Scandalous stories of love, lust and betrayal in a backyard garden
Published by Shelf Space Books
Distributed by Shakespir
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hardwork of this author.
Copyright 2012 S.M.R. Saia
Cover design by Kent Rogowski
The Wendell Berry quote in “You Can’t Trust A Potato” was taken from the section on Fidelity in his essay “The Body And The Earth”, which can be found in his book The Unsettling of America, Culture and Agriculture, Copyright 1977, Wendell Berry.
For everyone who has ever given their heart to a garden.
Some of these essays appeared originally as posts on my Grit blog, “A Long Time Coming. ” I’m grateful to Grit for allowing me to post there, for the kind, generous, encouraging, inspirational and supportive community they offer, and for the opportunity to have had my writing appear in their fine magazine (November/December 2010).
Little Ant and the Butterfly
Little Ant thinks that he is the best insect in the world. When he meets the caterpillar he is not impressed, and tells her so. But has Little Ant judged her too soon?
Little Ant Goes to a Picnic
Little Ant wants to bring the biggest and tastiest crumbs back to the anthill. But when he rushes into a picnic before the humans have left, he discovers that gathering food at a picnic is a dangerous job!
The Little Ant books are reimaginings of Aesop’s classic fables, teaching timeless lessons like appearances can be deceiving (Little Ant and the Butterfly) and look before you leap (Little Ant Goes to a Picnic). The stories follow Little Ant as he navigates through the challenges and frustrations of growing up. Each is whimsically illustrated by Tina Perko. Ages 3 – 5.
Get a free Little Ant and the Butterfly Coloring Book at www.littleantbooks.com.
The past year has been rough for me and the eggplant. Here’s how it broke down.
In spring I was out looking for a good gardening time, and I bought a fine looking specimen of Ichiban eggplant from a local box store. I know, I know, you don’t always meet the best quality plants in a big box store, but this plant was different. I mean, he was big. He was robust. He was gorgeous. We had chemistry. I put him in the garden, four feet away from anything else, because a fellow needs a little privacy. Still, there was trouble on the way. There were potatoes on the block. And his neighbor was a young Black Beauty zucchini, sprouted out of an AeroGarden in my very own kitchen, the little traitor. She didn’t look like much when the two first became neighbors, but she grew. She burgeoned. And trust me when I tell you, she had tentacles. Sure enough, before too long, she and Ichiban got to talking.
In the meantime, I was so excited about how well my zucchini and cucumber seedlings turned out, that I decided to try something else. I studied the photo on the front of a Hansel Eggplant seed packet. The fruit was trim and svelte. I could imagine myself setting him up in his own apartment, up on the deck, far from Ichiban, and visiting him on the side. Nothing serious, you understand. Just a fling. He promised to produce fruit that was sleek and manageable. So I signed the lease on the deck pot and started the seeds.
The first week of May, Hansel’s seeds began to curl up out of the soil. They were delicate and lovely. With their arched necks, they looked like swans. I was falling in love with Hansel! I hadn’t seen this coming at all.
A few weeks later I thinned the Hansel seedlings. It was truly painful. I hated to do it. I had three in one pot and four in the other, then they were two and one. It was awful, but necessary. After all, this wasn’t just a fling anymore. A relationship takes work and sacrifice. It must be nurtured. It’s important that both partner’s needs be met, and there’s just not enough space and soil in these little starter pots to go around. Things were better after that. But still, I couldn’t fathom that these slim little numbers with their tiny true leaves were ever going to look as big and strong and impressive as Ichiban.
In June I watched with anticipation as Ichiban began to set fruit. At first it was just a purple nub, then a knob, and then it began to swell and expand. It was glossy and breathtaking. It seemed to gain inches a day. I began to plan our future together. The ratatouille. The parmesan. The fritters. The rollatini. I was ambitious. I was optimistic.
But by the end of June, the little drama that began on an April afternoon in a big box garden center between Ichiban and I had entirely played itself out. The potato beetles had been munching on his leaves. His fruit had darkened. It was scabby and pockmarked from bugs. The nub to knob to full-fledged eggplant didn’t make it, and it seemed unlikely that there would be a second chance. There was no meal to plan. There wasn’t even an appetizer.
Ichiban himself was looking worn down. He looked a tad bit weaker. He was somewhat less imposing, less reassuring than he once was. No one else seemed to notice. But I knew. I could see what was coming. After all, we’d only been together for a few months – and there had been my occasional dalliances with Hansel – but for a few moments Ichiban and I were soul mates. For a time, at least, I knew him so well.
I transplanted my Hansel seedlings out into slightly bigger pots on the deck. They all wanted my attention. They bickered. They fought amongst themselves. There was weather. Eventually one of them won my favor as the others proved themselves to be less hardy. They made themselves scarce and Hansel took up permanent residence. We were picking out basil leaves and casserole dishes. I couldn’t believe that I had gotten over Ichiban. I never thought that I would ratatouille with anyone else.
But Hansel was slim and strong. His big hands were always splayed and soaking up the sun. It turned out that he was also something of a showoff. By mid-August there was finally a nub, a knob, an elongation – and then another, and another! He was virile and tireless. Ichiban and his single, turgid and ultimately ineffectual fruit no longer came to mind.
I was planning to spend Thanksgiving with Hansel. I was planning our Christmas. Everything was perfect. Everything was bliss.
And then he caught my daughter’s eye.
One glimpse of that luscious and ever-lengthening aubergine and she couldn’t keep her hands off of him. She was cuter than me. She had curly blond hair and an infectious laugh. She was incurably optimistic and Hansel was smitten. The first time she reached for him he dropped a fruit into her little hands. She brought it to me. She was happy. She was proud.
I was heartbroken.
Still, I tried to make the best of it. I took the small fruit into the kitchen and cut it open. Perhaps it would be edible. It was greenish inside, but I cubed it anyway. I put it in a casserole dish, drizzled it with olive oil, ground some sea salt over it, and roasted it. When it came out it looked right, but it was bitter. Not edible. I threw it away, without too many hard feelings. After all, Hansel was prodigious. There was enough of him to go around. There would be other fruits. Other opportunities.
But as it turns out, the other opportunities were not for me – they were for my daughter.
Hansel dropped his immature fruit into her eager little hands at the rate of about one a day. It seemed like every time I turned my back, they were together.
I couldn’t blame her for it. I didn’t scold her. I tried to explain to her that relationships take time to mature, that despite the power of anticipation, despite the lure of his beauty, that Hansel was not yet ready – I was not yet ready and neither was she – for the requirements of the kitchen.
Still, the purple ovals piled up on my kitchen windowsill where they refused to ripen. Each one was slimmer and smaller and harder than the last. Eventually, I had to throw them all away.
As fall came on, my daughter lost interest in him, and Hansel and I tried to patch things up. I brought him inside and set him in a southern-facing window, and he set another fruit for me, but I could tell he didn’t mean it. Occasionally I couldn’t help myself and I would stroke his slightly fuzzy leaves and think about the way we were, but he didn’t engage with me the way that he once did. He spent all his time hanging out with the tomato cuttings and those ne’er-do-wells Jalapeño, Serrano, Carmen and Anaheim. They were all getting limp and dropping leaves together and their fruits were shriveling.
And then there were aphids.
And that was that.
So there you have it. The whole and ugly truth. The whole romance. I won’t lie to you. I’m frustrated. I’m bitter. I want revenge.
I still have a few Hansel seeds laying around, and I’m going to sprout them this winter. Once they have their true leaves and a little bit of weight on them, when the weather breaks and the soil begins to warm, I’m going to harden them off and I’m going to usher them reverently out into the garden to live with my potatoes – as a trap crop for the inevitable Colorado Potato Beetles – because I’ve had it with Ichiban and Hansel both. I’m over them.
It’s a harsh plan and a ruthless one, but at bottom I can’t help but think that it is sound. In fact, I know it is. Potato beetles love eggplant leaves almost as much as they love potato leaves. I’ve both read about it, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I mean, the rampant and smothering attentions of Black Beauty aside, look what the beetles did to Ichiban.
I can’t see myself ever in another serious relationship with an eggplant. The ones I’ve known are not as productive, as hardy or as versatile as the tomato. They lack the staying power of potatoes, the zest of the jalapeño. They’re fickle and flighty and temperamental and it takes all too little to turn their heads.
Still, this past week I was flipping through a seed catalog and I have to say that there were a few fellows that caught my eye. They were unusual colors. Flashy and exotic. I’ve got my eye right now on a packet of Applegreen seeds that look like they might be both fun and easy on the eyes. I had a recent fantasy about the egg-shaped globes on Listada De Gandia.
Nothing long term, you understand. I’m not planning any menus around them. I’m just saying a date. Maybe a fling. And once I’ve gone that far I suppose there is always the possibility – the slightest possibility – of a long, drawn out affair. We’ll see.
I mean, hey. A girl’s gotta live.
It’s coming up on a year since I wrote about my ill-fated love affair with Hansel Eggplant. That was such a heady time – so fraught with emotion and crazy jealousies – so unpredictable and ultimately so disappointing, that I could barely work up the energy to idolize anyone this past year. Oh, I had one Listada DiGandia in the early summer, but I guess he didn’t like me, because he never called me back. The tomatoes showed up and they did their work, but they failed to inspire me the way those yellow and purple heirloom varieties had the year before. The potatoes were quite satisfactory, and fed us generously for almost a full five months. I think we developed a real affection for one another, but still, when it finally came time to say goodbye just before Thanksgiving, it was a lukewarm parting. The sweet potatoes started binge-eating as a result of my inattention, and by the time we were finally able to connect emotionally, they were not the Convolvulaceae that I once knew. They were bigger around, and each one weighed more, than my daughter at birth. My tromboncino squash began the season both flirty and energetic; but soon started trying too hard and was, as it turned out, a little too clingy for my taste. I had no choice but to end that relationship early. Talk about your hostile breakups. I’ve still got pounds and pounds of severed body parts in my freezer!
My greatest relationship this past summer turned out to be not a romance of passionate intensity, but a simple friendship, complete with mutual understanding, trust and respect. The Jalapeño – the real workhorse of my garden – was everything that I knew that he would be. He wasn’t as tall, as broad-shouldered, as robust, or as all-around gorgeous as Jalapeño 2009, but what can I say. He delivered well into November before finally being taken out by our first frost. I pickled many peppers this year and even those preserved peppers are fantastic. I’ll be sorry when they’re gone. I’ll be honest, if there’s anyone that I miss as we head into the winter, it’s Jalapeño. I anxiously await his return. And I know that he’ll be back. Oh, Jalapeño – you’ve got a friend in me.
Over the past few years, I have to admit that Jalapeño has both turned my head and changed my mind about some meaning-of-life type things. I mean, what is love, anyway, if it’s not rooted in respect? Is passion possible without trust? And what good is an evening of romance if a vegetable isn’t there in the broad light of a summer day when you really need him? I’m through getting all googly-eyed over celeriac seeds that don’t get past the spindly hair’s-breadth seedling stage. And I will never again try to grow a white pickling cucumber. Oh, they look so pert and glamorous on the seed packet, but once I got them in my garden they moved so quickly through their pert and glamorous stage that all I really got were bloated spheres that turned yellow and bitter in the sun and which after a while I didn’t even bother to pick. And don’t even get me started on muskmelons that start out as robust and sturdy little plants only to find out mid-summer that they just can’t go the distance. Not a one of them put out fruit any bigger than the size of my fist, and even that started to rot more often than not before I even knew that it was there.
About the failures of all three distinct varieties of winter squash – gulp – I cannot even bear to speak.
All of which is to say that I’ve had my fun in the garden over the past three years, but I can see now that it was all only leading up to the moment, recently, when Rutabaga took center stage in my life.
Actually we’ve known one another for a couple of years, but I never thought that I could get so attached to that shapeless, purplish body and that sturdy spray of greens. So he comes out of the ground needing something like a shave. So what? He may not get as much admiration or as much press as Broccoli. He hasn’t jumped onto Cabbage’s lactofermentation bandwagon (though he certainly could). He’s every bit as reliable and as imperturbable as Turnip, but he’s more mild-mannered. Turnip’s acerbic wit quickly overpowers just about any gathering. But Rudy is mellow. He can walk into any casserole and not offend anybody. He can hold his own with any roasted root and he really dresses up the mashed potatoes. Even my daughter enjoys Rudy, though she doesn’t know it. He thickens up her homemade mac & cheese sauce and helps me to sneak a little extra nutrition past the vegetable embargo that is her dinner plate.
Ah….Rudy. Of course. How could I not have seen this coming? He’s the male friend that your dad already likes, the one that has a truck and is always willing to come help you move a piano. He’s the one whose shoulder you cry on in December when Hansel has made it quite clear that you will not be spending New Year’s Eve with him. He’s the one that you never even consider for a boyfriend…and yet at some point it occurs to you that maybe you should.
Solid – that’s what Rudy is. Strong, and patient and always there for you, just waiting for you to realize not only what it is that you really want – but what it is you really need. He shows up when Lettuce bolts, and Chard freezes and Cabbage blows you off for the excitement of a moth’s fluttering white wings. While you’re standing around fingering Broccoli’s droopy, frozen leaves and complaining that the weather isn’t frost, it’s well below freezing, for goodness sake, and it’s barely even December! Rudy is there just waiting for you to notice that he’s shown up. He’s done what was required of him, without weeding, or fertilizer, or cold frames. And when you finally do push back those frilly green stalks and notice that once again Rutabaga has come through, well, something just kind of happens. For the first time in the years since you’ve known him, you really see him. He’s just waiting for you to be ready for grown-up love, the kind that not only shoulders responsibility equally but values his work; not just because it’s work worth doing, but because he’s doing it with you.
What a hunk.
Over the years I have disrespected and misused the radish. I’ve taken him for granted is the thing. And not just one radish, either, but all of radish-kind. Take that Daikon that I shacked up with a few years ago. Oh, he was everything that I could hope for at first. They all are. They come up quickly and reliably and way ahead of anything else in the spring. I plucked out the first one when it was no bigger than a carrot, and I took a picture of my hand holding him up against a clear, blue sky. The first harvest of the year! I shredded him onto a salad and took a picture of that and posted it on my blog. I’ll admit it. It was a particularly satisfying salad. But after that, things went downhill.
The thing about Daikon is, once you’ve won his heart, it’s hard to figure out what to do with him. The thrill, as it turns out, is all in the chase. I tried to cook it – yuck. I tried to lacto-ferment it – double yuck. Short of entering into couples therapy, at that point, there was nothing I could do. So I did nothing. I didn’t even bother to pull him up out of the ground anymore. He just stayed there in my garden, getting bigger and bigger, like some freeloader that asked to stay for one night and whom it takes an act of congress, after that, to evict from the couch. When I finally managed to get myself free of him he was as tall as a six-year-old and as big around as my leg.
So you might think that I have learned my lesson with Radish. But I had a fling with some Easter egg types last year that, I’ll admit, was fun. So when seed catalog time rolled around again this year and I saw a glossy, full color photo of D’Avignon, all smooth, and red and elongated…
Well. You know how it is.
So I made my move, and D’Avignon came to my first garden party of the year. And he did his thing. He showed up. He came up quickly. He was a beautiful color. He was a little more twisted than he had been in the catalog photo, but to each his own. I doted on him. I adored him. I sliced him onto a salad and savored the crisp sharpness in my mouth.
It’s the same old story. He’s like the guy that looks sexy and strong in uniform, but who, once he gets into the civilian world, turns up for your first date in black socks and plaid shorts.
The thing about Radish is that he’s just so limited. He does one thing in the garden and one thing in the kitchen. He dresses up a salad – he adds kick and color – but so what? You can’t cook him or preserve him. I suppose you could pickle him. But, well, yuck.
I feel guilty. The thing is, by the time spring begins to arrive, I want a garden rendezvous so badly that I’m willing to fall in love with the first vegetable that comes along, and that’s where Radish comes in. He validates me. He reminds me that I am a grower. He proves my worth. See what I can do!!! And don’t get me wrong. That first encounter with him is good. I mean, it’s really good, and every year I imagine that I’ll want to continue this way forever. But after the first blush of love wears off and reality sets in, Radish is so far ahead of the spring salad greens that I simply run out of use for him. I mean, why would I buy salad greens when I can grow them? Just for Radish? I have to be honest. My feelings for Radish don’t run that deep.
