Finding zen in a Maine garden

A recipe for summer’s bounty

A garden is a magical place that is both laboratory and classroom, spiritual center and fitness destination. Its properties are immediate and perennial. A garden connects us to the earth and to the rhythms of the natural world in a way that can often be lost in our busy lives.

My gardening experience is limited, but my enthusiasm is immeasurable. It began in my youth on my apartment’s tiny balcony with one tomato plant in a terracotta pot and a window box filled with herbs. As a homeowner, my garden has expanded into a fairly elaborate deer-proof fenced space with raised beds and a jungle of raspberry canes bordered by an ancient asparagus patch, as well as a thriving huddle of blueberry bushes in the corner of my yard.

In spite of land ownership, my apprentice gardener status requires that I am second in command of this lush and fecund patch of earth. All planning and direction is overseen by my friend and neighbor, who for purposes of this article shall be known as The Garden Whisperer, a man educated in the ways of soil amendments, plant selection, planting seasons and pest control.

Like many pursuits that segue from practice to passion, I now have a coterie of gardener friends—we call ourselves The Garden Girls—who mentor me, inspire me and commiserate with me over all things that grow in the earth.

Photo by Candace Karu

One such friend is Joan Samuelson. Most Mainers know Joan Benoit Samuelson as an Olympian, winner of the gold medal in the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984. They know her as the founder of the world-renowned TD Beach to Beacon 10K, the road race run every August in Cape Elizabeth that attracts the top runners in the world. They know her as a Nike spokesperson who still manages to stay at the front of her age groups as she runs through her busy life.

Samuelson also is an attentive wife and mother, a thoughtful and caring friend, a dedicated home cook, a hiker, a skier and, as my luck would have it, a master gardener.

Samuelson’s real downtime comes in her garden that overlooks Maquoit Bay in Freeport. She calls it playing in the dirt or her down-and-dirty time, the time she spends planting, weeding and tending to her vegetables and flowers. “It’s my therapy,” she says. “It may seem mindless, but gardening makes me slow down and let the other demands of my life take a backseat. It allows me to take in the beauty and the wonders of the world around me.”

She’s known for her award-winning celery, which is earthier and saltier than any other celery I’ve tasted. Her secret comes from the sea. “I use eelgrass to mulch the beds, which are all organic,” she says. The proof is in the celery—and the beans and the kale and all the other gorgeous produce that emerges from her labors. “It’s just so cool to watch all this come up from the earth,” she says with her ever-present enthusiasm. A true purest, she starts everything indoors from seed.

Samuelson’s garden is so productive that in the summer her kitchen looks like a mini farmers market. Her friends are often the lucky recipients of this bounty and she helps fill the shelves of the food pantry at Freeport Community Service. Samuelson’s passion for gardening also extends to her volunteer work with Freeport’s Wolfe’s Neck Farm, a non-profit organization that provides education for children and adults about sustainable agriculture.

When a summer garden is in full bloom, there are often more veggies than there are meals to consume them. Salads are the easiest way to make the most of garden fresh produce. Another fail-safe dish that takes advantage of a variety of garden veggies is Gazpacho, a cold, tomato-based soup that is both refreshing and satisfying. My family likes it accompanied by chilled shrimp or lobster and a crusty baguette. It’s a light meal, loaded with the flavors of a summer day. And it’s perfect for company because it can be made ahead and chilled until you are ready to serve.


4–5 tomatoes, chopped
1 red/yellow/green/orange pepper (your choice) chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
1–2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped
5 radishes, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
4 cups tomato or vegetable juice
4 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Blend together to desired consistency in blender or food processor, 2 or 3 cups at a time (I like mine chunky). Chill for at least 3 hours. Serve cold.

Tips to get started growing your own food

Does your tiny patio or sky-high balcony mean a permanent case of garden envy? Absolutely not. Container gardening can put even the most land-strapped city dweller on the path to a gorgeous—if miniature—garden.

You can grow beautiful blooms or perfect produce and herbs in containers small enough to fit on a spacious windowsill or a tiny terrace. A container garden is a great way for novice gardeners to dip their toes in the dirt.

Here are ten quick tips from my friend The Garden Whisperer to get you started:

1. Ask a friend. Enlist the aid of plant-happy friends and take advantage of their experience. Gardeners are usually thrilled to share their expertise with an enthusiastic newbie.

2. Go online. There are a host of gardening websites that offer advice, tips and forums for gardeners of all levels. Sites like and will help you start your garden and help you grow with it.

3. Pick the perfect pot. Whether it’s clay, stone or plastic, make sure your pot has proper drainage and plenty of space for roots to spread. Keep in mind that container gardens need frequent watering. The bigger the pot, the more the soil, the longer it will stay moist.

4. And the perfect plants. Make sure to choose plants that will thrive in the conditions you can provide. Whether veggies or flowers, there are plants for every exposure, from direct sunlight to all-day shade.

5. The right dirt. Be sure to provide your plants with the best soil and amendments. Choose a high-quality potting soil that has added peat moss or compost to get your garden off to a healthy start.

6. Name that plant. Make labels for all your plants when you put them in the containers—write it on a popsicle stick and poke it in the soil next to the plant. And don’t forget to save the tags that tell you all about your plants—how big you can expect them to get, soil, light and watering needs as well as other care requirements. I keep mine in a binder for easy reference.

7. Grooming is key. Keep your plants well groomed and robust by pinching the dead bits off. “Deadheading” will not only ensure new growth, a healthy plant is a beautiful plant.

8. Water, water, everywhere. Container gardens, especially those that are in direct sunlight, need frequent watering. Some will require a daily drink. Feel the soil in your container. If it’s dry to the touch, get out the hose or watering can and water away.

9. Plants get hungry, too. Feeding you container plants with a few drops of liquid fertilizer when you water them will ensure they are happy and productive. Some soil has built in, slow-release plant food, but a little fertilizer boost when you water will still hit the spot.

10. Have fun! Gardening is good for the soul. It connects you with the earth, with the weather and with other gardeners. It can provide a lifetime of entertainment, enjoyment and satisfaction. Now get out there and play in the dirt!

Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. She lives near the ocean in an old farmhouse with two ill-behaved dogs and two hard-working barn cats. Follow her on Instagram: @candacekaru or at

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