowers are the tallest I’ve ever seen them – I’m guessing they’re about eight feet (tomorrow we must measure them). We’ve harvested some grape tomatoes, but we’re still waiting for those big and juicy “home grown tomatoes.”

Lest I paint too idyllic a picture, we’ve had our share of pests, too. Today Anna and I took duck tape, turned sticky side out, and dabbed up a multi-generational family of squash bugs sipping the life out of one of our zucchini plants. I really haven’t been paying attention and I’m afraid we’ve lost most of our acorn squash. For some reason you don’t see squash bugs until it’s almost too late. As you lift a leaf to see if a plant is infected, they stealthily move to the underside or hide under the stalks close to the ground.

We’ve been staying away from toxic bug killers this year, hence the duct tape method. I did read that imitation vanilla repels them, but I don’t have any. We’ll go on patrol again tomorrow and see if we can spot any more and apply a little friendly pressure as we escort them off the premises. I might draw a squash bug for you, but only if I’m inclined. They make me so mad; I hardly feel a desire to record their likeness for posterity.

Like My Mother Before Me

“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart (Galatians 6:9 NKJV).”

There’s about five weeks of summer left, and I’m doing all I can to make it last. After a long string of hot days, I’m spending mornings up in the garden again, sipping coffee and reading my Bible under the shade of a walnut tree that’s next to my husband’s “Cucumber Haus.”

The roof, constructed of nylon netting, is now covered with curly tendrils fingering their way skyward, while creeping vines around the base spill over into the path. When I step inside the wooden frame, I’m surrounded by a canopy of fuzzy green leaves and delicate yellow flowers. The air is cool and delicious, and I feel like a child again, exploring a secret garden. I love picking the prickly cucumbers, and listening to the bees buzz from blossom to blossom.

The “Cucumber Haus” has become a spiritual dwelling place, a temporarily tabernacle. But its glory is short-lived. Come fall, the frost will strike with a vengeance, shriveling the life-giving vines to the ground. Still, the memory of this year’s harvest will be permanently fixed upon my heart.

Years ago, I began making pickles out of necessity because I married an over-zealous vegetable gardener. I didn’t learn the art of canning from my mother, however. Even though she loved to garden (she planted a modest salad garden every year), she was overly cautious about germs and deathly afraid of botulism. So it’s no surprise to me that she asked a woman at a local grocery store how to make pickles.

Now mind you, my mother has been with the Lord for 19 years. I didn’t know anything about this conversation until a couple weeks ago – after I had made my first batch of pickles. I received and email from a homeschool mom related to my husband’s sister through marriage. She wondered if I was the same Jill Novak that was married to Bobby Novak (that’s what Robert’s family calls him). After I let her know that, yes, indeed, I was “Bobby’s wife,” she wrote back saying, “I was reading your blog and I knew that you were the Jill I know. The Lord used your mom to change our family’s life. She witnessed to my mom in the produce section of the Eagle grocery store in Mundelein in 1979. She asked about making pickles (I remember what a prayer warrior your mom was)! As a result of that mother accepted Christ and through a series of events, my husband and I did also. Your mom used to say we were “shoe-string” relatives! We have been homeschooling since 1989, and have been blessed with 8 kids ranging from 25 to 6.”

I can just imagine my gregarious mother striking up a conversation with a total stranger in the grocery store about making pickles. I can hear the woman assuring her that there is really nothing to worry about if you follow the simple directions. I can see my mother’s face aglow with the thought of making her own pickles. And before you know it, she shares about her faith and her relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. She makes Him so appealing, so appetizing, that this woman accepts Him as her Savior right there and then. The two women exchange recipes that day – one for Kosher Dills, and the other for eternal life; my mother’s evangelism is winsome at best.

I’ll never know how many people my mother led to the Lord in her lifetime through normal, everyday conversations about things like making pickles. She didn’t go out of her way to evangelize the world; she just bloomed where she was planted. People tend to laugh at me, too, because I have a way of spilling my guts and sharing my faith with total strangers (especially at garage sales). That’s why hearing this story about my mother, 27 years after the fact, moved me to tears. The older I get, the more I miss her, and after all these years, the Lord confirmed something I already suspected – I truly am my mother’s daughter.