This is partly because not too long after that first tryst, the pea plants really start to take off. All that green, those curly tendrils and delicate white blossoms turn a girl’s head. And before you know it, Spinach and Chard, who were just babies, just kids the last time I noticed them, have grown up right before my eyes, handsome and strong. And one day – be still my heart – right next to the radishes and beets, rubbing shoulders with the yet-to-bloom nasturtiums, there is Broccoli.
He’s bigger than Radish. Way bigger. He’s stronger. Greener. Wider. Bolder. He’s solid, and full of promise and nutrition. Raw for salads, roasted with garlic and olive oil, steamed plain, cooked into casseroles and stir fry…and I can’t help myself. My visits to Radish, who continues to curl and twist up out of the ground and to blush an embarrassing hot pink every time he sees me, become visits to his neighbor Broccoli. Before I know it, I’m plucking the pale green worms off of Broccoli’s leaves and stalks and fondling around for evidence that he’s beginning to make a head.
All my plans for succession planting Radish and for feasting on salads are gone. The first of May approaches and my mind starts to wander to the heirloom tomatoes and peppers that are hardened off and waiting patiently on the deck. And the eggplants! My gosh, the eggplants, who – last year’s heartbreak with Ichiban and Hansel aside – never cease to set my heart aflutter. There are beans and squashes and cucumbers and melons, and before I know it, I’ve done it to him again. I’ve made Mr. Radish into Mr. Convenient, and he’s neither convenient, nor interesting, anymore.
I know he minds it. I know it has to hurt. I also know that next spring, once again, Radish and I will have our moment. Because despite all of our trials and tribulations, I can’t help but love a guy that’ll give a gardener so much space.
So Radish? Are you reading this? I hope so.
Same time next year, babe.
I’ve never really been a pansy kind of girl.
I don’t mean that I’m not particularly girly, though I’m not. I literally do not like pansies. I mean, they’re pretty. They’re delicate. They come in a multitude of colors. But for me, Pansy is a little too nice, a little too safe, a little too conventional. He’s in every corporate landscaping scheme, in every neighborhood landscaper’s repertoire. He’s in the pocket of the Big Box stores, that sell him by the hundreds. And let’s face it. The real appeal of Pansy is that he can take a frost. You can give him the cold shoulder and he kind of even likes it.
But really turn up the heat on Pansy? And he’s out of there. And what kind of lover is that? I’m telling you, I’m looking for a plant that’s in it for the long haul.
But as I’ve mentioned, I start to get a little antsy when spring first arrives, and when the flowers come out at the nurseries, I’m ashamed to say, so does my wallet.
Still. I have to draw the line at Pansy.
So you have the background for my love-at-first-sight moment with Icelandic Poppy. I call him Ice for short. Ice, Ice, baby. The Ice Man. I mean, surely Ice can take a frost. “Ice” is in his name! He’s the flower that made my eyes pop out of my head.
I mean, there I am, all hot and bothered in early spring, as usual, driving past a roadside plant stand that I’ve driven past I don’t know how many times before, and there he is, on the side of the road. Out of a single plant, in a single pot, are stems boasting half a dozen differently colored poppies. And I’m not talking about Pansy’s ho-hum burgundy, stand-by yellow or predictable purple, either. I’m talking watermelon. Orange sherbet. Lemon gelato. Freshly skimmed cream.
I’m talking exotica.
So of course I had to stop.
The saleswoman introduced us. His name was Icelandic Poppy. And was he ever exotic. His barely opened, black-spiky-haired pods look like prehistoric carnivores. His slow-bloom is a horticultural strip-tease. He can keep me on the edge for days. I took pictures of him, in our first days together, that I couldn’t even post on my blog because they were too suggestive of various parts of the female anatomy.
And besides, this was a private party.
I visited him daily and he continued to beguile me with his array of uncommon colors.
You have to admit, you who are privy to my vegetable diaries, that this is a groundbreaking relationship for me. The good looks, the romance, are all fine and good, but I think that I’ve demonstrated that I am something of a pragmatist. I’m a realist, really. If you can believe it, I’ve even been accused of being a stick in the mud. Because, see, here’s the thing. I like a useful plant. I like a plant you can eat. I know, I know, all plants are useful. There’s the whole bee thing. And the butterflies. And the ecosystem and all of that. I plant Marigolds and Nasturtiums in the garden every year, and I sprinkle my annual packet of Beneficial Bug Mix into the dirt, and I love to look at all of them. But they’re working. They’re not food themselves, but they are quasi-food. They provide the right environment for food. And technically I can eat the flowers of Nasturtium and French Marigold, and even this year’s new kid on the block, Borage, though I have to admit that I’m not that exotic.
Which why I love Ice so much.
You can’t eat his flowers. It’s an ideal relationship. He’s exotic for me, but I don’t have to be either exotic or adventurous for him. He nourishes my selfish side.
Ice has been tireless and faithful. Still, he’s turned me into an internet stalker. It’s not enough that he brings all of his paychecks home and is sleeping in my garden where he’s supposed to be every night. I want to know everything about him. Where he is from? He’s native to subpolar regions of northern Europe and North America. Where does he typically hang out? In light, well-drained soil and full sun. Who are his enemies? Apparently deer don’t like him. What does he do for a living?
O.K. So this is what I get for digging around in Ice’s business.
Apparently he’s some kind of a serial killer.
“All parts of this plant are likely to be poisonous.”
You can’t eat the flowers, indeed.
His real name, it turns out, is Papaver nudicaule and he, too, is destined to leave me as soon as things really start to heat up.
What’s a girl supposed to do?
Oh, I suppose it’s just as well. If I’ve said it before I’ve said it a million times. If I wanted a safe, easy relationship, if I wanted to flat-line my way through every love affair, I’d just hang out in the supermarket.
Ice is wild. He’s sexy. He’s dangerous. And he loves me.
So I’m going to let him hang around for as long as he can take our domestic bliss. I’m throwing caution to the wind, and I’m letting go of my more practical side.
This year, this gardener’s also going to feast her eyes.
I’m in a pretty good relationship right now.
No, it’s not Rudy. I haven’t seen a Rutabaga – at least not one out of my garden – since late last fall, and I have to confess that the ones I did see were not all that they could have been. They were there, of course, and they were free, if you don’t count all the angst and effort that goes into maintaining a relationship with a vegetable. But there were no bells, or fireworks. There was no afterglow. I have some seeds in right now that are coming up, and I suppose I’ll see Rudy again in a few weeks or so, but I’m talking about my relationship with Broccoli. The Pac Man. A dozen fine-looking specimens from my local big box store. They’re a dark, vibrant green, broad-shouldered and vigorous, and talk about sweet. I mean, Broccoli is just an all-around perfect guy this year.
So why am I so fixated on Squash?
I’ll tell you why. Because I have planted winter squash (Delicata and Sweet Meat), summer squash (Patty Pan and Sunburst), two varieties of zucchini, and pumpkin. But Squash and I are having issues.
Really, I’m starting to think that I thrive on dysfunctional relationships. Because honestly, they’re the only ones that really excite me. They’re the ones that I obsess over. Frankly, they’re the ones that make me a better gardener. I mean, let’s face it, anyone can stick a chard seed in the ground and have a bounty. And you’d think that it would be enough for me this spring that I’ve already had three great successes. I’ve managed to grow both peas and spinach which I’ve never been able to successfully grow before, and all I had to do was to lower the ph of my soil just a tad. And I have the most beautiful patch of blooming potato plants – I’m talking a veritable ocean of deep, dark green foliage – virtually untouched as yet by bugs.
I have yet to see potato beetle one, and they’ve been in the ground for two months! Is it the horseradish that’s growing there with it? Is it the hybrid King Harry potatoes I tried out this year (one of four varieties planted) that’s been bred to be resistant to the potato beetle? It may be both things combined. But anyone who has ever grown potatoes knows that this is huge! I mean, in the world of vegetable relationships, I am big with potato child and expecting a healthy delivery of multiples!
And yet it’s Squash, the whole cucurbit family, in fact, that has my fretful attention this year, and it’s all because of this stinking rabbit that has taken up residence underneath one of my sheds, and who thinks that my garden – my personal, private garden – is an all-you-can-eat buffet.
And the stinking little bugger likes Squash.
Oh, he likes other things too. He ate the tops completely off of my four smallest pepper plants. That’s where it started. Thankfully, they’re coming back, but not before I went to Big Box and invested in twelve dollars’ worth of insurance, four new pepper plants, which I brought back and planted strategically all over the garden. I hid some in a few open patches between my potato plants. I put the others in rows far away from where Peter has been munching. I also bought a Black Beauty Zucchini, which is telling of how desperate I am. Because Black Beauty is more likely to give herself up to vine borers than any other Squash in my garden. I swore off of her several years ago, preferring a Bush Baby that has been much more faithful over the past few years.
But back to Peter’s appetite.
When he finished munching his way through all the pepper plants whose tops he could reach, he started in on my squash seedlings. First the first leaves, then the true leaves and stalks, and then he munched some of those stalks right down so low that I could no longer tell where Squash had once been planted.
And the thing that gets me, and has me really wondering about my own mental capacity for a healthy relationship, is this. The only reason Squash is even in my garden is because he grows. Which is to say, I never bought a zucchini before I became a gardener. I had a perfectly satisfying, zucchini-free life. But the first time I grew a zucchini from seed, when I got a taste of how reliable, how robust and how hearty a Squash in love can really be, I was hooked.
Here’s what happened.
It was the first year that I had tried to start my own seeds indoors. So naturally I was insecure, anxious and impatient. I waited a few days and seeds starting coming up. I think it may have been some cucumbers. But Squash was a definite no-show. He didn’t exactly leave me standing at the alter. But let’s say that I had on my sequined, spaghetti-strap party dress, and my spiked heels and my shimmering lipstick…and the doorbell never rang.
So when everything had come up but Squash, I cut my losses, and tossed the pot with the squash seed outside in the driveway into a pile of discarded plastic pots. Satisfied with my cucumbers, I thought nothing more about him.
But Squash, apparently, was still thinking of me.
Some weeks later, when I finally got around to cleaning up that pile of plastic pots, imagine my surprise when I picked up a pot laying sideways underneath some other debris, and found a beautiful, small-and-still-growing zucchini plant!
I put him in my garden, and, well, I guess you could say that I found a new respect for him. The fact that he spent all summer presenting me with sleek, dark green erections – and I mean one after another, tirelessly, for months – didn’t hurt.
The thing about gardening is that you figure out what does well for you, and sometimes what does well for you isn’t what you would have ever bought from a supermarket in a million years. Witness me and Rutabaga, me and Turnip, me and Radish, me and Chard, etc. But once you have an abundance of a certain vegetable that you have nurtured to life yourself, you figure out ways to use it. You develop new recipes, new tastes, new treats, new ways of thinking about food. I admit that I have a tendency to take the ones I love for granted, but the thought that I may be facing a Squashless summer – gulp – is just more than I can bear.
I mean, come on. You’ve heard all the jokes. What kind of a gardener can’t grow a zucchini?
So I’m thinking up plans. I’m hatching plots. How can I keep that rabbit off my squashes? He hasn’t touched my pumpkin seedlings, which are coming up quite nicely in my potato patch. It may be because he hasn’t found them. I may tuck a few more winter squash seeds about in there. I mean, heck. It’s still May. There’s time. I planted more winter squash with my corn in hopes that the corn will outpace it and make it harder to see the seedlings when they really start to get going, but so far that hasn’t happened. I started some more cucurbit seedlings, squashes and cucumbers, under my grow light. I’ll let them get big down there and then transplant them out into the garden when they have a good size on them. I read that sprinkling bone meal or blood meal around at-risk-of-rabbit plants in your garden will deter the rabbits, since they don’t like the smell of it. I gave that a shot. And I even have an idea to build chicken-wire boxes that I can set down over my seedlings in the early spring next year, at least until they get going. Sure, it’s got a hint of Fatal Attraction about it, I guess, but it’s not like I’d be putting Squash in a gilded love cage. It’s for his own protection, is how I’m going to put it to him. It’s not to keep him in, available always and only to me. It’s to keep that that little tramp Peter and his fickle affections out. I mean, let’s face it. Peter and I both want Squash for the same thing. So I like the fruit and he likes the leaves. It’s all the same in the end. Zucchini is going to nourish somebody this summer, and that somebody is going to be me.
I’m going to be forced to make zucchini bread this year if it kills me.
Minuet and Me
You know what they say about love. You don’t find love. Love finds you. And it usually does so when you’re not even looking; sometimes when you don’t even want love in your life. I mean, let’s face it. Relationships are work. If you don’t stay on top of them constantly, they droop, and wilt and turn yellow, and start dropping leaves. But when love does find you, and you close your eyes and take that flying leap out of your comfort zone and into a whole new way of life…what can I say? That’s what happened with me and Minuet. I had no idea, when I first stuck his seeds into the ground, that I was changing my life.
Here’s how it happened.
Over the winter, I spent a lot of time at a local organic grocery store. Okay that’s not exactly true. To call it a “local” store implies that it’s right around the corner, or on the way to someplace that I might be going anyway. It’s not. It’s every bit of thirty miles from my suburban homestead, and the place buys carbon offsets for the privilege of having me as a customer. But it’s worth the trip, and I made the trip, once every few weeks at least, all winter.
Looking back on it now, I think I could have grown most of the vegetables I was buying all winter myself. It was an extraordinarily mild winter. I was still harvesting broccoli offshoots in February, and the kale and the chard never stopped coming. Still, it was winter, and I kept expecting, at any moment, for the great snows to come, as they had in previous years. So I didn’t even try to plant anything. My garden activities were limited to housekeeping.
But housekeeping doesn’t have to be drudgery, and I can’t say that I wasn’t feeling a little romantic outside in the middle of February on a seventy-degree day, in my work boots and with dirt up to my elbows. I’ve written in other places that I’m a pretty practical and un-exotic kind of girl. Often, the moments that I feel the deepest love and connection with my husband are the simplest and most ordinary moments of our life together. Like recently, when we spent an afternoon sweating our butts off while we cut and hauled away limbs from our two storm-broken Bradford Pear trees. So trust me when I tell you that I was not cheating on my garden with the organic grocery store. Oh no. All winter long my garden and I were tight – tighter than we’ve ever been in any winter before.
I pulled up last year’s rabbit guard fence, which was flimsy and twisted and stuck to the ground by foot-high grass and weeds. I mowed the grass all down as short as I could. Then I redefined the garden area with a border of trenched-in cinderblocks. This was partly as a barrier against the ever-encroaching grass, and partly a reminder to myself that I always think I need more garden room than I actually use, and I wanted to define a space that would be big enough to contain my wildest dreams, but still small enough for me to have some hope of being able to manage it.
This year’s garden – and the size of my garden going forward, because I sure as heck am not going to dig all those cinderblocks back out – is about sixteen hundred square feet. I lined the garden-side of the cinderblock edges with planting paper, and folded it over along the edge of the entire garden, in hopes that it would keep the grass from growing back up into the fence. Then I put up a fresh rabbit guard fence on top of the planting paper. That was the end of phase one.
During phase two of this past winter’s garden rehabilitation plan, I made my way through that entire sixteen hundred square feet of garden space with a shovel, turning over the earth and pulling out the grass, one handful at a time until I had a square palette of beautiful brown dirt to work with. I know it sounds crazy – and useless – but let me tell you something. It’s July as I write this, and I have had to do minimal weeding and grass removal in the garden this year. I’m getting ready to go on vacation and leave my garden to its own devices for a week, and I’m not even scared that I’ll come back to a jungle. It all took me months, but when it came time to do my earliest spring planting, this year, I was ready.
Yeah, I’m a hard-working woman.
But back to me and the organic grocery.
This past winter I ate two meals practically every day. One was a smoothie made with yogurt, banana, frozen fruit and juiced root veggies – beets, rutabagas, turnips, carrots, whatever I could get my hands on. They were amazing. And after awhile of having them every day, I craved them.
The other thing that I craved was Bok Choy.
I mean, I may be married to my own garden but I’m not dead.
There I was one day, standing in the produce aisle of the organic grocery with my reusable bags in my cart and the signs hanging everywhere to tell me how local (and expensive) everything was, and then I saw her, Bok Choy, with her deep green hourglass figure, her wide, white hips and her inestimable sense of style. You can bet that I was taking that beauty home.
I couldn’t get enough of Bok Choy. My husband and I got on a real stir fry kick, fueled partially by our having recently taken possession of half a hog raised by a local farmer. I had quite a few pounds of sliced fresh ham on hand, and we had no idea what to do with it. Until we discovered that, cut into slivers, it makes a heck of a stir fry.
And Minuet, you ask? Where does he come in?
