A brilliant January morning has been put before us: bright and sunny and not too cold. We took down the last of the indoor Christmas decorations this past weekend, and before we did I sat in the front room by the tree with a toasty fire in the hearth, reading Butler’s superb The Way of All Flesh, and tried to absorb the last of the Christmas atmosphere.

At this dark time of the gardening calendar, I continue turning over in my mind the wisdom of a new method of gardening, which I began this past fall. I pull weeds and, if they aren’t going to seed, leave them to decompose in place, creating a kind of fertilizer, weed barrier, and moisture-saving mulch all at the same time. The question is, can my fanatical tidiness be quieted by the benefits of this new, lazy, but possibly more ecological approach? It may look a bit seedy in spring, when we like to see the fresh green shoots against the clean dark earth, but it should look less untidy as the plants develop.

Of course, I will clear away any twigs and thicker stems that won’t quickly break up, but deadheads can just be let fall. I wonder whether this is a salutary, poor man’s mulch, or just slovenliness presenting itself temptingly as an economical environmental theory? I already don’t use chemicals, so is not cleaning up after myself another large step toward not really gardening, or one toward gardening in a more “natural style?” Or is it, as I suppose, a sign of mature wisdom in the gardener to realize he has to let the garden be more what it is and less what he wants it to be?

We come eventually to the same wisdom, or at least we should, in our major relationships with people in life, and this is especially important with, ahem, the children in our lives. Anyway, we shall see how all that goes and whether this garden is settled and mature enough to let it have more of its own way. As for the numerous teenagers we have about the place, the wisdom of applying this slack approach to them remains very much to be seen. How many of them are there anyway? It seems like half a dozen, but surely that can’t be right; they can’t all be ours, at any rate.

Suddenly, yesterday, a winter miracle descended: it was sunny and seventy-three degrees here; only the thirteenth day in history, we are told, that a January day here hit the seventies. I made my wife take her paper and coffee and sit outside in the sun on a lounge chair. The quality of the air and light was exactly like the first morning of a winter trip to Florida, when you stagger out into the poolside sunshine for the first time, the air warm and moist and the brilliant light dazzling. Fabulous.

I have so far advanced in the spring cleanup (winter cleanup, actually) that
the porch bed is cut down and weeded; so are the arch bed and the front bed, where, to my delight, I found a tiny, ten-inch-high, offshoot rose plant that had volunteered from the climbing rose on the trellis by the front door, whose suckering progeny it no doubt is.

Every gardener loves to get free plants like this. The weeded, clean dark earth (you perceive I have not implemented my messy gardening scheme everywhere yet), with already the bare fuzz of spring green on it, is incredibly cheering for some reason; it must be the same joy a wheat farmer feels when he sees the dark of his fields fuzzed over with the first faint green of grassy winter wheat. For good measure, I cut back all the ivy in the back yard to give a nice sharp line between the barbered grass and the wilder zone of the ivy. A glorious day, truly a gift, and I appreciatively spent as much of it outside as I could.

“Winter,” we are told, “is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand, and for a talk beside the fire; it is the time for home.” So says Dame Edith Sitwell, anyway, and she is surely right. She and her two dotty brothers, Sir Sacheverell and Sir Osbert Sitwell formed an odd trio of English writers and were famous esthetes of a high and rather precious order.

Sir Sacheverell and Sir Osbert had no choice in the matter really, the poor dears; having been given such odd names by their parents, they pretty much had to turn out that way. But Dame Edith, lacking this convenient excuse, would occasionally, accidentally, say something sensible, such as this dictum about winter and home and so on.

History does not record if any of them had a penchant for a rich and hearty corn chowder, though it seems most improbable somehow. Lark’s tongue with plover’s eggs and champagne was probably more in their line.

However, for those of us who live our lives in a rather less rarified atmosphere, nothing so coats the ribs and brings comfort when sitting by the fire as a pot of really rich, flavorful soup. We had this very thing sitting by the fire the other night. Every person should have one really good corn soup recipe that is remarkable for taste and not very difficult to make, and this is ours.

Next: Recipe for Corn and Gruyère Soup

Corn and Gruyère Soup

12 pieces of bacon

3 cups of chopped yellow onion

8 cups of frozen corn, thawed

7 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade, or vegetable stock for a vegetarian version)

2 tsp. salt

½ tsp. cayenne pepper

4 Tbsp. butter

4 Tbsp. flour

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups grated Gruyère cheese

8 oz. dry sherry (optional)

4 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives

Cook the bacon in the bottom of a large stock pot. Drain the bacon and chop it into small pieces; set aside. Cook the onion in the bacon grease until it is tender and golden. Yes, you are right, three cups looks like far too much, but go ahead; onions are good for you. Then add the corn and cook for three minutes, adding a bit of the stock if it looks too dry. We use corn roasted on the grill during the summer months and then frozen, and this is superb for this soup, but regular corn from the grocery store’s freezer section is pretty good too. Frozen corn is always better than canned corn because it is flash frozen when fresh. Then add the stock and bring to a simmer, cooking uncovered for fifteen minutes. Add the salt and the cayenne pepper. Remove half of the soup and puree it in a food processor. Then pour the half of the soup that is still in the stock pot into a large bowl.

In the now-empty stock pot, melt the butter over a low heat and slowly add the flour, whisking constantly, to create a roux. If it gets too gummy, add some hot soup. After cooking the roux for a few minutes, add the soup back to the stockpot cupful by cupful, stirring constantly and allowing the soup time to thicken after each addition. Slowly add the cream and similarly allow the soup to thicken again. Add half the cheese and whisk thoroughly until it has melted; then add the other half of the cheese and repeat. Fill soup bowls with the soup. Drizzle two ounces of sherry into each bowl, then garnish with the chopped bacon and chives. Sherry in soup is an English thing, and a very sensible invention it is too. It is not required for this soup, but it is rather wonderful, especially on cold winter nights, when you want a bowl of comforting soup at your fireside with someone whose company you enjoy. Had the Sitwell siblings had the good fortune to eat soup like this, with or without sherry, it is very likely their writings would have been more comprehensible. Serves 4.


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