The Spiritual Gardener: The Joys of the Late Summer Garden – and Ocean Pizza!

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I find myself doing so many dirty, disgusting jobs in the garden that I really think I should be given one of those revolting reality shows on television. Oh wait, someone already has that gig.

The one I did today was weeding the driveway entrance with a knife to get all the weeds out of the old bricks. Yes, I have to use an old steak knife because the bricks are too uneven to use a weed whacker. And when that dirty job was done, my son helped me lay bricks in the weed-infested triangle at the entrance, so now it looks finished and well cared for after only 130 years of neglect.  Progress!

I also knife-weeded the stone walk to the side yard, and tidied up that whole area from the garage back to the woodpile, cutting back the ivy along the path’s edge to clear the way for the spring hyacinths that are so gorgeous and huge they can hardly stand upright under the great freight of their stupefyingly perfumed blossoms (pictured above).  I pulled the ivy off the playhouse and the trees, cut down the tree shoots in the ivy, weeded the gravel, and so on.  I also yanked all the dead pinks from the crescent bed, cut back the daisies and weeded the visible edges of the flower beds. All tremendous good fun.

I have been noticing two pairs of tiny yellow American goldfinches, like brilliant canaries, eating flower seeds in the crescent garden, and what a lift to the heart these cheerful creatures give.  The clematis that was re-trained to the new dogwood on the patio has struggled quite a bit after a strong spring and may not be able to survive its midsummer transplanting, but I noticed the other day that it had put forth a new and vivid indigo bloom, so hope springs eternal. Whether it is renewed vigor or a death gasp remains to be seen.

Moving a clematis is never a good idea, as they often cannot survive being transplanted, but I had no choice in this case, as the dogwood died and had to be dug out and replaced.

Clematis has so many virtues: they have big flowers; a long flowering season; they can clamber up gutters, mailboxes, ugly fences, and any trees; and they are fairly hardy. Every garden should have several, in my opinion.

I have harvested a lot of mint and Russian sage, which is drying in the basement, and a few at least of our amaryllises are going nuts in the arch bed, where they are quite enjoying their hot summer out of doors. The rose mallows are just at their peak, and are so stately and tall and hibiscus-like that people stop me to ask what they are.  Honestly, is this lovely, old-fashioned creature so out of style that no one even recognizes it anymore?

But one of my few really glamorous garden jobs is getting to cut beautiful flowers for bouquets to astound She Who Must Be Obeyed. We had spent a fun week in the cool of the Poconos with friends recently and, when we came home and drove past our house, I saw out of the corner of my eye a large blob of pinkish-white flash by in the middle of the herbaceous border, which was something new.

When I investigated, it proved to be some gorgeous lilies I had planted and then forgotten about, three of them together, each with about 15 massive, blushing blooms. I cut two fat stalks and had them in the reading room with four huge sticks of phlox.  It was so florid and gorgeous that my wife said she wished we could have an artificial arrangement made just like that to have in that room year-round, but I said we would never buy anything like that, it would look too gaudy and over-the-top. The entire house was perfumed with the lilies all that week.

A quick, late summer garden tour and inventory finds that:

  • the black-eyed Susans are blooming like crazy, those indefatigable and heat-loving creatures; Black-eyed Susans (rudbeckia) are a bit common for some sophisticated gardeners’ tastes, but I admire them for their hardiness, long bloom season, and their stout resistance to hot and dry spells in the garden.
  • a rogue red chrysanthemum has begun blooming already, having escaped a severe haircut a few weeks ago;
  • our grass looks ratty and sunburned, as happens to homeowners who very sensibly won’t waste water and money on sprinklers and won’t hose chemicals about the garden for a lovely green turf;

This is our grass in spring, when it looks its best; but because we don’t irrigate and won’t use chemicals, it looks a bit ratty in mid-summer. That’s the price we pay for our principles, and happily!

  • the very first bloom has opened on the helianthus, the first of thousands; and
  • we have a few handfuls of grapes fruiting and 20 or so green peaches, all of which the squirrels and chipmunks will no doubt get, the evil creatures.

I went to the hardware store to buy three long slats to make a black tripod for the big red rose in the front garden, and while there I saw they are having a 50 per cent, end-of-summer sale on wicker porch furniture, so we lashed out and bought a new set of outdoor furniture which looks very well on our front porch, arbored as it is with cooling grape vines. I foresee many shady afternoons and evenings loafing on this comfortable furniture in this leafy bower.

It’s the perfect time of year to think about something fresh and green from the garden for dinner, and all day while I have been working I have been mulling over a fun idea for a new pizza, so tonight I tried it out and it was fantastic! Click through for the recipe.

RECIPE: Ocean Pizza

Ocean pizza a a great solution for a summer supper: fresh, light, healthful and delicious!

Olive oil

¾ lb. fresh tilapia

1 round of focaccia dough, or other pizza dough

1 cup of fresh pesto

2 ears of roasted corn

¾ lb. of frozen bay or sea scallops, thawed

½ small jar of anchovy fillets

2/3 pint of cherry tomatoes

1 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano

1 ripe (but not very soft) avocado

Half a cup of fresh basil leaves

Coat a skillet with olive oil and sauté the tilapia until it is cooked and crispy; transfer to paper towel to drain, then break into small pieces.  This is the main fish, we are told, that Christ and the disciples fished for in ancient times; it is available everywhere and is less expensive than most fresh fish.  Roll the focaccia dough (see recipe, given elsewhere) into a pizza-sized round.  Hopefully, the last time you made focaccia, you wisely doubled the recipe and froze a round of dough, so you could make a quick pizza on a hot August day.  If not, you can make a double batch now and remedy your oversight.  (Slacker version: buy a frozen crust and use that instead.)

Spread the pesto over the dough.  Fresh pesto is much the best kind, and you should have lots of basil available in the garden by now, but you can also use frozen pesto from the last time you made it.  (Or store bought, if you must.)  Roasted corn should likewise be a staple of the late-summer garden.  We roast about a dozen ears every time we grill, so we always have roasted corn on hand for summer salads, pastas and pizzas.  Drizzle the corn with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and wrap two to four ears in aluminum foil.  Cook on a hot grill and turn when you start to hear kernels popping from the heat; the idea is to get a bit of grill scorch but not too much.  (Less labor intensive is to use canned corn, but trust me it’s not as good.)  Strip the roasted corn from the cob after it cools.  Here, we are sprinkling the corn from two cobs on the pizza.  Likewise distribute the fish and the scallops on the pizza.

Drain the anchovies, press the fillets with paper towel to get rid of more oil, then chop fine and sprinkle around the pizza. I know, not everyone likes anchovy on their pizza and, no, you don’t have to use it; but I am trying to show you how to make a great pizza, not cater to all the finicky nitpickers at your table. Let them make their own pizza! We don’t want any crybabies in this kitchen, do we? Wash and quarter the tomatoes and sprinkle them on the pizza. Then sprinkle on the parmigiano and bake at 450 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, or follow your usual practice using either a pizza stone or pizza baking dish. Finally, garnish with bits of chopped avocado and a chiffonade of fresh basil.  (To make the chiffonade, form the basil leaves into a loose roll, then strike the roll obliquely with a sharp knife to shred it; or, roll the basil leaves into a tight cigar roll, and slice it very fine.)

David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.