Well, naturally, when it came time to plant out early spring crops this year, Bok Choy was at the top of my list. I mean, I didn’t want to keep visiting her on the side. I wanted to make an honest cabbage out of her. I wanted to give her her own raised bed. I wanted to introduce her to my other vegetables. I wanted to come out publicly about our relationship.
The only problem was that I had trouble finding something in the seed catalogs that said “bok choy”. I found many different varieties of Chinese cabbage. Michihili and Tokyo Bekana. Rubicon and Bilko. So I settled for a Napa/closed head variety from Johnny’s called Minuet, and I figured he would be okay. As soon as the seeds arrived, I broke up with Bok Choy. I mean, I could have kept seeing her, while I waited for Minuet to grow, but once I have the seeds for a vegetable in my possession, once I have stuck them in the ground and begin to monitor their progress, I can’t bear to buy them anymore.
You see, I am outstandingly loyal, in my own way.
I planted three seeds, and they turned into three very nice, healthy, crisp, green, open heads of Chinese cabbage. They looked like brilliant, green, unfolding roses, with a still-tight center that continued to unfold more and more ever-so-slightly spiny leaves with broad white stalks. Which is to say that, clearly, there had been some kind of mistake.
The seed catalog describes Minuet as follows: “Nine-inch by seven-inch heads with dark green outer leaves and an attractive yellow interior”. That is not at all what was growing in my garden. And now that I’m at the end of its growing season I can tell you with confidence that those cabbages never did become closed heads. Had the wrong seeds somehow found themselves into my Minuet packet? Was the description in the catalog wrong? Was it fate that I might be tricked into growing something that I might not otherwise have tried? Or was it some kind of paranormal occurrence?
No matter. It was quite obviously Chinese cabbage. I harvested a head and added it to a stir fry and it was wonderful.
So I planted about a dozen more, imagining that I would be harvesting these heads one at a time for our stir fries, and these, too, came up very nicely.
About this time I found a little gardening e-book on Shakespir called Philosophy of Slow Gardening by Peter Hadley. Gardening books are like erotica for the gardener in me. They get me all hot and bothered and anxious, and before you know it I’ve stopped reading and gone outside to dig, or plant, or weed or harvest something, and this book was no different. I was able to keep reading until I got to the part where the author described how he harvests his Chinese cabbage – outer leaves first – leaving the plants themselves to continue growing and producing leaves.
This was an epiphany to me. It had never occurred to me to do that. So I threw down my Kindle and headed outside. I couldn’t wait to tell Minuet.
Like the great lover that he is, Minuet was game.
I had brought a steak knife and a Ziploc bag outside with me, so we got right down to it. I filled up that bag, and took it inside and that evening we had Chinese cabbage in our stir fry and I didn’t have to sacrifice a head.
We did it again and again and again. It was awesome every time.
As it turned out, Minuet enjoyed it so much that he never wanted to do anything else, and what was once new and exciting became, well, kind of a rut. After awhile it became obvious that with this new way of thinking about and harvesting Chinese cabbage, I had planted way too much. Still, till death do you part – that’s my motto – and I wasn’t ready to yank up Minuet and throw him on the compost pile quite yet.
The truth was, Minuet was so good, that I started trying to think up new ways to use him. I put him in sandwiches. I shredded him into soups. I juiced him. But by far the greatest thing that I did with him was to start having him first thing in the morning, instead of those smoothies that had seen me through the winter. Every morning I would scramble up a single egg in sesame chili oil. Then I’d throw in some leftover rice from the night before, a few more splashes of the oil, and a couple of big handfuls of chopped Minuet.
And that’s when I knew – that very first morning – that what Minuet and I had was the real thing. I mean, any vegetable does just fine at the dinner table. Or for a quickie at lunch time. But a vegetable that you want to have breakfast with?
That’s true love.
Minuet Makes a Head
Do you know how when you’re in a new relationship, you tend to be willing to do things which, left to your own devices, you probably would not do? Things like chaperoning middle school field trips, or spending Monday nights in front of a television in a sports bar sucking down buffalo wings, or – my least favorite of all – camping?
I have done all of these things in the initial throes of attraction back when I was still a single girl, and I have not done a single one of them since those attractions wore off. The thing is, in order for a relationship to last, you need to be able to be yourself, and you need to be with someone with whom you feel you can be yourself. Am I right?
You may be wondering just when, exactly, I intend to meander out to the garden, and the answer is right now. Here I go, and here is the subject of this chapter.
My lone Minuet Chinese Cabbage plant is making a Napa-style closed head. Right outside in one of my new raised beds, even as we speak. With temperatures threatening to plunge down into the twenties tonight, he has thrown his cloak about his shoulders and is settling in for the winter.
With fall finally fully arrived I find that the mystery of how I ended up with seeds for an open-head cabbage when I ordered seeds for a closed head cabbage has been solved in the simplest of ways. It is that there never was any mystery. Minuet has always been a Napa-style closed head cabbage. But for some reason, this past spring, he didn’t feel that he could be a Napa-style closed head for me.
So what was he doing with me? Was it more akin to chaperoning the unruly middle schoolers with a student teacher, or camping? Either way, this past spring Minuet was obviously not really being himself.
I have to admit that my first reaction was to feel a little betrayed. I mean, why couldn’t he be himself with me? Did I smother him? When I approached him with the proposition of continuously harvesting his outer leaves did I make him feel that he had to be something other than what he was? And what does it mean that he’s decided to return to his true nature now? Is he purposely being something other than what he thinks that I want him to be? Was I deceived this past spring? Or was Minuet just – gulp – slumming it with an ignorant gardener?
If I have to look honestly at myself, I think that this last explanation was the case. I admit that I do not necessarily know what I am doing in the garden. I do the best I can. I try new things, and I take the stance that everything is an experiment. So it is in that spirit that I put on my lay scientist’s hat here to form the following hypothesis: Minuet didn’t make a closed head in the spring because by the time he reached that level of maturity the weather was getting warmer instead of cooler. Which is to say that – at least in my planting zone – Minuet will only ever fully realize himself in the fall. And lest you think that he didn’t make a closed head because I kept pulling off his outer leaves, that’s not it. I had six heads of Minuet this spring, and I couldn’t possibly keep up with eating the outer leaves of all of them. I left most of them to make closed heads – but they never did. From which I surmised that I had somehow ended up with the wrong seed in my Minuet packet.
Minuet is good in the spring, don’t get me wrong. Next year I’ll plant one or two heads and harvest their outer leaves until the weather gets the best of him. But next fall, instead of only having one or two heads to harvest leaves from, maybe I’ll plant half a dozen or so and just let the heads be.
So Minuet is out in the garden, doing his own thing – without me. And it’s cool. I can respect that. Especially when I have a dozen buxom bok choi beauties growing right there in the same raised bed beside him, all vying for my attention…
You Can’t Kill Kale
Have you ever tried to break up with someone, but they just won’t have it?
Then you have a sense of where I’m going here with me and Kale.
I’ve been with Kale for several years now. We’ve become such an old married couple in so many ways that it’s hard to think back to exactly how and where our relationship began. I remember being at a girlfriend’s house and having kale for dinner. They were fresh, baby leaves, tossed in olive oil, lemon juice, fresh garlic and sea salt. They were ever so slightly wilted, just wilted enough to melt in my mouth, and I was in love. I remember having dinosaur kale growing in one of my gardens a few years back, and picking its leaves when they were small and tender just to make this salad. I remember being disappointed when that kale bolted, shooting up its slender stalk and going out with a burst of yellow flowers that would have been pretty, had it not been a symbol of my loss.
I think it was those early experiences with Kale that really sucked me in. Those moments were so sweet and innocent and tender that I never realized how many personalities she had. I never realized that I was romancing Sybil.
I have a favorite nursery where I go to buy my fall vegetable transplants. I would do the seedlings myself, but I have had rotten luck with brassicas. I’ve tried broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. They shoot up fine, but tend to shrivel up and die within a week or two. I discussed this with one of the gentlemen that works at my favorite nursery and he told me that they need to be misted daily to keep them moist. So then I started misting my brassica seedlings, but they still died. So a visit to this nursery, which is the only one I am aware of in my area that does transplants for fall gardens, has become an annual ritual with me. I start getting antsy for it towards the end of July. I can’t help myself. I mean, you know what a garden is like in July. It’s gotten too comfortable with you. The first blush of love has long since faded. It’s overgrown and gangly, and there are weeds and tall grass. A garden in July is like a boyfriend that has moved in with you. At first he brings you flowers and does the dishes. But before you know it he’s spending all day on the sofa in a sweat suit, watching T.V. and having his friends over. The guy that used to brush that tendril of hair out of your face with such tenderness is now crushing empty beer cans against his forehead and throwing them in the floor.
Oh, don’t pretend that you don’t know what I’m talking about.
Anyway, I usually swing by my favorite nursery several times in August just to inquire. And in the meantime, back home in the garden, I’m getting the fall spaces ready. Nothing soothes a summer-garden-ravaged soul quite as much as a freshly prepared, virgin patch of garden, ready to start all over again with baby plants.
So as I said, I’m usually ready for fall by the end of July, but it’s almost always the first of September before I am finally bringing home my newest loves.
I think that I have mentioned somewhere before that these seedling times – early spring, the onset of fall – are anxious and difficult times for me. I have a hard time playing it cool in early spring and early fall. All the young studs come on to me and I wink at and fondle every single one of them. The thing is that they’re just all so beautiful. They have unlimited potential. They are the perfect garden just waiting to take root and flourish in my very own back yard. So how can I say no them? The first year that I did this I even bought a six-pack of collard greens, but Collard and I didn’t last. He quickly got huge and I just couldn’t keep up with him. I would have to have eaten collard greens for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fortunately he knew how to take no for an answer, and died when a cold, snowy winter set in.
Anyway, every year I go to this nursery for half a dozen broccoli plants and come home with a dozen. I even consider buying more. Broccoli has never let me down. I also come home with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower and cabbages which inevitably disappoint me, because they can’t stay away from the bugs. I buy Chard, which is just plain old silly because I have Chard seeds and because Chard is so easy to grow from seed. But somehow, Chard that has come out of someone else’s greenhouse, with his red-veined, emerald green leaves, just seems more special, more beautiful and more valuable than Chard that has come up out of my garden soil. It’s kind of like the guy you date and take for granted who never strikes you as either hot or romantic until you see him with his arm around some other girl in the mall.
And I buy Kale. And it’s not the dinosaur kale that I prefer, it’s a large, bushy variety whose leaves get as big around as Frisbees and who passes through the young, tender baby leaf stage with alarming speed.
The first time I brought him home and put him in my garden, I was astonished at how big he got. He was robust and verdant. He was tireless. He was like the Incredible Hulk. Harvesting Kale was less like gardening than it was a sport. I had to wrestle every stalk that I cut to the ground. And in the kitchen he was high maintenance. I had to pull the tough stalks out of the leaves. And I had to go searching around to even figure out what to do with him. Add him to soup or stew? Scramble him with eggs? Mix him into mashed potatoes? Could I freeze Kale? I could, but that, too, turned out to be a lot of work, and quite honestly by the time that summer is officially over, I’m so exhausted from canning tomatoes and peppers and from freezing zucchini and green beans that I don’t want to spend all fall in my kitchen processing greens that I probably won’t be able to ever eat all of anyway.
So when fall gave way to winter, I said farewell to Kale. When the snows came and draped a several-foot-deep blanket across the garden, I knew that it was over. I was a little sad, as I am always a little sad without a garden to tend, but I was relieved, too. I was ready for some rest. I was ready to dream about next year’s garden. I was ready to start browsing through seed catalogs. I was ready to start planning for my next, best garden ever.
A few weeks later the snow melted, leaving me with dead plants that needed to be pulled up out of the still-frozen ground.
Except for Kale.
Damned if he didn’t spring right back up again, soaking up that winter sun and letting the brisk air crisp up his stalks and leaves.
So I harvested some and ate it because – well, at that point it had been a few weeks since I’d harvested anything and because, well, Kale was there.
That was a few years ago. Even though Kale is still not my favorite, I can’t help but keep buying him. I mean, how could you not go out of your way to find a use for a vegetable that is so doggone hearty?
Fast forward to this past winter.
I got Kale from the nursery again last fall. I planted it, and honestly I didn’t really eat it. But I enjoyed looking outside and seeing something green and lush and growing out in the garden in winter. And it was an unusually mild winter. I mean crazy mild. No snow. I don’t think that the ground ever really even froze. Kale and Broccoli lived out there all year. I had been disappointed in Broccoli last fall because by December he still hadn’t made any heads, and I’d given up on him. But he kept on growing through our whole mild winter, and all through January and February I was harvesting heads and side-shoots. When I finally pulled broccoli up to make room for spring planting, I left Kale alone. Honestly, I only left him there because as long as he was there, there was no grass growing in that particular spot. It wasn’t because of any particularly warm feelings that I had for him. But I think that he mistook my gesture as an indication that I wanted to deepen our relationship, because before I knew it he was giving me flowers.
And truthfully, I loved those flowers. I know that he was bolting, and that bolting means the death of a good brassica. But he was going out in a golden blaze of glory. Every day those flowering yellow stalks got taller and taller. They were buzzing with bees. I didn’t have the heart to tear them out, even though they were shading my onions. I lost half of my onion crop because I couldn’t bear to part with Kale and his lovely display. At that point he was probably six feet tall.
But the onions weren’t the only things that I was losing because of Kale, He was smothering an eggplant. He was hanging down across my daughter’s small garden and poking her in the eyes. I knew he had to go. I knew that it was time. But since I’d come this far with him, I was reluctant to let him go. I started to wonder, looking at those little yellow flowers, where his seeds would develop. It became kind of an obsession with me. I think I kind of had an idea that I would be picking the tiny black seeds out of the little yellow flowers with tweezers. I examined the flowers again and again, and I could not for the life of me figure out where those seeds were.
But then one day I was outside, examining my kale forest, which had grown gangly and unruly. The stalks kept getting longer and longer, pushing out more and more little yellow flowers as they grew up, and leaving behind what looked like a green porcupine…and that’s when it hit me. Those long, slim, pointy green things that I’d been staring dumbly at for days now were seed pods! I pulled one off and slit it open, and though the seeds were still in development – they were pale green and soft – they were, nonetheless (going to be) seeds.
Since I have been buying brassica seeds for awhile now, I know they’re supposed to be little black/brown balls. So I figured I’d just leave the pods on there until they turned brown and dried up which, sure enough, they did. And one morning I went out there to get the seeds.
It became clear right away that there was no way I would be able to get every seed. For one thing, who has the patience? Do you have any idea how many seeds there must be on one mature kale plant? I’m talking thousands.
At first I started picking the individual pods, but that was really tiresome, and soon proved to be unnecessary. So I started grabbing handfuls of pods and pulling them into a big bowl. But what I finally ended up doing was just shaking the branches over top of the bowl, and kind of crumpling the pods and letting the seeds just fall down. That was the easiest thing to do and worked as well as the other things I tried.
That’s the thing about a garden. Everything is an experiment.
When I had a bowl full of seed pods, I quit. I took the pods (and, as it turned out, many tiny insects) up to the deck and picked through the pods one handful at a time, crackling them in my hands so that the seeds fell into the bowl. When I was finished, I had a pool of tiny black and brown balls that looked just like they had come from a seed packet.
And voila! Kale and I were parents.
So, of course, we’re bound together forever now. Even though I’m not that into him, I feel kind of obligated to grow those seeds this fall. Besides now that I know what Kale is capable of, what choice do I have? If I don’t plant him in my garden I suspect that pulling him up and dragging him across the yard will come back to haunt me. I may be finding volunteer kale coming up in my yard for years to come.
Okay, Now You’re Just Being Bitter
For the past few years, Cucumber and I have had a real little early summer love fest. There were days when I would eat nothing but cucumbers for dinner. I used to chop him up and bring him to work for lunch. I sang his praises to anyone who would listen. And I never, ever – not even once – cheated on Cucumber with any supermarket cucurbit. Okay, there was that one couple of weeks last winter when we got on a gyro kick and had to make cucumber sauce, but that’s the only time.
But this summer, I have to admit, I’ve been in something of a funk. I let an entire crop of Easter egg radishes languish in the summer heat until they were the size of baseballs, and once they were no longer pert and pretty I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. I grew salad greens and really nice little heads of red-speckled romaine, but truthfully I ate very few spring salads. I’m not really sure why. I just couldn’t get in the mood, you know? All the washing and peeling and chopping, not to mention the energy it takes just to chew a salad…
But now that the tomatoes and cucumbers have come in, I’ve found my thoughts turning to salads again, and nothing says summer like a bowl of cucumber, tomato, basil and cubed mozzarella. I’ve even been eating it for breakfast. But all is not well with Cucumber and me.
Oh, his earliest fruits were perfect, even if I didn’t dote on them the way that I have in the past. I mean, at least I used them. I ate a few, and so far I’ve let enough pile up on the kitchen counter to make a quart of pickles on three separate occasions. That first batch of pickles was a revelation to me. I was out of apple cider vinegar, and out of pickling spices, and too lazy to go to the store. So I used white vinegar mixed with part of a hand-me-down bottle of pear vinegar, which I just happened to have on hand and had never otherwise found a use for. There was nothing in there with Cucumber but the vinegars and a few crushed cloves of garlic, and I’ll admit they were a little acidic, and that I ought to have cut that vinegar a little bit with some water. But they had a fresh, cool, delicate taste that I just couldn’t get enough of and which, as it turns out, when it came time to start making potato salad, was really the bomb.
Still, I guess it’s fair to say that Cucumber wasn’t feeling the love this spring. I could tell, as the weather started to get hotter. I’d walk outside to visit him, and he’d be hanging limply over the garden fence, which he’d been forced to climb for lack of anything better. He’d be all blah and whatnot, and I suppose he wanted me to come over to him and ask him what was wrong, but it’s hard to have warm feelings for a plant that looks so peevish and needy. Don’t get me wrong. I did the right thing by him. I shot him with the hose any number of times, and soaked the ground he sprang from, and harvested dutifully, and I figured things were okay. I mean, what’s he going to do, go find himself another gardener?
Which is to say, I guess, that I got a little bit too blasé about the whole affair.
Despite all of this, there was one afternoon where I was really feeling Cucumber. I mean, I wanted him. Bad. In a big bowl, with some salt and maybe a dash of olive oil. And I made my feelings known. How could I not? I could hardly contain myself. So Cucumber and I got down to it, and as soon as his luscious body was peeled and sliced I helped myself to a rocking big spoonful and…
Spat him out all over the counter because what had just been in my mouth was the nastiest, foulest, most bitter-tasting crap that I have ever had the displeasure to sample. I mean, it tasted like that stuff that I think my mother may have put on my fingernails once to try to get me to stop biting my nails. There are no words strong enough to describe the full bitterness of Cucumber in that moment.
It stopped me cold. I mean, I was stunned. What have I ever done to Cucumber, to deserve to be stabbed in the back like that?
Okay, there was that one time a few years back that my husband sprayed him down with a fish emulsion mixture that more or less promptly killed him off. And then there was the year that I planted the white pickling cucumbers and then never picked them when they were ready and they all turned into swollen, golden globes on the vine. Oh, and the time that I got overly ambitious making pickles, and not only did I make twelve pints of them, but I also processed them in the hot water bath canner and basically turned them into twelve pints of mush that are still downstairs in my cellar years later because, well, I’m kind of afraid to open them.
And I’ll admit that perhaps I have never given cucumber the attention that he needs. I have never given him anything to climb. I demand a lot of him. I expect him to perform, and then once he does, do I go carefully searching through his broad, green leaves spreading across the ground like a carpet to pick his fruit at the peak of perfection? I do not. I invariably miss every third or fourth one, and I don’t see them at all until they’re bloated and yellow and – well, let’s face it – unattractive.
But still. Unless you have tasted Cucumber at his most vile, you cannot understand the full horror of his sabotage.
In this instance I wasn’t so much Googling in a panic as I was Googling in a rage. Why are my cucumbers bitter?
And the answer popped right up – cucumbers get bitter when they suffer too many temperature fluctuations, often caused by not getting enough water during the hottest summer months.
Water. The bane of my gardening existence. Too much. Not enough. And my husband there, all the time, ready to rub that un-used moisture meter in my face. This is really more than I can take.
I tried to make it up to Cucumber. I’ve been outside making sure he gets a good drink every day. I pick his fruit small, and I use it promptly. But it seems that it’s too little too late, and that the damage is already done.
I really hate it that Cucumber and I have moved into a phase of our relationship – temporary, I hope – in which we cannot trust one another. Out in the garden, Cucumber’s leaves are getting yellow and speckled with brown, and I know that he is thinking of leaving me. And in the kitchen I can’t do a thing with him without peeling him and tasting him first, and even if I taste him and he seems mild and sweet-tempered, there’s still a fifty-fifty chance that I’m going to be eating my salad and end up with a mouth full of foul reminder.
So for the time being it’s a standoff.
But even though I’m not yet ready to admit it to Cucumber, I do love him, and I do want him to come back next year, so I’m getting my promises ready. I’ll put in less cucumber plants and I’ll do it in such a way that it’s easy to check him every day for harvesting. I’ll give him something to climb. And I will water him, every day, faithfully, for as long as there is unbearable heat and no promise of rain, for better or for worse, in disease or in health, for as long as we both shall live, or at least until the end of his season at which point, of course, I need to be free to start romancing someone else.
And I mean it too, because I’m eating one of my favorite salads even as I write this, and once again I have a mouthful of bitter reminder, despite having checked the taste of each cucumber ahead of time. So all of you gardeners out there who think that Cucumber is someone to be trifled with: take heed. Cucumber has a dark side, and if decides he needs to use it, he don’t play.
Getting to Know You, Yellow
The trouble with getting involved in a long term relationship with a vegetable – as opposed to just having an occasional one-night-stand with some tomato that you picked up at the farmer’s market – is that they’re never everything that you want them to be. They’re no different than people, really. Even when Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now turn out to be the same guy and you’re deliriously happy, it’s only a matter of time before you find his hair clogging up the bathtub drain, and you find out that he couldn’t pick his underwear back up off of the floor by himself to save his life.
You know the type: human, all too human. And people wonder why erotica sells so well.
Take me and Yellow Taxi. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love Yellow. He’s the earliest, the sweetest, the most reliable tomato that I have ever grown. He’s heirloom, which means that he has a pedigree. And is he ever good-looking. You can walk into any potluck with a bowl full of tomato, basil and mozzarella salad and if yellow’s in it, trust me, eyes are gonna pop. And don’t even get me started on what starts popping when they taste him.
So how did I come to be with him, you wonder, and what’s the problem?
Well, truth be told – and these wouldn’t be “confessions” if I wasn’t telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – Yellow was a male-order mate. I got him from The Tasteful Garden, in a six-pack of heirloom tomatoes. I didn’t pick him out specifically. It was a mixed set of heirlooms. Yellow was already a foot-and-a-half high when I got him, and he had the greenest, healthiest-looking foliage that you have ever seen. They all did – all six of them – and at first the only way that I could tell them apart was by reading the little plastic stakes in their pots. And because I am not as meticulous in the garden as perhaps I might be, once they were in the ground, until they started putting out fruit, I could no longer tell who was who.
But Yellow was the first one to get my attention, because he started pumping out tomatoes like nobody’s business way before any of the others. Here are some excerpts from my 2009 garden notes:
June 8: My yellow taxi plant seems stunted and unruly compared to my other heirlooms, but it is heavy with ripening tomatoes, way more than any of the other plants I have at this point.
July 11: Most of my tomato plants are lush and huge, but not with huge amounts of fruit. This little bugger (Yellow), on the other hand, is full of fruit, and looks low and stunted. I haven’t done anything to him (no sucker pinching, etc.) but he certainly is putting all of his efforts into developing fruit and not into developing foliage. I guess that’s good?
July 12: Well, today that yellow tomato plant has an entire dead limb on it. Yesterday, it was only the suckers, the small limbs that had no flowers or fruit on them that were dying and dropping off. Still, I pulled a bunch of ripening tomatoes off of him today.
July 26: Well, the heirloom tomatoes are really popping now, and starting to earn their keep! So we’ve gone into preservation mode around here, learning as we go, and exercising that hot water canner! A local area food program that I participate in here in Southern Maryland is selling heirloom tomatoes for four dollars a pound. My kitchen window has pretty much looked like a farmer’s market stand for over a week now. And we’ve eaten plenty raw in salads, and have given some away. I’d say the twenty-five-dollar investment for the six transplants was well worth the money. And boy, are they tasty!
August 26: The yellow taxi is gasping its last breath. Not sure what happened to it, but it sure put out a HUGE amount of fruit, all within about a month, and then kind of shrunk up and petered out.
End of excerpts. Back to present time:
Though I ordered the same six-pack of heirloom tomatoes from The Tasteful Garden the following year, I did not end up with a Yellow Taxi, and I missed those early yellow tomatoes, though I was still perplexed about what seemed to be his unnaturally early demise. But lo and behold, flipping through my Territorial Seed Company Catalog the following winter, I found this:
“TAXI (80 days). The best bright yellow tomato for short season gardeners. This determinate variety grows to about two feet tall and two feet across. Expect heavy yields of mild, non-acid tomatoes for three to four weeks. Great for the lunch box and salsas.”
This description went a long way for me in understanding why Yellow had behaved the way he did that first year. It’s kind of like after a big fight, or a big misunderstanding, with a new lover, and you finally get around to that heart-to-heart that keeps you both up all night, and during which you share every childhood disappointment, every adolescent heartbreak, every adult disillusionment with your significant other for the first time and when it’s all over you feel so intimate and your relationship just seems so – well – deep…
It’s kind of like that, except that Yellow didn’t share a doggone single secret with me. I had to read about his deepest secrets and his darkest fears – cleverly disguised as advantages – in a seed catalog, which is not that different from reading personal ads, in my opinion. Even a vegetable is always trying to put his best foot forward. Even a vegetable is desperately trying to make a love connection.
I decided to put the past behind us, and to answer Yellow’s ad. I mean, for one thing, learning that he was a short-season variety pretty much convinced me that I did not, in fact, kill him off as I had feared that I had. So maybe there were no hard feelings.
So last winter I started some of his seeds, and they did just fine. Once again, it was impossible to tell him from the other tomatoes in their adolescence. Once again he was the first to set great clusters of fruit, the first to ripen. Once again he was the first to turn yellow and to hang across the wires of the tomato cage in the summer heat, gasping as if he was on his deathbed, all the time providing me daily with handfuls of buttery-yellow-colored non-acid sweetness.
Yellow, it would seem, has something of a flair for the dramatic.
I mean, what the heck? Why can’t he just stand up straight and tall and green and do his work like the other tomatoes? Why must he wear an ascot and swoon for my attention? And darn him, anyway, for having fruit that is so good, because let me tell you, his theatrics leave a little to be desired. I mean, as soon as he gets going he looks like he’s dying, and what kind of gardener wants to walk outside every day and look at that?
Still. There is no one like Yellow in the kitchen.
And so this year, our third together, I have vowed to be a little less demanding, a little more flexible, a little more tolerant of Yellow.
So far everything is exactly as I expected it to be. Yellow’s in the garden as we speak, dragging out his death scene to a rapt audience and rave reviews – mine, that is. Every day I visit him outside and I look fondly upon his stunted, fading branches, heavy with fruit, and I think – nobody knows Yellow like I do. So what if my friends, looking upon my garden point at him and ask, “What’s wrong with that one?”
“Nothing,” I tell them. “That’s just how he is. Why don’t you come inside and have some of my tomato, basil and mozzarella salad?”
I dare them to disrespect my Yellow after that.
Pepper is Piqued
I’m convinced that Pepper has found my Vegetable Lover’s Diary. Why else would he be in such a snit all of a sudden? Sure his neighbors the tomatoes all have blossom end rot, so they’re getting a lot of attention lately, and maybe I do step over Pepper on my way to them, and okay so that one time I made a crack about how incredibly long it takes for his fruit to ripen, but hey, it was just a passing comment, and I’m okay with it. I really am. But what I am not okay with is these streaks of soft whiteness that are appearing on his otherwise lovely, elongated fruits.
If you ask me, it’s pure temper.
I have never written a confession about Pepper. It’s not that I don’t love Pepper. I do! I particularly love Jalapeño, and yet there was a moment this year – just a moment – that I almost allowed a Jalapeño-less summer to unfold. It wasn’t my fault. It was because this stinking little rabbit found his way into the garden and ate the tops off of four of my pepper plants when they were still getting themselves established. And I didn’t know, at the time, for sure, that both of the Jalapeños were among the victims. Still, I have to admit that I suspected it. And I also have to admit that when I was in Big Box, browsing for peppers and squash plants to replace the damaged ones, I bought Carmen. I bought Anaheim. I bought Mini-Bell. But I did not buy Jalapeño. I tried to explain it to him. It was because I knew he would come back. I had already seen the tiny new leaves forming. But I think he has made a few pointed comments to Anaheim and to Mini Chocolate Bell, and that they’ve all arranged some kind of protest against me.
The thing that I hate about having to Google descriptions to see what’s wrong with any plant is that all too often it turns out not to be some disease that is beyond my control, but the result of some kind of relationship problem, by which I mean to say that so many things are my fault. The nutrients aren’t right. Or they’re not getting enough water. Or they’re getting too much water. Take blossom end rot. The first time I saw blossom end rot on my gorgeous heirloom tomato plants, I freaked out! I mean, there are all of those beautiful, ripening, multi-colored fruits, and whenever I would reach for one…well, it was kind of like a scene in a horror movie, or a nightmare, playing in slow motion. The tomato is a deep, rich, ripe-red. It’s hanging heavily from the vine. You’re coming at it from an angle at which it looks perfect. You reach for it. Your fingers get closer. Then your perspective shifts, ever so slightly, and barely a moment after it’s too late to prevent it, you see the flattened bottom of the fruit, and instead of a handful of luscious swell, you sink your fingers up to the first knuckle in mush. Can’t you just hear the Psycho music in your head right now?
I hate mush.
Before you know it, instead of harvesting tomatoes for your next meal, you’re running around the garden flicking the ones that are affected down onto the ground – and they’re all affected, and you go back inside with nothing but a shame-face.
The first time this happened to me it wasn’t my fault, and it often isn’t a gardener’s fault. Blossom end rot can be brought on by a too-wet spring. As soon as the moisture level corrects itself, and it will, there isn’t really anything you have to do about it, the tomatoes will start to be normal – which is to say, wonderful – again. But this year, we have not had a wet spring. We’ve had an extraordinarily dry spring and summer, in fact. So dry, and so oppressively hot, that I have been outside with the hose every day, making sure that everybody gets a drink. And, well, what can I say? One drink is never enough when you’re lazing around on a hot summer day, is it? I mean, you think it’s going to be, but once you’ve got that one in you, a second doesn’t seem like a bad idea, and of course you invite Pepper to the party because, well, you love Pepper. And the next thing you know Squash is sucking down the water like she’s doing a beer bong because you know there isn’t enough water in the world to satisfy Squash, and Eggplant says, well, maybe just one more teeny, eeny sip, and Cucumber says, aim what Eggplant isn’t drinking over here, will you? And you do, because you know from bitter experience how awful Cucumber can be if he doesn’t get his drink on. And before you know it, you’re spraying yourself down with the hose too, and letting your daughter make mud mountains for her plastic dinosaurs in the space between the garden rows while the water just runs and runs…
But I digress.
I admit that in my zeal to ensure that everyone stayed cool and moist and happy this year, that I have overwatered my tomatoes and given them blossom end rot. Which is why, when I began to see the soft, white streaks on Pepper – and not just one pepper either, but all of them – I suspected that this, too, would turn out to be my fault.
So I Googled “white streaks on peppers”.
The first thing that came up was “sun scald”, but I was skeptical. Apparently sun scald occurs during the height of summer heat and humidity, and goodness knows we’ve had that going on around here. But Pepper’s cold shoulder and guilt-inspiring looks have got me feeling so paranoid that I’m sure that I must have overwatered him, so I tend to want to dismiss sun scald as a possibility. But I keep reading. And the more I read, the less that I think that it is sunscald. The article I’m reading is talking about plants developing sun scald that have been partially defoliated by insects, because they no longer have enough leaf canopy to shield them from the sun. But Pepper is not defoliated and I have not seen insect one on him. Still, I read on. The article says that the fruit will crack and split where the scald occurs, and that white scars of tougher tissues are formed at the scald site. So now I’m even more convinced that it’s not sun scald, because words like “crack” and “split” and “scar” and “tougher” do not seem to describe the softening and draining of color that is going on outside on these peppers. I’m about to move on to other possibilities, when, just to make sure, I Google “peppers sun scald images”.
And there you go. It’s sun scald all right.
So I troop out to the garden to take another look at them and they do, indeed, look like the images. And though Pepper has not lost a single leaf to any kind of bug, I do have to admit that he looks a little, well, droopy. He has a lot of leaves, but they’re not exactly a canopy shading his fruit. And as I’m standing there, taking all of this in, Pepper takes his cheap shot. “See?” he seems to say. “My leaves are drooping. You lavished all of that attention on the tomatoes, and here I am with sun scald because you didn’t water me enough.”
Even though I am now piqued as well, I can’t help but think of all that Pepper has done for me. Those quarts and quarts of last summer’s pickled jalapeños that we have enjoyed all winter – the nachos; the way that handfuls of him, diced up and cooked down with ketchup and a pork shoulder make the best and and most unbelievably flavorful pulled pork that you have ever had; the way that I used to roast Anaheim in the toaster oven and then peel off the black, de-seed him, and pop him into the freezer, and months later I could pull him out to add to a meal and he’d still be sweet and scarlet and perfect.
Oh, Pepper. I know I done you wrong.
I finish reading the article, and it recommends planting sun scald resistant varieties, and fertilizing when the plant begins to set fruit so that it has enough leaf growth to shade the fruit, and even erecting some shade for the plants if necessary. Still, I can’t get those droopy leaves out of my mind, and I can’t help but think that in my otherwise strappingly-healthy Pepper, a lack of water is really the problem.
So if anybody needs me, I’ll be outside with the hose.
You Can’t Trust a Potato
When my husband proposed to me he offered to let me choose a diamond. I turned it down. I mean, I’m not really a diamond kind of girl, and to spend that much money on something that I was probably just going to lose, or ruin while doing some kind of manual labor seemed, well, ridiculous.
Eighteen years later, I’m still not a diamond kind of girl, and I’ve never regretted that decision. We’re pretty low-key on all the traditional romance kind of stuff anyway. We like to go out to eat, but since becoming parents it’s a table for three, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. There are couples that go out of their way to have “date nights” when they can spend some time alone, just the two of them, and I totally appreciate and respect that. But honestly, I don’t want to date my husband. I mean, I don’t want to date at all. Dating is stressful. It implies a certain distance and formality between two people that needs to be maintained until the relationship becomes more intimate, more settled; until it becomes something that you can, well, take for granted.
Taking a person for granted is supposed to be a bad thing. And yet, if you can’t take your spouse for granted from time to time, then what’s the point of being married at all?
I approach my garden in pretty much the same way – the wanting the comfort of being able to occasionally take it for granted part, that is. But that’s where the similarity between me the wife and me the gardener comes to a screeching halt. In almost every area of my life I am both risk-averse and anti-drama. But in the garden I am a high-maintenance drama queen. But then again, so is my garden. Not for a moment does it ever let me take it for granted!
Witness me and the potato.
Potato and I got through our first year together without any real issues. I ordered my seed potatoes – Red Caribe and Russian Banana Fingerling – from “a reputable seed company”, which everything you ever read about potatoes tells you to do, so we were off to a great start. They were supposed to ship at the correct time for planting in my zone, so when they arrived, I trotted them right outside and, carefully following the directions that came with them, put them in the ground. I waited a few days and then…
You know how it is. You meet this great guy, or you go out on a first date, and you think everything is all stars and rainbows and fireworks, and he not only promises to call you but he even goes in for that first, sweet, tentative kiss that promises everything and then…
He doesn’t call. Ever again.
This is what I’m saying. Dating stinks.
Naturally when I didn’t hear from Potato right away after our first, brief encounter, I was concerned. But I was cool. I didn’t exactly stalk him. I mean, there was that one incident when I dug one of the seed potatoes back up just to see what was going on down there. But when I saw that it was sprouting, slowly but surely, I hastily covered it back up and made a quick, shame-faced retreat. And sure enough, within days, we were an item.
I love the way Potato looks when he first comes up out of the ground. He is such a dark, vibrant green. He has such sturdy foliage. I walked out to the garden every morning and admired him. I admired myself, too. I was a success! I was growing potatoes! But the first blush of romance passed by all too quickly. Like every relationship, there came a time when ours required some effort.
Before I knew it I was full of hilling anxiety. Of course I had known that Potato had needs; who doesn’t? I’d known it was coming. Still, when the moment came, I was once again Googling in a panic. How high should the hills be? Am I hilling enough? I read articles. I watched You Tube videos. I know we hadn’t been together for that long but I was really attached to Potato. I wanted this relationship to succeed. It occurred to me that I might be falling in love.
That first year I was so worried about under-hilling that I even went so far as to build cages out of rabbit guard and garden cloth and heaped the dirt into them. A few days later, I got paranoid about what might be leaching out of the cloth and I pulled the cloth out. I then watched in dismay as the dirt crumbled out of the holes in the rabbit guard. I was big into buying straw that year, so I got a bale of straw and spread that around on top of the dirt, and stuck it in around the edges of the rabbit guard where the garden fabric used to be.
I have realized over the past few years that I went way overboard that first year with Potato. But he didn’t take advantage, and I could tell that he really appreciated it. I got tons of potatoes, and I don’t recall ever seeing a single insect pest on them, either.
But of course that was our honeymoon year, and I was still a fairly novice gardener. It may be that I was simply wearing rose-colored glasses.
I mean, it happens to everyone – and to every relationship – sooner or later, right? Life sets in. There are droughts. You try to help but you overcompensate with the sprinkler and end up with mush instead of potatoes. There are beetles, and you don’t realize when you’re admiring their brown and cream-colored exoskeletons that your partner is in distress. A few weeks later you’re staring at the red and black potato beetle larvae in bewilderment, and saying to your partner, “You want me to do what?” But you do it, because that’s what relationships are all about. You smush the potato beetle larvae. You make a game of it. You even develop your own special techniques. You fold the leaves they’re on in half and crush them in the middle so as not to get the ickiness on your hands. For every larvae you destroy, you start to feel a sense of accomplishment. And yet, all the carnage is unpleasant. It makes you question your values. I mean, am I still the woman that I once was? I used to have Grateful Dead stickers on my car. I used to think seriously about Buddism every time I swatted, and killed, a fly.
But in the end you get through it okay. You kill the beetles; you keep your partner healthy, and he makes potatoes, and you eat – good, safe, healthy food that you have ushered into the world and for whom you have taken responsibility from cradle to grave. And that is worth something. That – you realize – may just be what life is all about.
So for a few years Potato and I settled into a comfortable relationship. You know what I mean. The kind of relationship where you’re in the kitchen getting the beers, and your beloved, sitting in front of the television in the other room calls out, “Hey! The show’s getting ready to start!” and you get all warm and fuzzy inside because you know, in that moment, in a way that no diamond ring can ever say, that he loves you. And lest you think that that doesn’t go both ways – it does. Sometimes you’re the one sitting on the sofa waiting for your beloved to come back in and top off your wine glass and it’s your turn to call out, “Hey! The show’s back on!” And you thank your lucky stars that you have someone in your life with whom you can share this simple and otherwise inconsequential moment which simultaneously says both nothing about you both, and everything.
So that’s pretty much where Potato and I were for several years. Until this year.
Now, I’m not much of one for wanting to “spice up” a relationship. Wearing wigs, meeting up in bars and pretending like you’re strangers, role playing – that’s not for me. And yet, like anyone else, I can’t help but think that things in any relationship can be improved, and I’m not against working towards that improvement. Take, for example, these darned potato beetles. I mean, it was all well and good the first few years when we were first discovering each other. But do we have to go through that kind of agony every year? Isn’t there something we can do about this? So I did research, and I came up with a couple of options – horseradish, and Cornells’ King Harry hybrid potatoes, bred to resist potato beetles. Potato and I talked it over. He was cool with the horseradish, but skeptical about the King Harry. What was wrong with Red Caribe and Russian Banana Fingerling? They’d done well for us every year. And what about last year, when I’d grown German Butterball? What about that? They’d gotten some kind of disease, and I’d ended up with a useless crop of pock-marked golf balls, and whose idea was that? Oh right. That was mine.
Potato really does have a snarky side.
But I was relentless, and ultimately, convincing. I was doing this for him. Why should he suffer, season after season, having his thick and beautiful green leaves shredded and demolished by senseless insects? Sure, he can lose thirty percent of his foliage to pests before it affects his yield, but does he really want to? And do I really want to be seen in public with a potato plant that has lost a third of his foliage to a potato beetle? I’m sure that I do not. Call me superficial. Call me petty. But when I step out, I want my partner to look good.
So we spent twenty-something bucks on horseradish roots, and ordered a bag of King Harry seed potatoes. I put some of the horseradish in pots in Potato’s corners of the garden, and a few others in the ground in pots that I had cut the bottoms out of so that the horseradish wouldn’t take over the place. So far so good. But all you with relationship experience know what comes next, right?
The “I told you so”.
But not about the potato beetles! For all intents and purposes, potato season is over. Potato and I have made it through unscathed. I am being perfectly honest with you – though I doubt you will believe me – when I tell you that on forty-two potato plants that I had in the garden this year, I found exactly one – that’s right, one – potato beetle which I promptly smushed, and not a single larvae. Did you get that? Not one larvae. Was it the horseradish? Was it the King Harry? I would like to think. Because if it’s the horseradish and/or the King Harry then that means that our potato-beetleless spring and summer was the result of a gardener’s – that is, my – skill and prowess. And you know that’s what I’m telling Potato, even though, for all I know it could have been some weird, once in a lifetime, climate-change-related anomaly that temporarily wiped out potato beetles from the face of the earth. I think that’s what Potato would like to believe. He’s rubbing it in my face that my potted horseradish has died; that I never watered it, that I didn’t provide it with the appropriate steady steam of nutrients because, as he knows all too well, when it comes to plants with really special needs, I am lazy. But I think he’s harping on the horseradish because he just can’t stand the fact that I was right.
That, I believe, is why what happened next, happened at all. I think it’s pure spite.
Here’s the thing. When the first plants, about eight or ten of them, began to turn brown and fall over, I went out and started harvesting potatoes. And they were beautiful. Some of them had a really good size on them. They were firm, their skin was clear, and I mean they were perfect, all the more perfect for having had a perfect, pest-free growing season and minimum watering. Not one time did I put my hand into a mushy potato. I brought them in the house. It took me several trips. I put them in a cardboard box in front of the vent in the living room, which is where I’ve stored them in previous years. Every day or two I pulled out a potato, or a handful of potatoes, and fried them up. I ate them for breakfast. I gave them to the kid with lunch or dinner. I was feeling right proud of those potatoes. I was a rich woman.
And then one night I went into that box with the intention of baking a few for dinner, and I realized that a lot of them were already starting to go bad! You can imagine my horror. Brown spots, soft spots, soft and brown spots! How could this be! What on earth was going on?!
Because there was not a thing in the world wrong with these potatoes when I pulled them out of the ground, and because they were clearly rotting, and not diseased, I suspected temperature was the culprit. I have had them directly in front of the air conditioning vent, because sixty-five degrees is supposed to be the ideal curing temperature and because I had success storing them there for a few months in the past.
I put a thermometer down there and sure enough it is exactly sixty-five degrees in that corner, and forty-two percent humidity. (And lest anyone think we are frivolous with energy around here, my thermostat is set on seventy-four and the only place that even comes close to sixty-five degrees is directly in front of that air vent. The rest of the living room, as we speak, has finally, after another scorching day, reached a low of seventy-five.) In previous years, before our recent HVAC system crash and overhaul, that spot never got below sixty-nine degrees, so perhaps these past few weeks the temperature has been too low. Or perhaps the humidity is too high. Or maybe there wasn’t enough air circulating around them in the box. I don’t know. I will have to experiment with different locations in the house and do some more research before I harvest the rest of those potatoes.
I sorted through the potatoes in the box and took out everything that was showing any sign of rot. At first I thought I’d just end up with a big old pile of French fries for dinner, but the problem was far worse than that. I probably found about ten pounds of potatoes that looked fine, and another ten or twelve pounds that were clearly on their way out. We had a huge heap of French fries with dinner, and I had a handful washed and set out to fry for breakfast, but the situation was still dire. What was I going to do with the other pounds of potatoes that must be eaten in the next day or so, so as not to go to waste?
It was only as I was writing all of this down that I realized what I had to do. The next day, I decided, I was going to make one mother of a potato salad with what was left of that first harvest of potatoes, while there was still a good amount of them to salvage. I’m talking potato salad to last for a week.
Or least through the Fourth of July.
And now I’m getting all misty eyed, because, you see? That’s what a relationship is all about. You work hard together towards a common goal. You help each other out. You make sure each other has a drink in hand and never misses the first five minutes of your favorite program. Sure, you struggle. You fight. You compete. You get on each other’s freaking nerves. You tit for tat. You seek petty revenges for minor wrongs. But then there you are together on a holiday, telling your friends and relatives that yes, you grew the potatoes, and not only that, you grew both the onions and the cucumbers that became the pickles that are in that potato salad, and you don’t leave each other’s side all afternoon – and then it happens.
You get to experience what Wendell Barry says is the reason for remaining faithfully married, despite life’s vicissitudes:
“What marriage offers – and what fidelity is meant to protect – is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same.”
Oh Potato. I take it back. I do trust you. I do.
I do love you so.
Scarlet Won’t Have Me
We’re heading into mid-July, and I have to admit that about this time every year, I start to feel a little glum. I mean, on the one hand, the garden is just getting going. It’s only been this past week that I’ve started bringing in ripe tomatoes by the shirt-full. But on the other hand, I’ve been at this since March, when I put my spinach, chard and pea seeds in the ground. But those are all long gone now, as are my broccoli, cauliflower, Chinese cabbages, turnips, rutabagas, beets, salad greens, strawberries and blackberries. I have tons of potatoes, but they’re all in storage in the house, and not outside in the garden, blooming and shifting in the breeze like a frothy emerald sea. I still have cucumbers and one or two squash plants hanging in there. I have peppers and green and yellow beans, and the watermelons, cantaloupes and eggplants are bound to be ready before too awful long. My corn, that was flattened by a storm several weeks ago – I thought for sure it was a goner – righted itself and is once again growing tall and strong.
Well, I’ve noticed that Borage is looking peaked. Some of his beautiful, blooming stalks have fallen over. And it’s come to my attention this year that Nasturtium just can’t take the heat. He’s got sunburned patches all over him and he has quite failed to make himself beautiful for me. Even my marigolds, which always do well, didn’t get quite as bushy and expansive this year as they usually do. Perhaps they felt overshadowed by Potato and, quite frankly, they were. My red-speckled romaine is bolting, which of course is no surprise to me, as our temperatures have been hovering around a hundred up until yesterday, and just looking at him makes me feel guilty, and fills me with longing for the salads that I failed to make and enjoy when I had the chance. And once again I seem to have failed to get any winter squash to grow.
My anti-grass and weed campaign, with which I started this gardening season with such high hopes, has been a stunning success. But now that so many of my vegetables have already come and gone for the year, I find myself looking at an awful lot of bare dirt. I have plans to ad some raised beds to the garden this year but I haven’t gotten very far yet. And being out there just reminds me that I still haven’t gotten the hang of companion planting, or polyculture. My garden may be productive and fairly weedless, but it is not beautiful – unless you count being productive as being beautiful, which I do – most days.
But somehow…not today.
And to top it all off, my Scarlet Runner beans are no longer blooming, and it would appear that once again, despite having gotten off to a promising start, she’s not going to make any beans for me.
There. That’s the real confession. I can’t grow a Scarlet Runner Bean. I’ve wooed her. But she just won’t have me.
I know, I know. Elementary school kids grow beans in science class. How hard could it be? The only thing that comes up more reliably than a bean is a cucurbit. But it isn’t really the sprouting that’s the problem. She sprouted up perfectly, and grew, and wound her way about the five-foot high cage I gave her to climb, and she bloomed with the most curvaceous orange-red blossoms that I have ever seen.
And then the blossoms eventually fell off, and where there ought to be a filament of new pod, like there are on my green beans and my yellow wax beans, there is nothing.
It’s bewildering. And even a little embarrassing. It’s kind of like when, after a lifetime of using birth control, you finally decide in your late thirties to have a baby, and you’re so confident in the processes of nature, and in your own health and in the prowess of your spouse, that when that first month goes by and you discover that you are not, in fact, pregnant, despite your best efforts, you are stunned, and you begin to understand that the processes of nature are not as simple or as straightforward as we humans would like to think.
I had the same problem with Scarlet a few years back, but I didn’t think too much about it then. I was too overwhelmed with what did do well in the garden, and I suppose that I just put it down to some kind of a fluke. But this year, when Scarlet and I once again failed to conceive a bean, I turned to Google, where what I found was astonishing.
