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8/18 /2011

A couple of weeks ago, the temperature went all the way down to 85F at dusk, balmy as compared to the twilight temperatures of preceding weeks. Energized,  I called my school chum Mort and announced, unceremoniously, “Drewes Run!” to which Mort grumbled “Oh, Chris, Sammy and I are in for the night”

“Ask Sammy whether he wants to go to Ted Drewes with Uncle Chris”

“Sammy do you want to go to Ted Drewes? with Uncle Chris?”

“Sammy wants to go, what are you thinking?”

“Tell Sammy I’ll pick him up in 20 minutes. Would you like to join us Mort?” “Ok” “C’ya”

So I pull up in front of Mort’s, and Sammy greets me enthusiastically, no Mort in sight. But as I reach out to catch Sammy in mid-air, I realize he was levitating above a tapestry of succulent ground covers, Portulaca and sedums. I was hugging Sammy and studying the plantings, as Mort strode up. “What’s that?” I offered as greeting to a man who, for half a century, has always known me to be more inquisitive than charming.

“It’s purslane” replied Mort.

“It looks like a weed that grows between the cracks in my sidewalk this time of year”

“That’s exactly what it is, purslane, and it’s highly nutritious…all the rage among the Edible Landscape Movement”

“Well it sure looks nice here, what’s going on in back?” I asked, cocking my head and stepping toward the gate of the walled garden in which he works almost year round. “May I have a quick look, I have a 6am stirrup in the morning.” I said, sure that, eventually my intrusion into his studio would be forgiven.

“My garden is not very successful this year”

“Nobody’s garden is successful this year, the weather has been brutal. I bet yours looks better than mine”

“Well ok, but I thought we were going to Drewes. It’s late and I’ve had a long day” So through the gate, along the walk, through the opening in the perfectly pruned ten foot tall boxwood wall and into “The Ranch” as Mort call his production space. As in “Meanwhile, back at the Ranch”….where I was immediately stricken by textures of the kale, celery, and basil border, that looked….well…good enough to eat.

“Mort, I sure wish I had enough sunshine at my place to grow these plants. I’d say your garden is very successful” And off we motored to clog our aging arteries with frozen custard.

Next morning, motoring to ride before dawn, I was regretting the indulgence, feeling sort of hungover, and consoling myself that I only do that to my body once a year, and ruminating that I want to rethink my own garden to transition to edible plants in every sunspot I can find.

And I was still thinking of Mort’s resourcefulness, creativity, and productivity today, two weeks later as I motored into town from long-reining horses on the man-made sand beaches of the Mississippi River bluffs. So I rang his phone ” Mort, I want to write a piece about your garden.”

” Chris, my garden is not successful.”” Mort, your garden is successful if you can eat it.”

” Oh.”

” Mort, may I come by to take some picture…in about half an hour?”

“Chris! I am at The Ranch, painting. Vivian is here sitting for her portrait” I’ll be with her an hour and then I have to do errands.”

” Ok, I’ll do an errand on the way and call you again”

“Ugh!” and we disconnected.

So after the post office and the bank, I rang him again. “Mort, I am just the other side of the train tracks, about 6 blocks away”

“Chris, Vivian and I are just finishing, I’ll walk her out and see you when arrive” So Mort and Vivian are parting as I pull up, but hesitate, and include me in their conversation, and I ask Vivian whether I may see her unfinished portrait when I am at The Ranch. To which she agrees, and departs, leaving Mort and I to choose the best angles for my clumsy digitization of his produce:

This is purslane. It is a dark, green leafy vegetable that contains more Omega-3 fatty acids than most fish oils. Commonly known as pusley (not to be confused with parsley) also known as pigweed (not to be confused with pigwort) and verdolaga. It’s scientific name is Portulaca oleracea. It  grows voluntarily, perennially in cracks in city side walks, in crumbling driveways,  along country lanes, and in stable yards all over the Midwest. Not only is it free, it is tax-free! And delicious in salads, potato salad, sautéed with garlic, onions, fungi and other vegetables. I have only begun to play with it. I am liking it.

Next stop the border.

Kale is the tallest, most prominent. It is a “green” and its nutritional values are amazing: 1400% of the minimum daily requirement of vitamin K, 350% vitamin A, 90% of vitamin C, lots of minerals and micro nutrients that make the world go round. For years, I have been buying a bunch of it a week, and have found lots of easy ways to incorporate it into meals. Federal law should mandate a leaf of it be included on every fast food sandwich. Better yet would be that we stuff kale leaves with sandwich spreads, like egg salad, tuna salad, salmon salad, sardine salad, chicken salad, or meat and cheese. The first sunspot I can identify will be occupied by kale next year.

In front of the kale, Mort grows celery. I love celery. I love it more than Mort loves it, I am sure, because if it were in my garden, it would never get this tall, because I go for the leaves. The leaves have many times more of the same vitamins, minerals, and micro-nutrients than the stalks. Celery has a million cooking uses, I like it raw, having been mentored by my mother to think of it is a treat. Really: we’d come in from the barn after riding and setting fair, wash our hands in the tack room, and come through the kitchen asking “whats for dinner?” to be offered a tray of celery stalks stuffed with soft cheese spreads like bacon horse-radish, or salmon cheese spread over which we discussed who was responsible for serving and cleaning up after what parts of the meal that Mom had planned and prepared. Then to disperse and shower and don fresh clothes to sit down to dinner. I continue to think of a tray of celery and olives as better than a cookie jar. I know I can’t grow olives, but if I can find a spot for celery, there will be celery.

And basil. Lord knows I love basil.

Mort’s is blooming.

Mine, if I can grow it, will never have a chance to bloom; it will be pesto long before it blooms. And there will be purslane pesto, and I will experiment with combining the two. Do I really need to tell you how wonderful is pesto? I think not.

All the while we were posing the plants, Mort was protesting that last year’s garden was better, that this summer he has just been having fun painting, which is a relatively new medium for Mort. Mort, you may know, sings like an ArchAngel, and is a Master of Mosaics. Mort Hill is HTTP://

So as we stepped out of the sun, under the roof of The Ranch shed, I was immediately greeted by “Vivian” I thought she had just driven away. But no, there was Vivian, undeniably, unmistakably “Vivian” and still a work in process.

And here’s one of Mort’s summer fun streetscapes, inspired by his own neighborhood, which, before it was renamed by the academic/political consortium that overlords it, was for 100 years known as Gibson Heights: