Last year’s garden fundamentally changed me.
For one thing, it took the pleasure out of shopping for produce. We had such bounty and for so many months. Potatoes freshly dug from the ground were far superior to any potato that I’d ever had before. I ate sweet potatoes from July until March. I was in constant supply of fresh greens, and my freezer stocked with green beans and squash lasted me for several months. Those big baskets burgeoning with colorful, fresh produce made me ambivalent about buying produce in a store on a good day. On bad days it made me feel downright resentful. Soon, I would tell myself. In a few more months, I’ll be able to get this stuff out of my own backyard. In the meantime, my obstinacy on this issue took its toll on my diet – and the snow and general low spirits took a toll on my exercise routine. By the time the weather started getting nice again this year I was feeling restless and impatient; sluggish and thick.
I started sticking seeds in the ground in early March – carrots, beets, spinach, peas – and I started planting flowers. I added compost and mulched. I laid down paths, a project that is still ongoing. I made teepee-shaped trellises out of bamboo stakes. By late March I had broccoli, brussels sprouts and cauliflower seedlings installed. I planted turnips and kale; strawberries and spinach transplants (my spinach seeds just did not take); onions and leeks. I harvested my first salad from the garden on April 16; my first strawberry on April 23rd.
I write this post at the beginning of May, and already I can feel a great sense of satisfaction opening up inside of me and swelling like a balloon. As yet it is only part hope and part expectation, but these things are underpinned with a few years of experience, and a lot of preparation and effort. I feel kind of – well – normal again. And perhaps that’s the biggest change of all, that over the course of the last year, what is “normal” for me has been redefined.
I do not have the ability that some people have to manipulate the physical world. Anything that I try to make with my hands inevitably falls short of my imagination, my plans, and my expectations. My garden is what I’m starting to think of as a “working garden.” It’s no showplace – but it’s the best I’ve been able to do so far – and it works.
There are a few parts of the garden with a variety of things planted that I will be going out to harvest from time to time as I need them. They are primarily herbs, beets, lettuces, carrots, turnips, spinach and kale. These are the areas where I have the biggest problem with weeds, and things just don’t look, well, pretty. But there is food forthcoming, so I’ll just do my best.
Also in this category are cauliflower, brussels sprouts and broccoli. They’re all doing fine, and I’ve already been out plucking and smushing those little green caterpillars that can make lace out of green brassica leaves overnight.
I’m growing bush varieties of summer squash this year, Tromboncino and Golden Bush Scallop. I have Black Beauty and Listada de Gandia eggplants in some combination, or perhaps just one or the other. I had both varieties of seeds in the pot I started them in, and I’m not entirely sure what came up. I’ll know when it starts to fruit.
“Up” is a big word around here these days. We recently saw the Pixar movie Up and it’s become a new family favorite. “Up” is also one of the first words my daughter was able to read, and now that she knows what it is, she is seeing and reading it everywhere (like in Upton Sinclair on the side of a book spine; or on the TV). For me, “up” is significant because it reflects an improvement in the orderliness of the garden.
Last year’s attempts at supporting growing plants left almost everything to be desired. Everything – tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, melons – sprawled. This year I’ve put a little thought into it, and with the help of a willing husband wielding a drill, we have fashioned some trellises that I hope will do the trick.
The trellis closest to the bottom of the picture where my peas are. You can’t see them behind the leeks and onions. I would like to have one nice big Ziploc bag full of peas in the freezer by the time they’re done for the season. I have no idea if I have enough planted for that. My daughter and I like to have a handful from time to time, and I’ve been known to throw them into a batch of homemade Mac and cheese. My husband won’t eat them, so the one bag should do us for quite some time.
The next trellis back is the cucumbers, started indoors this winter, and they seem to have survived the transplant. I suspect they’ll have no problem climbing, with a little guidance and occasional redirection. I made some pickles with vinegar last year, but I’d like to try the lacto-fermentation method this year. Once they start coming in, I’ll be eating cucumbers for lunches and snacks.
The next two trellises back are where asparagus beans and scarlet runner beans will soon be growing. The seeds were poked into the ground on 30 April. One of my goals for this year’s garden, and a new goal for me, is to get some beans dried for storage for use through the year.
In between all these trellises I have planted a few varieties of bush beans (Jade and White Runner).
Also being trellised this year (back left of the photo below) are Winter Squash and Delicata squash. I believe it can be done to trellis them, but it will require a little more effort and attention to make sure that the growing fruit is supported in slings.