For starters, apparently Scarlet Runner Beans prefer cooler temperatures – sixty to eighty degrees. That would make them something I ought to be planting in the spring, and not the summer. And with temperatures around here soaring near one hundred, lately, it’s no wonder that Scarlet hasn’t been able to do anything more than put on a show.
Furthermore, there seem to be some issues regarding pollination. Scarlet Runner Beans do not self-pollinate, and need insects to help them out. But I have plenty of bees getting about in the garden these days, so I wouldn’t think that that would be a problem. Still, I’m on this garden forum and when people start talking about pollinating squash plants with Q-tips and tomatoes with an electric toothbrush, I have to admit that I start to get a little, well, scared. I mean, Scarlet is beautiful, and we have a wonderful relationship together, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I might be turning my backyard garden into a fertility clinic in order to accomplish what every other vegetable – the aforementioned squash and tomatoes not withstanding – do naturally.
Still. These things do happen.
But am I qualified, I wonder? I mean, I know enough to stick a seed in the ground, but helping to pollinate a plant? I just don’t know.
Fortunately, as I read on, the consensus in the forum seems to be that pollinating Scarlet by hand is just not practical. It is suggested that she be sprayed every few days with water, but honestly, I think that the sad truth is that it’s just too doggone hot here in Southern Maryland for Scarlet to set pods.
And so Scarlet and I face a moment of truth. Are we enough for each other? Can we go through the years together, perhaps all the way to old age, without ever making any progeny? Is there a place for Scarlet in my garden if there are not to be – if there are never to be – any beans?
Of course the answer is unquestionably yes. Scarlet adds so much to my garden, even without her fruit. She adds height and color and honestly I am so smitten by those red blossoms that I can’t imagine planting a garden in which Scarlet isn’t included. And besides, maybe we can adopt. There are any number of places where I can get organic dried beans. I mean, even buying beans in the supermarket would be better than letting Scarlet out of my life. And it’s not Scarlet’s fault. If I had done my research I would have known that she is not suited for my particular environment, and I might not have even brought her here.
But I am not that kind of gardener. I am not much of a researcher, and I am barely a planner. My husband routinely reminds me to use the moisture meter that he bought me, but do I? No, I do not. Instead I give my tomatoes blossom end rot and my peppers sun scald. I also use the expensive worm castings like potting soil, and I don’t check my soil ph. So what, are they going to take away my gardener’s license or something? The last time that I checked, no one could stop you from sticking a seed in the ground if you want to, even if sometimes you do suck at everything that comes after that.
So I’m going to stick with Scarlet. She’s always got a place in the garden with me. That is, if after hearing all of my gardening confessions, she’ll still have me.
Getting Saucy In Suburbia
I’m looking for tomato nirvana.
And just what is tomato nirvana, you ask?
Tomato nirvana – for me – would be all of the fresh, raw tomatoes that I could eat in salads and sandwiches, and enough meaty, red beauties coming in to set me up with fifty-two pints of canned sauce. That’s right, fifty-two; a pint a week to see me through the year for spaghetti and lasagna, chili and enchiladas.
I don’t think that that is too much to ask, or too high of a goal to aim for. My garden, though, apparently does.
Oh, we started off well enough this year. I started enough seedlings to guarantee myself twelve tomato plants, which is the number of tomato cages that I have. And I’m not talking big box tomato cages, either. I’m talking five-foot-tall cages, custom made from leftover concrete-reinforcing mesh. I carefully selected the varieties from my favorite seed catalogs, and come May first I was setting my cherished plants into the ground in pairs. It was a little like Noah loading the arc: two Purple Cherokee, two Yellow Taxi, two Amish Paste, two Brown Berry, two Black Plum and two Gourmet Heirloom Blend (the grab bag of tomato seed packets – you never know what you’re going to get! It’s almost August and I still have no idea exactly what I got, except that it’s some kind of cherry variety, which I needed more of like I need a groundhog in the garden…).
Things went along pretty well at first. Yellow Taxi, of course, was the first to start pumping out gorgeous fruit, which is why I love him, and why I will always plant him every year. Anyone out there ever wonder what “short season tomato” means? It means that as soon as you start to really enjoy the tomatoes, the plant starts to die. But I know this about Yellow now, so it’s cool. We have our moments together – the tomato, basil and mozzarella salads, the cucumber and tomato salads – and it’s all good. I never look to can Yellow, even though I’m not daunted by a yellow tomato sauce, because he’s just not that into it. When I hook up with Yellow I know it’s going to be on his terms, and I’m fine with that. He comes, he goes, and leaves me with nothing but memories. I spend late June and early July with Yellow and then I let him go, because by the time Yellow is spent, the reds are coming in, and I’m washing out the canner and rolling up my sleeves.
Which is to say, there is a time for everything in the garden.
When I think of a garden bounty, I think of tomatoes and cucumbers, green beans and eggplants, melons and potatoes, lettuces and broccoli, beets and turnips and greens of all kinds…but the truth is that you don’t have all of these things at once in a cornucopia. In fact it’s less like a cornucopia than it is successive waves of different things. Or, if you’re a winter-frustrated, over-enthusiastic and anxious planter like I am, it’s successive tsunamis. Take this year. First there was the spinach and chard tsunami (I would like to include the peas here, but sadly they were more like a ripple in a baby pool). Then there was the broccoli tsunami, then the cucumber tsunami, the zucchini tsunami, the green bean tsunami and the potato tsunami. Oh there’s overlap, of course, always enough overlap to put together a balanced meal. Still, the truth about the summer garden is that even across the span of a few months there is a season for everything to come into abundance, and with the exception of my dear June Yellow, July is tomato and pepper and eggplant time.
Hello Italian and Mexican meals! Hello water bath canner and sweltering hot kitchen and tomato seeds stuck to the wall in an almighty mess! I love this time of year!
And so it was with a slight apprehension that I took a week-long vacation in July this year. I made arrangements to have the garden watered in exchange for all-you-can-pick fresh produce. It seemed safer than leaving a sprinkler set on a timer. I thought I had all of my bases covered. But, of course, things went awry.
All week, while I was enjoying sunny California, the weather back east was wreaking havoc. I am signed up to receive weather notifications on my cell phone and not a day went by that I wasn’t being informed of severe thunderstorms and flash flood warnings back home. No biggie though. I didn’t worry too much about the garden going limp in the heat. The only problem was that since no one really came to water the garden, no one really harvested anything either. I mean there was some harvesting, but in July you have to harvest a big garden with a basket the size of a dump truck bed and, sadly, no one did.
Everything looked fine on my first pass through the garden when I got back. The tomato plants were heavy with fruit, except for Yellow who was dried-up-shriveled-dead, but as I said, I knew he would be. There were a few big eggplants and literally dozens of bright red Carmen peppers and Mini Chocolate Bell peppers, and my Jalapeños, who suffered quite a bit of rabbit damage earlier this year, were finally showing a good crop of fruit. The cucumbers were done, but then I knew that they would be when I got home. Apart from the fact that there were a lot of tomatoes to harvest and can – again, no surprise – the only real thing that needed to be done was the cleanup, removing the dead cucumber vines, and pulling out the grass that had grown up quickly during the wet week.
It wasn’t until I started actually harvesting those tomatoes, early the next morning, that I realized that while I had been on vacation, the groundhogs that live under the shed in our back yard had eaten half of every ripe tomato they could reach, and even some that they couldn’t reach – that is, until they must have climbed up my super sturdy tomato cages like they were climbing a ladder.
They didn’t exactly fixate on the tomatoes, either. They were equal opportunity looters. There were half-eaten, overripe melons and decapitated green bean plants and bald sweet potato vines…
Bald, you ask? Well, what would you call it if every single leaf had been eaten off of every one of your sweet potato vines, so that they looked like elongated porcupines? I didn’t even recognize them, between their leaflessness and the overgrown grass growing up in them. I actually stood there for a moment, bewildered, thinking, what is this? What was growing here? Why does this look like this? The sweet potatoes aren’t a total disaster. Most of the plants have already been in the ground for ninety days, and I could brush away the dirt at the base of one of the vines and see a big old sweet potato that was quite ready to come up. But still. Porcupine-bald sweet potato vines, when I have never had so much as a single issue growing sweet potatoes in the past. I mean, sweet potatoes are my ace in the hole! I wrote an article for Grit magazine about how to grow sweet potatoes (Nov/Dec 2010)! I once grew a sweet potato the size of a football! I mean, you read my bio, right? Isn’t that why you bought this book?
So I’m staring there in shock, once I understood what had happened, and you know what I thought to myself? That I had read somewhere that the leaves of the sweet potato plant are edible, and that this must prove it, seeing as how there were two groundhogs moseying about my back yard yesterday evening like they owned the place, which I guess they figured they did, having been unbothered by dogs or humans for a solid week.
Anyway, back to my tomatoes…
I harvested everything that was harvestable and let the half-eaten tomatoes and the water-soggy-rotten tomatoes fall to the ground. I still haven’t finished harvesting all of those cherry tomatoes. In fact, I ought to not be writing this at all. The reason I got up at four a.m. this morning was to have time to harvest and weed and can tomatoes before getting on with my normal daily responsibilities. I had two huge baskets full of tomatoes on my counter when I got up this morning, which you would think would be good. And they would have made an impressive photo had it occurred to me to take one. But as I said, I’ve just returned from vacation and I am about photo-ed out.
So I just set about washing them, and squeezing out the seeds, and throwing them into a big pot to start cooking, and…
Well, the thing is, I’m not all that happy with this year’s batch of tomatoes. For one thing I have way too many cherry tomatoes. One plant’s worth is plenty of cherries for me. Six plant’s worth is more than we can eat in salads and the cherry tomatoes just don’t make very good sauce. They’re mainly skin and water and seeds, and there’s no real meat in a cherry tomato. So my sauce so far this summer has been way too watery. But that’s not all. I’m not so sure I like those Purple Cherokee tomatoes either. They’re pretty watery too, at least mine are. The tops are still green and a little hard, while the bottoms of these gigantic suckers are already starting to go bad. Or maybe it’s just all the time they spent this past week clinging to their vines for dear life while they were pelted with rain. And all that purplish color….when I cook all the different tomatoes down it looks more like a pot of barbeque sauce than tomato sauce. In fact, the very first time I did any canning this year, right before I left town, I saw that color and I made barbeque sauce. And it was pretty good. But I’m not looking for fifty-two pints of barbeque sauce. I’m looking for rich, red, thick tomato sauce and frankly I’m just not getting it. The Amish Paste tomatoes look like they would make great sauce on their own, but I only have two plants and I’m not getting enough of them to just can them by themselves. So far I have canned six pints of sauce, and probably have two or three more pints’ worth on the stove as we speak. Which is to say, there is a heck of a distance, right now, between me and tomato nirvana.
Isn’t that always the way? What is that old saying, it’s not the fifty-two pints of tomato sauce that matters, it’s the time you spend planting and weeding, and coaxing and feeding and harvesting and canning and eating…journey, that’s it. It’s not the destination that counts, but the journey. “Journey” is the word that I’m looking for.
Next year I really need to rethink my tomato plant allocation. I’m sticking with my two Yellow Taxis. And I think that I will do one Brown Cherry. And maybe one Purple Cherokee. I’m through with the heirloom grab bag. Too risky. How do I know it’s not a whole packet of cherry varieties? I don’t, and that Gourmet Heirloom Blend strikes me these days as too much risk, and I don’t do risk. So, eight Amish Pastes?
That’s what I’m thinking.
In the meantime, all is not lost. I still have a few months’ worth of picking time, and purple/brownish homemade organic tomato sauce is still better and healthier than anything that I can buy. Plus, I’d already decided that this year I was going to take the bull by the horns and actually meet that goal of fifty-two pints of tomato sauce, sourcing local tomatoes to supplement what’s coming out of my garden, and canning like mad.
Local farmers markets, here I come!
Ten Things I’ve Learned About…
A lot of interesting and unexpected things have happened to me since I started gardening, but by far the weirdest one is this: as my spring crops give way to summer ones, I find myself actually missing turnips.
I know, I know. Turnips? How many of your average Americans these days even know what a turnip is?
I didn’t, or I barely did, the first time I planted them. Having never bought one or eaten one, I barely knew what I was going to do with them. I only planted them because I had seeds for purple top turnips, and I only had the seeds because when I went on my economy-is-failing, oh-my-gosh-what’s-going-to-happen bulk food buying binge in May of ’07 I also stumbled across a rack of seeds and bought a pack of pretty much everything I saw.
Still. Turnips. I was obviously distraught.
I had great success with them that first spring, and it seemed like just as I was starting to figure out what to do with them, they were gone. I peeled them and cut them into cubes, tossed them with olive oil and a sprinkling of sugar, and roasted them with beets and rutabagas, red potatoes and sweet potatoes. I boiled them in water with a spoon full of sugar and mashed them with potatoes. Then once I boiled them in water with a spoon full of sugar and mashed them with boiled carrots, butter and some shredded parmesan cheese. The carrots didn’t mash smoothly, and the turnips made the whole thing a tad bit watery, but transferred to a casserole dish and baked for a little while with more shredded parmesan on top, until the cheese got golden and bubbly – let me tell you, it was delicious. The next morning it was fifty degrees outside when I got up to get ready for work, and about halfway through my commute, I found myself thinking about that turnip and carrot casserole. I thought about it all day, and as soon as I got home, I trooped right out to the garden and pulled a couple of these beautiful and perfect turnips up out of the ground.
Here’s ten things I have learned about growing turnips:
1. They’re really easy to grow, even in less than optimal soil.
2. They grow really fast – fifty days from seed to table.
3. They grow really close together so you can plant a lot of them in a small space.
4. I’ve had many crops of them now and I have yet to see a single pest or pest egg on them; not so much as a bug bite out of the greens.
5. You can eat the bulb raw like an apple (though I haven’t tried this yet) or shred them in salads like a radish (I haven’t tried this either).
6. You can eat the bulb and the greens.
7. They are nutritional powerhouses. They are very high in anticarcinogenic glucosinolates. They contain vitamins B and C, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and other trace nutrients. If you follow an ayurvedic diet, turnips reduce kapha.
8. They are a good root-cellar vegetable. Kept in the proper conditions, you can have them for months into the winter.
9. They grow in spring and in fall (they’re a cool season crop), so you can almost have them all year round.
10. They tend to absorb the flavors of whatever they’re cooked with, which is probably why they are so good with the carrots and the parmesan. Another great idea for turnips is to cook them with carrots and potatoes in a pot roast.
One recent weekend, as I was surveying the garden, I realized that I didn’t plant anywhere near enough turnips. But I still had some open space in the garden and I still had some seeds, so I thought, what the heck? I bet there’s still fifty good days to grow another crop for winter storage. So I put a bunch more seeds in the ground. Sure enough, the little buggers were sprouting up within days.
After my great success with the turnip, I quickly made attempts to expand my palette for root vegetables. One of the first new things I tried to grow was Early Purple Vienna kohlrabi. I had never even tasted one before, and wasn’t entirely sure what it was. But it seemed interesting in the seed catalog – exotic even – and was a cool season vegetable. So I was game.
I sowed the seeds in early August directly into a bed enriched with manure and peat moss along with the turnips and the rutabaga seeds. Because at that point I’d never planted rutabaga before either, and because we had a lot of heavy rain that moved all the seeds around a bit, when all the seedlings first started coming up I found it really hard to differentiate between the three. It wasn’t until it started to form a purple knob right at the base of the plant that it became obvious to me which was the kohlrabi.
When it comes time to harvest them, Kohlrabi are really hard to get out of the ground. You have to cut through the stem at the base of the bulb, and it takes some effort. There’s also a lot of prep work just to get at the goods. There are all the leaves and stalks to clear away, and they have to be peeled, a task which, with their octopus-like arms, presents something of a challenge. So why bother?
Well, here’s my reasons:
1. They are really easy to grow. Pretty much all of the seeds I put in came up.
2. They grow really fast – fifty-five days from seed to table.
3. I never saw a single pest or pest egg on them; not so much as a bug bite out of the greens.
4. You can eat the bulb raw like an apple, slice it for crudité, or shred them in salads like a radish.
5. You can eat the greens.
6. They are a good source of vitamin C and potassium and are low in both sodium and calories.
7. They are a supposedly a good root-cellar vegetable, though I did not end up growing enough to find this out first hand. Kept in the proper conditions, cold (thirty-two to forty degrees) and moist (packed in damp sand or sawdust) they will last for a few months, though not as long as carrots and potatoes.
