Ms. Johanna circles the garden. Some blooms continue to sprout from yellowed vines split by their heavy bounty. Spiked flowers tip every herb.
“All this,” she says bending back a six foot tall wall of long beans to reveal delicate purple buds. “Putting out all this energy when they’re going to freeze. Pinch them back.”
It’s not a job she wants but it has to be done because the soil is more important now than anything else. No point robbing it of nutrition if the flowers are doomed to wither in a frost that might be only a week or two away. The urge to guide a plant to its full potential is etched into a gardener’s marrow. So she stiffens her spine to do what has to be done for the next generation to find fertile ground.
Besides, Ms. Johanna reaped a better harvest than she expected considering the ruin she had to put right in the spring. The vegetables–long beans, peas, peppers, okra, tomatoes, chayote, tomatillo, Egyptian onions, eggplant, and cucuzzi; the herbs–the three kinds of mint, sage, St. John’s Wort, rosemary, basil, chai, thyme, chevil, bay leaf, cilantro. All coming in more than she could sell to the neighbors who wandered in or heard by word of mouth that her beds overflowed with fresh food unavailable anywhere else in East New York without calling an Access-A-Ride van.
Today’s chore is to crawl and stoop about the beds to haul in Ms. Johann’s final harvest. Each plant will be nipped and pinched, the fetal blossoms and the swollen seed heads. Some will be dried out to replant. Others will be allowed to fall to the ground and pressed lightly into the dirt. All will sprout again in the spring.
First, though, she lights a small teepee made from twigs and split pallets in the belly of a broken down gas grill then places a grate over the fire and tops it with a well-scorched stock pot to brew her special tea. When the women’s work is done, their knees and backs aching, their hands and nails caked in dirt, they’ll sit on a bench and drink from tall cups as the early autumn light descends over the garden.
Ms. Johanna’s Special Tea
2 large handfuls of chai leaves, either freshly picked or dried from your harvest
Several good shakes of ground nutmeg, ginger, allspice and cinnamon
1 large ginger root, peeled and grated steeped for at least a week in a 24-ounce spaghetti sauce jar filled with water
rum or whiskey or scotch (optional)
Bruise and crumble together chai leaves then drop them into a large soup pot. Pour about 2 gallons of water over them. Bring the pot to a low simmer. You can use a stove but a wood fire will add a pleasant smoky taste.
Begin to gradually add the dry spices and stir until they blend together. Take a sip and add more to taste.
Gradually pour the ginger juice, a little at a time, tasting until you get the taste just right for you.
If you choose the alcohol option, add more ginger juice. You want the predominate flavor to be of ginger and the spices with the alcohol providing a mere underlining note–and a bit of punch.
Drink a healthy cup from the first flush of autumn chill to spring when your stock of chai may have run out.
These measurements will make about 32 servings of 8-ounce cups. The tea remains fresh for about a week in the refrigerator.