Because they promise to be so tall, I’m also going to throw the corn (organic Shoepeg) and Quinoa into this category. Both are firsts for us this year. My husband insists on the corn (I can take or leave corn – although I’m sure I’ll change my tune on that as soon as I taste my first freshly-picked ear). And the Quinoa I’m growing primarily because I want to see if it can possibly be as beautiful and as colorful as the picture of it looks on the seed-packet. Also growing up – Amaranth. I saw this in someone’s garden and it was an enormously tall and burgeoning intensely purple plant. That’s for pure entertainment value.
We are devoting a lot of space this year to tomatoes and peppers. Last year was my first foray into canning anything, and I did not put away anywhere near enough. I also successfully made BBQ sauce last year that I would like to have a dozen or so jars of by the end of the summer this year. And of course, and this is where the peppers start to come in, fresh salsa. At the end of the summer last year I used my last green tomatoes to make a green tomato and pepper relish that was good, but that I have some ideas for improving upon this year. And of course there’s the coming joy of just walking out there to pick tomatoes and peppers that will be eaten fresh for dinner.
The heirloom tomatoes are Italian Sweet Beefsteak, Brandywine, Beauty, Rose de Berne, Box Car Willie and Arkansas Traveller, and I am not familiar with any of them. I look forward to seeing how they turn out!
Most of the tomatoes I did myself from seed are on the other side of the center path, and I still have space for three more, which I will pick up this weekend from a local garden store. They are either Long Keeper, or Roma, or some combination of the two; I had the two different seeds in the same little pot so I’m not one hundred percent sure what came up.
I have 10 pepper plants this year: Orange Mandarin, Italian Yellow Bell, Sweet Banana, Anaheim, Chili de Arbol, Carmen, three Jalapeños, and one mystery pepper to be named later. Reason: I bought a mix of hot pepper seeds and managed to get one to grow into a nice looking little plant, but I have no idea what kind of pepper it is. But we love peppers around here, and we had such wonderful luck with our jalapeño plant last year, and we loved the Carmen, Anaheim and Serrano from The Tasteful Garden, so we decided to up our pepper production this year. And this year I won’t kill them off early by trying to transplant them into pots and bringing them inside.
Adding some varieties of fruits was one of my priorities for this year’s garden, and we seem to be getting off to a good start.
I’m doing a strawberry bed this year. I also fulfilled a dream from the past year and got some blackberry and blueberry bushes in early this spring. I’m loving the blackberry bushes, partly because they bring back fond childhood memories, and I love blackberries, and partly because they look – and grow – like weeds, and if there’s one thing that we can grow around here, it’s weeds.
I also have a lot of melons set out this year, started inside from seed, four watermelon plants and five muskmelon plants. That ought to keep us in melons.
Last year was my first year growing my own potatoes, and boy did it ruin me for the store-bought version. I have about 40 potato plants coming up right now – Russian Banana Fingerling, Red Caribe, and Yukon Gold. I hope to get through the winter with potatoes. I did not plant any eggplants with the potatoes as a trap crop for the beetles this year, as I had thought that I might.
I am still working on getting my sweet potatoes in. I’m planting slips from last year’s crop, and I ordered some white yam slips of which unfortunately only a few look like they’re going to survive. I think I put them in to early, though it was later than last year…I’ll probably re-order and replant. I have plenty of time.
In addition to laying down paths in the garden this year, through which my daughter is now negotiating her way like a pro, we also set aside for her a special garden place of her own. This is a mom-free zone; the place where she can do, or plant, or pick or pull up, or dig or compact or mulch any doggone thing she likes. She’s got her own set of garden tools this year, and has already returned to her favorite hobby – picking the flowers. “Mom, are there that many?” Which is to say, Can I start picking with abandon? The garden is also super cool to her because of the straw. I can’t think how many “straw houses” she’s built in the last year.
The garden is our thing – an interest and an activity that we do together, and I love that. It’s a safe place for deep and difficult conversations – her fourth birthday has arrived with what seems to me to be an overly precocious consciousness of her own – and everyone else’s – inevitable mortality. It’s a place of play and a place to learn responsibility. How heartening it is to see her not stepping on plants this year; to start to open my mouth to remind her, only to become aware that she is already conscious of her footsteps and that there’s nothing to “remind” her of.
Remember that rye we put in this past October that was going to get tilled under? Well, we never quite got around to that. And while we were forgetting about it, our daughter was being a snake in the tall grass; she was being Rajah from Disney’s Aladdin; Kevin the giant bird from Pixar’s Up. She was making nests. She’s run in and out of and through it and to her great delight it’s grown up over her head. It’s going to have to come out eventually. I’m still dead against harvesting and eating it. But my husband is thinking about using it for an experimental batch of bio-diesel. And in the meantime, it’s the greatest playground that a kid could have.
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