8. They grow in spring and in fall.
9. Kohlrabi doesn’t have a particularly distinctive flavor of its own. I’ve read it described as having a mild “turnip-cabbage” taste, a “radish taste” and “a crisp turnipy texture and a sweet cucumber taste”. But when I taste it raw it tastes more like a broccoli stalk to me, but less sweet. The real beauty of the kohlrabi is that cooked it has kind of the consistency of a potato, plus it tends to absorb the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with, which makes it an excellent potato substitute in stews and soups.
10. In fact, according to Rebecca Wood’s The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia kohlrabi was “a key staple in eastern Europe until they were deposed by the potato”.
I’ve got some plans for the kohlrabi this upcoming year. I’m going to plant it in the spring and in the fall, and I want to do some serious succession planting this year to try to keep a steady supply of fresh veggies coming in the house for as long as I possibly can. I’ll plant the Early Purple Vienna seeds this spring, and I may plant a few in the fall too for fall eating, but for fall storage I’m going to take the advice of Mike and Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring, Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables and plant either the Grand Duke or White Vienna variety if I can find them. If not, then I’ll scan the seed catalogues for a variety that’s particularly suited for storage. I would like for the kohlrabi to help bridge the potato gap a bit…giving me a potato substitute for a month or two in the spring until I can start harvesting my banana fingerlings. We’ll see how it goes.
1. You know what’s really gross? I mean a real buzz-kill, garden turn-off? Digging potatoes – all happy, clawing into the hill of dirt, all full of yourself like you’re about to pull out gold – and then you sink your fingers up to the knuckle in a mushy, gelatinous rotten potato. And I mean soft like pudding.
Seriously, that is just gross. And I ought to know. I’ve done it this week at least half a dozen times.
I suspect that this is a result of those few days a week or so ago that water from the sprinkler was hitting the potato patch, before I finally moved it, because I know that you’re not supposed to water potatoes, particularly. Then again, I know a lot of things from reading that somehow don’t ever really hit home until I do the wrong thing in spite of what I know. That’s when I really get the picture.
I’ll tell you what I do learn quickly – anything that I Google in a panic.
2. Take a few days ago. Potatoes again. Why do all the Yukon Gold potatoes that I dig up have pink eyes? What is that, rot? Fungus? Disease? Oh my gosh, all my plants are diseased. I’m going to have to throw all of these potatoes away. I feel so stupid!
Google “pink spots on Yukon Gold potatoes”.
Turns out this is a normal feature of the Yukon Gold. The potatoes are fine. Whew!
3. Last year I learned all about solanine after harvesting green banana fingerlings, and now I’m a solanine expert. I make doggone sure no light can get to those potatoes. I know that apparently you’d have to eat like 5 pounds of green potatoes before you’d really get sick from it. Basically I know my way around one more thing that probably wouldn’t have killed me anyway.
4. I know that Red Caribe potatoes, which are classified as early – sixty-five days to maturity – really are early. I know that next year I’m not planting all my potatoes in April. I’m going to do some plants in April, and some in May, and some in June, with the June potatoes being those I mean to keep for storage. And I don’t think I’m going to go with Yukon Gold, either. I’m going to look for something big and thick-skinned and hearty, like a russet.
Last year, all of my potato plants had already died back by late June. I harvested potatoes like crazy, and was done before July. Definitely poor planning on my part. It’s unlikely that I’ll have potatoes through the winter. But hey, Last year I had more potatoes than the year before that, and as long as we eat them all before they go bad, then that’s one for the win-some column, right?
5. I learned that potatoes need to be cured for about ten days with humidity in a moderate (about sixty-five degrees or so) temperature before being put away for storage, ideally at something like forty-five degrees). I learned that in the living room floor, behind the wood burning stove, in front of the air conditioning vent in the floor is currently the best place in my house for curing my potatoes. It’s sixty-nine down there. That’s the coolest temperature I’m probably going to find inside. Close enough. They’re in cardboard boxes, with a damp towel draped over them for humidity.
6. Ladybugs eat potato bug larvae. Love and respect the ladybug. The ladybug is your friend.
7. You have to “hill” potatoes. Start when the plants are about six inches high. Use a hoe and pull the surrounding dirt up around the base of the plant. Do it again a few weeks later. The potatoes don’t grow down into the dirt like sweet potatoes; they grow out from the sides of the base of the growing plant, above the level of the dirt where you planted the seed potato in the first place. Hilling the potato plants will give them plenty of cool darkness to grow in.
8. Once the potatoes are all up, you’re left with an area with relatively few weeds. Between my compulsive hilling (over-hilling as it turns out) and covering the hills with straw so that no light can possibly touch a potato, no weeds really grew in that area.
9. Growing horseradish really does keep potato beetles away. I have three horseradish plants growing outside with my potatoes and this has been my first potato-beetle-less season. Horseradish will tend to sprawl out into as much space as you let it, so unless you want your carefully chosen and tended garden to turn into a giant patch of horseradish, you’ll want to either put it in a big pot and set the pot in amongst your potatoes, or plant it in the ground inside a bottomless container, like a gallon coffee can with no top or bottom, or an old plastic pot with the bottom sawn out.
10. Never plant potatoes in the same place two years in a row. The soil can harbor diseases for several years. You should rotate where you are planting them so that the soil is potato-less (and tomato-less!) for several years between plantings.
That’s my ten, however I do have a few bonus thoughts to offer:
Driving twenty minutes each way down the road and back for one or two bales of straw at a time is a pain in the butt. It’s just too time and labor intensive. My local nursery delivers, so I’ve decided to get serious.
I called them today and placed an order over the phone. They’re bringing me ten bales of straw and a bunch of compost. The compost will go into the empty potato beds, which will then receive a heavy layer of straw, to keep them weed-free until I need to plant them again.
And my final thought is this: you have never, never, tasted how good a potato is until you’ve pulled a new potato out of the ground just minutes before cooking it. It is so mellow, sweet, and wonderful, you will no longer be able to reconcile those knobby things you buy in a supermarket with what comes out of your garden. The difference is so profound, that for an entire year after I first grew potatoes, once my own potatoes were gone, I refused to buy any from a supermarket. I mean, what was the point? They weren’t potatoes – they were something pretending to be potatoes, and more often than not they had thick, green skins. I have been an enthusiastic potato grower for several years. I have about forty-eight plants blooming out back right now, and it’s getting to be about time to start feeling around for those new potatoes.
New potatoes are the taste of summer!
One of my greatest successes in the garden has been the sweet potato. The first year that I grew them, I knew exactly nothing about it. But here’s what I know now.
1. If you don’t know the first thing about gardening, and you don’t see yourself fussing with your soil ph or spending all of your weekends weeding, then the sweet potato is the crop for you. This is the kind of gardener that I am. I can only take so much research and so much science before I have to just shove something in the ground and see what happens. So I love sweet potatoes. They will grow in almost any kind of dirt and will grow in all fifty states. I have never seen a pest on a sweet potato. And though I have been tempted to weed them for aesthetic reasons, you can let the grass and weeds get knee-high amongst the vines and you will still get a good yield. Trust me. I’ve done this.
2. The sweet potato is actually not a potato! The potato is the underground part of the potato plant’s stem, which has thickened and which provides food for the growing plant. The potato belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family whose other members include tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and tomatillos. The sweet potato, though, is a root. It is a member of the Convolvulaceae family, and is closely related to the Morning Glory.
3. The sweet potato does not have “eyes” or buds on its outer surface, and it is not started from “seed potatoes” the way that regular potatoes are. When you plant sweet potatoes, what you’re actually planting are “slips”, which are shoots that grow from a mature sweet potato. Sweet potato slips can be ordered from a reputable seed company, or you can start your own at home. You can also propagate new plants by taking cuttings. Snip off at least six inches from a mature vine and place the cutting in water. When roots appear, the vine can be transplanted to a container or moved out to your garden.
4. Once the slips are in the ground, pretty much all you need to do is to wait. No need to feed or fertilize, which will just increase the growth of the foliage when what you really want to grow is the roots. So just plant them and leave them alone. The vines will grow and fill in like a ground-cover.
5. Sweet potato vines bloom! They produce beautiful purple flowers that look like the morning glory.
6. Sweet potatoes mature in about a hundred days. As the potatoes grow, you may begin to see furrows in the ground where the vine meets the root and the tips of the tubers may be pushing up above the soil line.
7. To get the tubers out of the ground, move the dirt away from the base of each vine until some of the tubers are clearly exposed. You can simply dig them out with your hands, going down far enough to be able to lift them out one by one, or if your soil is loose enough you can use a pitchfork to lift them straight out of the ground by the vines. On its best day my soil has never been loose enough to do this.
8. They can stay in the ground until the first frost. But if they are still in the ground when the first frost hits, they should be pulled up and brought in immediately.
9. Sweet potatoes are surprisingly delicate and thin-skinned, and it’s really easy to knick and scratch them with your fingernails as you’re pulling them out of the ground. It’s also really easy, when trying to dig them up, to break off an end. But if you do – no big deal. Because these open wounds close over with a kind of white scab. This is called “corking”.
10. The curing process makes the sweet potato sweeter by changing some of the potato’s starches to sugars. If you want to keep your crop around for awhile, curing is an important step. Do not wash potatoes. Sweet potatoes should be exposed to warm temperatures (eighty to eighty-five degrees) and high humidity, which will allow their skins to toughen. If you have a good stretch of days without rain, you may want to just leave them outside on the ground in the hot, humid summer air. An alternative is to place them somewhere warm and cover them with a damp towel for ten to fourteen days, remoistening the towel as necessary. I would advise against putting the damp cloth directly on the sweet potatoes. Instead, put the potatoes in a cardboard box and drape the cloth across the top of the box. I once lost quite a few sweet potatoes to rot by draping a too-damp cloth over them for days. At the end of the curing process, you should prepare your sweet potatoes for storage by wrapping them individually in newspaper or in brown paper lunch bags. They can then be packed into open cardboard boxes or into baskets or crates for storage. Sweet potatoes need to be kept cool and dry. Fifty to sixty degrees is ideal, though they will keep for several months at closer to seventy before beginning to sprout. Kept below fifty, they may suffer injury from the cold.
My first year growing sweet potatoes, I started from a point of absolute ignorance, and I ate my own home-grown sweet potatoes from July of that year until the following March!
I never make the same mistake twice.
I make new ones.
Or else I just fall victim to the vicissitudes of nature.
Like so many things I’ve tried in the garden, my relationship with onions began on a whim. I was at the garden store a few springs ago, picking up some nasturtiums to plant with my tomatoes and peppers, and I happened to see one lone pot of Spanish onions just sitting there, and I thought, onions! Why not! So I took them home and planted them, in the very beginning of May.
1. Onions don’t need much attention. After getting them in the ground, I pretty much left them alone. I would check them out when I was outside making my rounds and they always seemed to be doing fine. They were growing. They began to form quite large bulbs, and I felt pretty good about the whole project.
2. My mistake that year was in leaving them in the ground for too long. They had started to fall over, but the green tops hadn’t died off, and in my limited understanding I thought that the green had to turn brown and fall over before I could pull them from the ground, and I sure wasn’t expecting them to be ready to harvest in July. But they were. Spanish onions take about a hundred and five days to mature.
The good news was that I had managed to successfully grow onions! The bad news was that I didn’t even get the pleasure of being the first one to pull them out of the ground.
I was in the kitchen when I saw my husband from the window, walking up from the garden with his arms full of onions. I nearly had a fit.
“What are you doing!” I shrieked at him. “They’re not ready! The tops aren’t brown! Their skins aren’t papery!”
“Some of them are rotting,” he said. “These were all sitting above ground. I think they’re done.”
“Then you’re not supposed to bring them in! I think you’re supposed to pull them up and leave them out there to dry up or something…”
3. Leaving the onions out to dry in the hot summer dirt does help them to form the papery skins that make them store well. But you can eat them even if you don’t take this step.
I wasn’t really upset with my husband, of course. I was upset at myself for being so unprepared to deal with them. I went back out the next day and there were two more decent ones, which I pulled up and left to lay there in the hot dirt for the day. They actually dried up on the outside and did get papery, and so I set them in the vestibule in front of an open window to get a few more days of hot air.
We did manage to produce onions, and we ate what we grew. But we only got half the crop that we should have. Still, I was optimistic. I felt well-prepared to do better the following year.
What went wrong, you wonder?
By the beginning of May, my onions were bolting. As soon as I saw this, I knew it was bad. So I did a little research.
4. It seems that temperature fluctuations will “fool” an onion plant into thinking it has gone through two growing seasons instead of one, and it will flower – or “bolt” – prematurely. I put my green onions in in March that year, and over the next few months we had weeks of forty and fifty-degree weather, alternating with weeks of the high nineties. Was there anything I could do about it?
5. My first thought was to cut the flowers off, but apparently once this process has started, cutting the flower off won’t make a difference. The onions will never fully develop, and they will be completely unsuitable for storage.
But I did do a few things.
6. First off, when these tiny buds finally opened, I learned what an onion flower looks like, first hand. It was a beautiful spray of tiny white flowers. I cut them and brought them inside to a vase and enjoyed them immensely.
Second, I harvested all the small onions over the next few weeks and we ate them. The little suckers made one heck of a shish kabob.
And for my next onion crop?
7. I’m going to look for a variety that is well suited to my climate and growing zone. Generally speaking, there are two types of onions, “long day” onions for northern latitudes, and “short day” onions for southern latitudes. Because I garden in Maryland and, depending upon the weather in any given year either of these types might do well for me, I think I’ll try one of each and see what happens.
8. Because the roots of onions are shallow, they don’t do well if they have to compete with weeds and grass. Careful weeding of onions is important, especially when the onions are still small. Keeping my garden grass and weed free is my number one priority this year.
9. In frost-free areas, onion seeds can be planted at the end of the summer for a fall crop. Last year. Maryland almost was a frost-free area. We had temperatures in the fifties, sixties and seventies for much of the winter. I don’t know what this winter will bring, but I might gamble and put some onion seeds in the ground this August, in hopes of a fall/winter crop.
10. Did you know that onions are on the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Clean Fifteen produce list (http://www.foodnews.org/)? So if you fall victim to any of the same onion catastrophes that I have, you can still feel pretty confident that if you have to buy them, you’re not filling up your or your family’s bodies with pesticides.
So, we’re sitting on the sofa one evening, while our winter-sown rye burgeons outside in one patch of the garden, and my husband says, “Oh, so and so told me that you have to be careful with rye not to let it mold. He said that if you let it mold then it becomes poisonous.”
“He said that mold on rye has an LSD-like effect if you eat it.”
“So-and-so number two has heard about it too.”
Well I hadn’t heard about it. I am SO not eating the rye. Why is it that it seems like there is nothing you can do these days that isn’t going to rearrange or damage you, that is, if it doesn’t kill you off entirely?
I suggested that we just let it do its job as a groundcover for the winter and pull it up in the spring and be done with it, but my husband resisted. We both want to get the most out of the land we have, and if we’re going to grow something we prefer that it be something that we can harvest or eat.
“What about green potatoes?” he countered. “Aren’t they poisonous? You didn’t stop growing potatoes when you learned about that.”
“But it’s easy to see if the potatoes are green. I just throw the green ones away.”
“Well it’s easy to see the mold on the rye too. If we have any moldy rye we just won’t eat it.”
“Can you see the mold on the rye?”
It would appear that some research was in order.
In fact, the mold on rye issue is not the first thing that I have had to research regarding the safety of the food that I am growing, and it’s not my first garden safety panic. I learned about solanine in potatoes, the chemical that’s present in them when they are exposed to the sun during their development. When I saw similar greening on a sweet potato I was concerned, but apparently sweet potatoes don’t produce solanine. And I read something about how parsnips don’t start out poisonous (not during their first growing season or even if left in ground and over-wintered) but apparently at some point in their life cycle they become poisonous. This is too much risk for me. What if I don’t get it right? So we don’t grow parsnips.
In fact, it’s crossed my mind to wonder about everything that I’ve grown this year that I have never grown before. Could this be poisonous? Could some bizarre, hitherto-unheard-of cross-pollination have occurred that might have made this variety of kale that I have never seen in my life before take me out?
Oh yeah. I am super paranoid about these things.
But I’m learning.
This is trying to be an informative chapter about one aspect of growing rye, and it is, but it’s also something else. It’s also a segue to a philosophical revelation – that we get a false sense of security in the modern world that the things that we eat are not only safe but that they’re supposed to be, that safety is a quality that is somehow inherent in the world, and that we are somehow entitled to it.
