WHEN YOUR garden is a lemon, break out the punch.
Twenty years ago or so, when food writer and stylist Kristen Hartke, her editor husband Rick Weber, and their infant daughter Maddie stretched their budget and moved into a wooden farmhouse, one of the oldest homes in Washington DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the little backyard was as arid as their wallets.
“It was hot, really hot,” she told me as we sat in the garden the other day, eating peanuts and hummus and sipping iced tea out of thick glasses with air bubbles in the surface. “It’s like a Greek island, I thought. Anything I grow has to survive a Greek island in the sun.”
I’m listening, but Kristen’s hair is fascinating me. It’s a platinum chop, springing willfully this way and that, but tinged with the palest wash of green, like the inside of a ripe honeydew.
That she’d have dyed it such wouldn’t surprise me; she has an artist’s quirky sense of color and style. But no, it’s just the sun filtering through the leaves of the crape myrtle, a 30-foot giant with branches that spread like a vast green and pink-flowered umbrella above our heads.
Nothing like then.
Then, there were high, lattice-topped wooden walls enclosing the space, a brick patio below the deck off the kitchen, and a patch of concrete under a dilapidated playhouse, which they promptly pulled down.
Greenery was “borrowed” from one neighbor’s giant holly behind the back fence and another neighbor’s wisteria, which frothed fragrant purple flowers in spring. They furnished the space with a settee, a few chairs and a play area for Maddie.
Kristen, who frequently writes about vegetarian and vegan cooking and dining for the Washington Post, NPR and a host of other news sources, hungered for vegetables. In what became a tradition, for her first Mother’s Day in the house, Rick built a couple of raised beds for rutabagas and ramps and what-not. Another Mother’s Day brought roses, and the next the strawberry-pink crape myrtle, which they planted in a corner next to the fence. “It was supposed to be six feet tall,” she said, glancing up and up with a laugh.
Famous last words, as they say.
“We went from a desert island to a rain forest,” said Kristen, who moved her vegetable growing to a community plot around the corner. Except for a small border of shade-loving impatiens, and a few boxes of essential herbs near the kitchen door, there are few flowers at eye level.
This is not to say there’s no color—there’s eye-popping color everywhere. It’s like a whimsical cantina in the Caribbean or a taste of the funky side of the Bahamas or the Florida Keys.
There’s a rainbow flag on one fence wall above a bright yellow sign hand painted in black that says Dolce Far Niente, Italian for “sweet to do nothing.” Standing in for flowers are pink metal buckets of shells, turquoise plastic furniture, carpets, umbrellas and found treasures filling one corner, a yellow wooden hutch that was found on the street.
In fact, much of the garden is a tribute to street-shopping—Capitol Hill, with its comings and goings is a paradise for the scavenger. Some things, however, came with an unanticipated cost.
The sidewalk was the source of the boards that are suspended from the lattice that fronts the deck. “$100 in hardware for two free shelves,” she says of the shiny metal cables and hinges pieced together to hang them.
Those shelves serve as a bar on what Kristen and Rick call “Speakeasy” nights, when a very mixed bag of friends is invited to drop by after dark, entering through the surprisingly woodsy alley that runs behind the houses (they won’t answer the front doorbell). Suddenly you’ve left the city, you’re no longer six blocks from the Capitol dome, but in a place where magic happens.
Bring on the punch!
Blueberry Mojito Punch
Recipe by Kristen Hartke
This refreshing punch is tart, herbaceous and fruity all at once, perfect for a sultry summer evening with friends. Serve with a bucket of crushed ice on the side so guests can have an extra-frosty drink.
8 ounces fresh lime juice, chilled
2 tablespoons light agave nectar
8 ounces blueberry reduction, chilled (recipe below)
16 ounces white rum, chilled
1 liter club soda, chilled (or more as desired)
1 cup (loosely packed) fresh mint leaves, washed
1 pint of fresh blueberries
1 lime, sliced into thin wheels
Make ahead: Spread the pint of fresh blueberries on a sheet pan and freeze, then store in a freezer-safe container until ready to use.
The key to this punch is to make sure that all the components are well chilled and then mixed together just before you are ready to serve.
Whisk together the lime juice and agave nectar in the bottom of a punch bowl. Add the blueberry reduction, rum, and club soda, and stir together well; add more club soda as necessary. Lightly crush the fresh mint leaves by squeezing them gently in your hand, then stir them into the punch. Add the frozen blueberries and lime wheels and serve immediately.
1½ cups fresh blueberries
1 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
Place the blueberries, water, and sugar in a blender and blend until smooth. Strain the liquid through a sieve, then place in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer gently until thickened to a syrup, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature and then chill thoroughly. Can be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” something.