Well, this is the fourth time that I’m harvesting cucumbers this season. As I pick, slice, and can pickles, I’m passing down recipes to my own children: the joy of growing a garden, the sweet and spicy smell of pickles simmering on the stove, and the appetizing aroma of a relationship with the living God, the recipe for eternal life. For the memories I make now will be permanently fixed upon their hearts, and I will be remembered, like my mother before me, as a woman who nurtured her children’s souls, and reaped an abundant harvest – a winsome evangelism at best!


An Intoxicating Auroma

But thanks be to God! For through what Christ has done, He has triumphed over us so that now wherever we go,
He uses us to tell others about the Lord and to spread the Gospel like a sweet perfume.
As far as God is concerned there is a sweet wholesome fragrance in our lives.
It is the fragrance of Christ within us, an aroma to both the saved and unsaved all around us.
(2 Corinthians 2:14-15 LB)

This is a bountiful year for the apple tree at the hedgerow. We spent precious hours under its fragrant bower this spring, celebrating the delicate scent of paper thin petals. Now the branches, heavy with yellow and rose dappled apples give us cause us to rejoice.

Up in the garden the Spanish onions, white and bulbous, are popping out of the ground and the globe basil in the herb bed next to the house is just beginning to flower. All of these ingredients will simmer together to make a pot with the most intoxicating aroma. Yes, it’s Tomato-Apple Chutney time! But before this wonderful concoction can be ladled into hot sterile canning jars, the apples must be peeled, sliced, and cored, the onions skinned and cut into quarters, and the tomatoes picked, blanched, and chopped.

We’ve been feasting on vine-ripened tomatoes ever since the middle of July. My husband planted two different varieties of cherry tomatoes this year–sweet 100’s and cupids–that ripened fast and furious. I’ve been oven-drying these sumptuous tidbits and popping them in freezer bags to enjoy later this winter.

The larger tomatoes–early girls, romas, and beefsteaks–ripened shortly, thereafter. We gathered at a leisurely pace (in mid-July), strolling up to the garden to pick a ripe tomato or two for tomato basil sandwiches or garden fresh salads. Then by mid-August, when the sun began to lose its strength, the garden took on a golden hue. The tomato crop matured and we were barely able to keep up with the bounty as we hauled bushel full after bushel full down to the house in our trusty old wagon. We mainly sliced those tomatoes into quarters, adding a dash of salt to freeze and process later.

This year’s abundant harvest is ample reward for my husband’s labor of love. He staked each of the 50 tomato plants with one pole of rebar, pounding it deep into the ground. This was just to gird up the tomato cages for the duration of the growing season. After weekly downpours and a few violent summer storms, they mostly stood straight and erect, heavily laden with fruit.

If you’ve ever picked home-grown tomatoes you know how that one-of-a kind fragrance rubs off on you. The first tomatoes usually ripen in the hidden recesses of the plant, so as you part the leaves and pick the reddest juiciest ones, the spicy scent lingers on your green-stained fingers and shirt cuffs. We call this pungent odor “tomato perfume,” and it reminds me of another perfume I’ve been told that I possess – one that is produced under similar conditions.

Sometimes the little girls ask for a piece of my clothing to snuggle with at night – a cotton or flannel pajama top they call a “snuff.” Actually, almost any clothing item of mine will do as long as it has that special mommy perfume on it. Sometimes they’ll just bury their heads in my chest and breathe deeply of that nurturing, bonding fragrance, and they’ll say, “Oh, you smell so good.”

In many ways we mothers are just like those heavy laden tomatoes up in the garden, staked up by the Lord, deeply grounded in His word, supported by His sheltering arms through the downpours and storms of life, until we come forth in due season, releasing the fragrance of Christ.

Somehow in my mind’s eye tomato perfume and mommy perfume are interchangeably mixed this summer. As the tomatoes rub off on me, I rub off on my children – a smell I don’t want them to ever forget. When I invite them to go up to the garden with me to pick tomatoes, they groan, “Do we have to pick again?” “Yes,” I say. “We won’t have many moments like these left. Summer’s almost over and I want your company.” Soon they forget the hot sun and scratchy tomato leaves. We quickly fill a huge basket together, and then they’re off chasing other childish pursuits, like trying to catch the dog and hold him prisoner in the “Cucumber Haus.”

As the dog barks and dodges the grabbing hands, I laugh. Stooping over to fill yet another dress-full of tomatoes, I empty my harvest into a bushel full of memories–soon to be bottled in jars of golden hue, and I marvel at the intoxicating aroma–the unforgettable fragrance of the life-giver Himself.


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