At least it used to seem that way. In these days of melamine in dog food and baby formula, toxic red paint on kids’ toys, off-gassing Chinese drywall and the barrage of chemicals assaulting our food under the guise of being “ingredients”, the innocent faith of my youth on this issue has pretty much been lost.
Safety isn’t inherent in the world and we are not automatically entitled to it. It’s taken who knows how many thousands of years for human beings to determine and catalog and pass along information about what can be eaten safely and what can’t. When it comes to plucking a food right off the vine, or out of the ground, or from a tree, most of this knowledge has been lost to most of us for quite some time. But it is recoverable. And anyway, most of what’s available in a supermarket these days is not harmless either. What’s inherent in nature is danger; and death is inherent in life. We each only get so much time before we’re sickened by solanine (if we eat almost five pounds of green potatoes at one sitting – an unlikely occurrence) or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (after how many years of consumption? Twenty? Thirty? Forty?). All we can do is to learn as much about ourselves and the world around us and how to use it as we can, and then try to make smart choices, something that it’s getting harder and harder to do these days, since we’re surrounded by bad choices pretty much all the time.
My choice is this. As much as possible I want to produce and grow my own food. And since I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that my biggest garden pest is my own ignorance, that’s the one I’m going to fight. Here are the facts on the rye:
1. Cereal rye is an excellent winter cover crop because it rapidly produces a ground cover that keeps soil from being washed away by wind and water.
2. Rye’s deep roots improve the soil. They help prevent compacting of soil in fields that are tilled annually. Rye’s roots are pretty extensive, so rye also has a positive effect on soil tilth. A soil’s “tilth” refers to its general suitability to support plant growth (its composition, nutrient value, etc.)
3. Rye is the most winter-hardy of all cereal grains. Once established, it can persevere in temperatures as low as thirty degrees.
4. Yes you can see the mold. Google “mold on rye” and check out some pictures. It’s the black stuff where the golden kernels should be. But before you run outside and start scattering your rye seeds this fall, make sure you read all the way to the end of this chapter, because even though you can see the mold, avoiding it is apparently not that simple!
5. Ergot is more common on rye than on other grains, but does appear on other grains – wheat, sorghum, millet, etc. So this is something to look into with any grain that we might consider planting.
6. It turns out that rye has an amazing history. I believe that the information passed on to us about the hallucinogenic properties of mold on rye are because it was from rye mold that LSD was first produced by Albert Hoffman in 1948, who was at the time looking for antibiotic substances in fungi. But that does not even begin to be the whole of the story.
7. Ergot of Rye is a plant disease that is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. The proportion of the compounds produced varies within the species, which means that you might live through consuming it – or you might not. There are two types of ergot poisoning, convulsive and gangrenous. With convulsive ergotism the victim suffers from nervous dysfunction, characterized by writhing, twisting and contorting their body in pain, trembling and shaking, and the fixed twisting of the neck. There can also be muscle spasms, confusions, delusions and hallucinations. Gangrenous ergotism causes gangrene by constricting the blood vessels leading to the extremities, where infections occur, accompanied by burning pain. Once gangrene has set in, the affected body part becomes mummified, and will eventually fall off. Nasty, huh?
8. Rye wasn’t cultivated for food until sometime in the early Middle Ages. The first major outbreak of gangrenous ergotism was documented in 857 A.D. in the Rhine Valley – though at the time they didn’t know what it was, or what caused it. Numerous epidemics followed, because of the continual consumption of rye – rye being the staple crop of the poor. It wasn’t until 1670 that a French physician, Dr. Thuillier, asserted that the condition was not in fact an infectious disease, but was due to the consumption of rye infected with ergot. And in 1853, Louis Tulasne, an early mycologist and illustrator, worked out the life cycle for the Ergot of Rye. It is theorized that ergot of rye has played a role in the outcomes of wars, in the effects of the bubonic plague, and most fantastically, in the persecution of people for practicing “witchcraft” (i.e., the Salem Witch Trials). Even in the twentieth century there have been outbreaks of ergotism, with the last known example occurring on August 12, 1951 in Pont-St. Esprit, in Provence, France.
9. Apparently ergotism is now rare, and there is a floatation method for cleaning rye seeds. The ergot stage is buoyant and any seeds infected with the fungus will float to the top and can be skimmed off. Additionally, to minimize the amount of ergot formation, after the rye has been harvested, the field is deeply ploughed to prevent the germination of the ergot, and a crop is then planted which is not susceptible to ergot, which will break the cycle of any ergot that may have survived the previous year’s ploughing.
10. There is no variety of Rye that is resistant to ergot.
Rye bread, anyone?
So now that I am armed with some actual information, I still think that this potential issue is probably more than I want to deal with. My husband is disappointed. He was looking forward to making our own rye bread. To him it’s not a problem. Our new-found awareness alone is enough. If we can see it – and it seems that we can – then we don’t use the black grains. To me, it’s not so clear cut. To what extent is that ergot there before it becomes visually obvious? I’m not sure. How much do you have to consume before it actually is an issue? And I don’t have any way to use potassium chloride at home to float the infected grains. And if I have to float them, rather than just picking them off because I can see that they’re infected, then I may be right in my proposition that just seeing the infection may not be enough. I haven’t been able to find any advice on how to grow rye at home, and how to ensure that you don’t accidentally ingest any ergot, plus since it will live in the soil and return the following season if I don’t plow deeply enough and rotate my crops properly, at this point, growing rye to eat seems, well, risky – and I am risk averse.
So I’m pretty sure at this point that the rye is going to be relegated to the role of cover crop/green manure and that it’s getting plowed under in the early spring, no harm no foul, to make way for something that I can grow in total confidence.
I’ll admit that whenever I first encounter any kind of garden pest I go into a kind of anxiety paralysis. I think that I want so much for things to go well, and as I’m still fairly new at all of this gardening stuff, I tend to drift towards seeing everything as success or failure in the moment, rather than everything just being part of the process; as if by the very fact that I have garden pests I am a failure as a gardener.
Of course this could not be further from the truth.
Insects are as much a part of the garden as the plants, and even though there are a number of insects that I routinely kill on sight, I have also enjoyed the opportunity to see just how beautiful, and how voracious, some of them are. Here’s ten things I’ve learned about insects in the garden.
1. The more garden space you use, the more plants you have, the more pests your garden is going to attract.
2. Harlequin Beetles are bad. They will target your brassicas. Don’t let them fool you just because they are strikingly beautiful. They have a shield-shaped body that’s a reddish orange color with black spots. Ignore them at your peril. I have a photograph somewhere of a Brussels sprouts plant that is so infested with Harlequin Beetles that you can’t even see the plant. Don’t let this happen to you. The very first time you see one of these little buggers, allow yourself a moment to admire his beauty – and then start smushing.
3. Cross-Striped Cabbage Worms are bad. They, too, are beautiful. They are black and yellow and white, and they, too, will go after your brassicas. Use the same procedure described above – first admire, then smush.
4. Those velvety, pale green caterpillars on your broccoli plants are bad. They are the larvae of the cabbage moth, a white moth which you have probably seen flitting about your garden. At this point I’m pretty sure that there is no caterpillar-looking thing on earth that should be left to mind its business on any of your crops. They will eat you out of house and home.
5. The brown and yellow striped beetles on your potato plants are bad. They are Colorado Potato Beetles. They, too, are stunningly beautiful. But they have to go. Consider planting horseradish with your potatoes, as it is supposed to repel them. There is also a variety of hybrid potato from Cornell University called King Harry which has been bred to be resistant to the potato beetle.
6. The brick-red and black spotted grub-like things on your potato plants are the larvae of the Colorado Potato Beetle, and they’re even worse than their parents. Left to their own devices they will defoliate your potato plants. I pick them off and smush them by hand. This is an activity that really gets you in touch with your primal side. It’s a gross task that requires a certain amount of “live and let die” determination. It also requires a certain amount of technique. My approach is to fold over the leaf they are on and to pinch them inside of it. For the most part this keeps the goo off of my hands. If the potato beetle larvae get a head start on you, don’t worry too much. A potato plant can lose up to thirty percent of its foliage before the yield (how many potatoes you’re going to get) is affected.
7. Squash bugs are bad. Fortunately, they’re also ugly, so there’s one less step for you. They are grayish in color, with a shield-shaped beetle body. They’re harder to squash between your fingers. Sometimes I take a jar of soapy water outside with me, and drop them into it after I pluck them off my plants. You’ll find them primarily on your squash and cucumbers. Be warned: once I tried to kill them by slapping an infested cucurbit leaf between my two hands. That was a bad idea. Cucurbit leaves have very fine spines on them that you don’t really notice until your hands are filled with them, and are burning and itching with the pain of being pricked by hundreds of needles that are too tiny to see.
8. Aphids are bad. These are very tiny whitish insects that you may find on your tomato plants. Ladybugs eat aphids. I have had aphids on my tomato plants but have never done anything about it, because the ladybugs have done it for me. If you try to dig up your plants from the garden and put them into pots to keep indoors over the winter, you’re probably going to end up with many, many aphids in your house.
9. Ladybugs, bees, butterflies, and the praying mantis are all beneficial insects. Encourage bees by planting a lot of flowers in your garden amongst your veggies.
10. Don’t panic or get discouraged until you know exactly what your insect pest problem is and what actions you might be able to take to mitigate it. Chances are, once you have that information, you’ll be too busy solving your problem to panic about it anyway.
Try to conjure an image in your mind of rural life, of a homestead, of a farm. Let your inner eye peruse the scene: the fields, the buildings, the animals, the fencing, the garden, the tools and the equipment. Is there by any chance a chicken strutting past you? Do you see a pig caked in mud? A weathervane in the shape of a rooster, spinning in the breeze at the apex of the red barn? Really get into the details. Go into the barn. The garden. The paddock. The fields. What image do you associate the mostly strongly with the self-sufficient life?
The first time that I really felt like I was breaking out of the typical suburban lifestyle was the day I first went in search of straw.
I mean, straw is just not something that you see, use, or need in the suburbs, and until we began to garden seriously, I had never given a moment’s consideration to straw. It wasn’t until I received some advice about mulching my tomato plants that I began to consider it, and even then I procrastinated for weeks. My reasons for procrastinating were various: the place where I knew I could get it (which wasn’t, in the end, where I got it) is not on any of my usual routes; I drive a small compact car; and perhaps most of all there was the sense of unease at doing something unfamiliar. But one day I said, enough of all that. I finally bucked up and got serious, and went in search of straw.
I drove out to the out-of-the-way place where I’d seen bales of it for sale, and no one was there. It was about 9:15 on a Saturday morning – too early, apparently. So I made a huge loop back towards the house, with the idea of stopping at the couple of country road nurseries not too far from my house to see if they sold straw. I’d been to the first nursery a number of times and never seen any, but on that day as I pulled into the lot, lo and behold a guy was walking out towards the parking lot carrying a big bale of it!
I asked him if he could get me some straw, and he looked at my car, and then back at me, doubtfully.
“You’re going to put it in that?”
“I can put some in the trunk,” I told him. I opened the trunk and he peered inside. “Could I get two bales in there?” I asked him.
“You might be able to get one in there.”
“I can put some in the front seat too,” I said. “And some in the back.”
“With a child in there?”
“Well just in the front seat then. One in the front and one in the trunk.”
“In your car?”
“Sure, if you want to,” he said. “If you want to get mites in your car, I’ll put it in there for you. You know straw has mites it in it. You’ll get mites all over your car.”
“Well, just give me one then. Put it in the trunk.”
So he went and got the bale of straw for the dumb blond, and I picked up some slow release organic tomato food (something else I’d been avoiding doing) and a few yellow crookneck squash plants and headed home, thinking all the time about mites.
I appreciated the information, but gosh, he could have told me all of that in a way that didn’t make me feel so … um … stupid.
Well, let me tell you something – when I got home that day with my first bale of straw and pulled that thing out of my trunk, I was astonished at the mess. Boy am I glad I didn’t fill my car up with it. I didn’t think that I would ever get all that straw out of the trunk of my car. And it didn’t do much for my sinuses either … or maybe I just had mites up my nose.
But I did end up going back for more straw, because one bale was not enough to mulch the garden, and once that first bale was down, and temporarily covering up all of my unsightly weeds, I couldn’t wait to get another and to finish the job. Over the course of that summer and that fall I went back again and again. The following Spring, by my third trip, the same guy who had cautioned me about mites was automatically bringing up a bale of straw when he saw me. We talked flagstone. I asked his advice about planting my tomatoes. It’s not just straw that I became more comfortable with. I became more comfortable with gardening and more comfortable with myself.
One morning as I was out in the garden checking on the state of things, I crouched down to get closer to a tomato plant and I heard the straw talking to me. It was a rustling whisper; it spoke of burgeoning activity going on there invisible to the naked eye; the ongoing work of the soil, the scurry of insects, the pushing of plants past their boundaries to grow ever onwards, upwards and out.
All of that – or else it was dry straw being rubbed against the dry newspaper underneath of it, which had been put down (and originally wet down) to try to help cut down on the weeds. Sure enough, when the wind died for a moment, the murmur of the garden died too. And the not-quite-so-dumb-as-last-year blond had her answer.
Here’s ten things I’ve learned about straw:
1. It is nearly impossible to get straw out of the trunk of a car.
2. Lawn and garden size garbage bags pulled down over either end of the bale of straw will cut down on about ninety percent of the mess of putting a bale of straw in the trunk of your car.
3. Yes, straw can have mites. Straw Itch Mites are a very small parasitic mite which lives off of the bodily fluids of the larvae and adults of other small insects.
4. You can’t see mites with the naked eye. Usually you aren’t aware that mites are around until you’ve been bitten many times. The bites won’t kill you, but they’ll make you mighty uncomfortable and itchy.
5. Mulching with straw will not completely eradicate weeds or grass from your garden. Eventually, they’ll grow up through it. There’s a reason why landscapers put down straw on top of freshly sown grass seed, and it isn’t to keep the seed from sprouting.
6. If you have a lot of straw in your garden, you’re going to attract small animals. One spring morning, I went out to check on the state of things in the garden, and I was dismayed to find that something had not only been chomping on the leaves of my strawberry plants, but had also gone fussing through my garlic. It looked as if whatever it was had managed to eat half a dozen of the garlic plants. It had left behind a little cave of straw and a bunch of muddy footprints. My guess was rabbit, because we have them in the yard every year, usually in a burrow under one of our sheds. I poked around the garden fence some and I found the spot where they must have come in, where there was about a two-inch gap between the bottom of the rabbit guard wire and the ground. I plugged it up and inspected the perimeter of the fence and it all seemed okay. There was no further damage the next night, so I assumed that the buffet was now closed. But I was wrong. Some days later, I was moving some straw around in the garden and I unearthed a rabbit’s nest with four baby rabbits in it. That was end of me and mulching with straw.
7. Over the course of a year, even a pretty big pile of straw will completely decompose into your soil.
8. If you compost, straw is considered to be “brown”.
9. Potatoes are a good crop to mulch with straw. Even if you’ve hilled them properly, a thick covering of straw will ensure that no light will hit your potatoes and turn them green.
10. A little kid will spend hours – and I mean hours – playing with straw.
Thank you for reading my confessions! If you enjoyed them, I would appreciate it if you would leave a review wherever you downloaded this book.
Also, if you have young children, please visit www.littleantbooks.com to download a free Little Ant and the Butterfly Coloring Book for them. Then take them out to the garden with you to see if they can find Little Ant!
S.M.R. Saia is a mother, gardener, author, and entrepreneur, whose professional experience in the book world includes owning a corporate book fair business and freelancing as a self-publishing coach. She has a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland, and an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. For the past several years she has worked developing Common Core aligned Language Arts Worksheets for K – 12, using creative strategies to present, teach, and provide students with an opportunity to practice grade-appropriate Language Arts concepts and skills. Her latest project involves Little Ant, a stuck-up and sometimes hasty insect with a tendency to learn things the hard way. Learn more at www.littleantbooks.com.
A garden can become an obsession. Like a great romance, it contains elements of both inevitability and insurmountable odds. Like a great love, it is both comfortably familiar and always surprising. In this slim volume of tell-all confessions, the author shares how she lost the heart of her favorite eggplant, how she took advantage of her radishes' loyalty and affection, how her cucumbers avenged themselves, and more. Sprinkled with gardening insights and ideas, these humorous essays are a delight for anyone who has ever invested her heart into a garden.