Gardening for the Table

For those new readers out there, I tend a hard won bed at a community garden. Two actually, one which I built and payed to fill which is about 4×12, and the neighboring 5×12 foot bed which I took over after proving my worth building the first. Combined this is about the same space as the other plots. Although this space is just about right for me, I kind of think it’s too much for most people. I have seen many a bolted and flowering broccoli and lettuce since I’ve been gardening here, and every time it kills me.

There’s a million ways to lose track in the garden, particularly here where it’s a year round caper. I know as well as anybody how quickly good intentions, careful planning, and earnest beginnings can unravel in the light of day. I always plan my gardens, heavily.

I never follow my plans.

who can resist Orange Fantasia chard?

Planning is so damn fun! I just sit there with my coffee, my graph pad and my pencil and give form to my dreams. Seed catalogs are juicy love letters written just to me. I scale out my beds, of course, but also have been known to make elaborate charts of planting dates, transplanting dates, harvest windows and even approximated consumption and storage periods in order to determine how much of what to grow and when.

And then I proceed to disregard it all.

When it comes time and the weather is finally just right, I am always behind. I lose track of the dates, forget to bring my garden map with me, realize that although I pored over the seed catalog when it arrived in January, I never actually made an order and don’t have the seed I need. I buy starts from the market on a whim and try to fit them somewhere. Inevitably many crops take longer or shorter than I thought they would and I find myself with extra space or not enough accordingly.

I started gardening more than 12 years ago, and like any novice I thought it would take me awhile to get the hang of it. Like maybe a few years. Then I’d know what I was doing. In 5 years I’d be a pro, right?

I often feel like I lose ground every year. The more I put seeds in the dirt and watch them grow or not grow, the more confused I get. Of course, moving to the other side of the continent didn’t help, but even my last year in Alaska, my 10th garden, I was thinking ‘What the fuck?’ all season long.

Gardening for the table. It sounds simple. It sounds like what we’re all out to do, right? A no-brainer for gals like us. Maybe a few flowers, to put on the table, but mostly we go for food. The vegetable porn stars of those seed catalog fold outs.

We wet our panties over the catalogs, get high on coffee over our graph tablets, and devise perfect Degas-like scenes of vegetable Edens.

Two months later the radishes wither in the back of the fridge.

Because oh my dear god those French Breakfast radishes are a still life in my hand when I pull them up. My heart leaps as I wash the dirt off to reveal their watercolor perfection. I adore them.

To look at.

Eating…. Not so much.

so pretty, but for breakfast? really?

Tomatoes, the ripe luscious swollen beauties I remember from Italy, why do the tomatoes I grow never taste like that? And why do my occasionally successful homegrowns melt into a puddle in the fridge? And more to the point, why do I keep growing them in such numbers????

When people in Alaska would ask for advice on what to plant in their first garden, I would always recommend kale. My girl-next-door. Here it’s collards. Holy shit is it collards. Three plants, 12 months, all the greens I could eat and then some for the neighbor.

portugese cabbage, a soft mellow collard cousin. Lovely, but did i really need this plant?

But really, most people don’t eat many greens. The best answer to ‘what should I grow’ will always be a tightrope walk of what grows good in your area and, not to be underestimated, what do you like to eat?

Before you even pick up a seed catalog, consider what you currently actually buy at the grocery store. What vegetables are your staples? And what vegetables do you buy yourself as a treat? The dizzying array of winter squashes, each with their own distinct cosmic pattern, is nothing but a siren if you don’t cook squash. Burgundy okra, who knew? And given that there are 27 varieties of lettuce, shouldn’t I plant at least 5?

This is not an original thought. It’s a cliche of course, you’ve heard it a million times. All the gardening book cliches– start small, plant what you like to eat, don’t fall prey to catalog temptresses– are so true. They’re so true that we don’t even listen. ‘Oh yeah, of course. Well, that’s too obvious.’ we say smugly to ourselves, somehow feeling exempt from this classic advice. Then we lay down $85 for seeds and make another pot of coffee.

But I say it again. To you beginners, to you old timers, and especially to myself. Although some playfulness is absolutely necessary, for the most part I want to grow food that will make it to the table. Food that I will cook, not just in theory, but at 4:30 when I was supposed to start dinner half an hour ago. Food that myself and My Man and even the kiddos will eat.

future pink pancakes

Here’s our list, ranked for edibility in the real world:

  • onions
  • carrots
  • cabbage
  • broccoli
  • garlic
  • peas
  • beans
  • peppers
  • salads
  • chard
  • collards
  • beets
  • winter squash
  • sauce tomatoes

.And although I will continue to order French Breakfast radishes and plant them in open spaces in the garden, I vow to stop telling myself the fairy tale about how I love to eat them. I fess up. I grow radishes because they’re pretty.

9 thoughts on “Gardening for the Table

  1. Love this post. So true. (Except I can only relate to the catalog drooling and over-buying and then to gorgeous food rotting in the fridge–but not mine, which never grows because I don’t have enough sun.)

    I have, however, learned a trick to get me to finish the whole gorgeous bunch of radishes. Grated, mixed into butter, spread on bread, then salted. Delicious. I’d even eat it for breakfast.

  2. I am growing French Breakfast radishes this cool season!! I like to eat radishes, but it’s not something I buy often (nobody else here eats them), so maybe I’ll find myself with pretty photos and then wasted radishes too?? (Though Lise’s idea sounds good!) Our collards went nuts last year and in the end I ripped them out, because we were not eating enough and aphids were breeding in them!

    I have a seed addiction. I love seeds, I love growing from seed, I love biodiversity, I love anything labelled ‘rare’ and ‘heirloom’, and I am willing to give anything a try! I have found that trying to grow too many different things at once, esp. as a beginner garderner, means something is going to be sacrificed and not given the time they require… but others things will be an exciting discovery, worth having ‘thrown a few seeds in’!

    I am also finding that things that can be preserved or stored, or that others will happily take off your hands, are worth growing because there is less waste that way.

  3. Mmm, radish/butter sandwich. Fabulous! I never grow enough lettuce, onions or parsley. I finally got the garlic figured out. I always end up planting things I know I won’t eat. I can’t help myself. I’m hopeless =0

  4. I always put in way too much silverbeet (swiss
    chard) because it grows so well in parts of the
    garden that don’t get much sun in winter. Then
    I force it on friends for months unless I’m
    forcing it into my reluctant husband by way of
    curries. Too many eggplants in summer – I’m
    the only one who likes it. And it’s possble to
    plant too much basil – 20 plants going to seed
    at the moment. Russian kale – looks so cute,
    tastes like shit (all dozen plants)! Time to
    order those seed catalogues again…

  5. Love it. I just planted my first big vegie garden in the spring just gone – and I learned this lesson big time. Why did I not put in 100 corn seeds, instead of just the 10? i also over-indulged in the spunky silverbeet – but I’ll do it again, because they are so spunky, and successful. But the tomatoes? How could i have forgotten that I and most of my family don’t like raw tomatoes? sheez. I’m about to do my inaugural plant in my community garden bed – it’s a crap time of year to plant anything because it’s still friggin HOT, but the opening of the place is in two weeks so must get something pretty in there. Hmmm…. radish eh?

  6. We had Parsley from Hell this year… meaning, apparently good ol’ curly parsley LOVES Belgium, and doesn’t die when it snows… and we’re still dealing with it.


  7. Great post. So true. I don’t actually believe it’s possible to overplant kale or chard, but this year (swear to God) will be the year I stop banging my head against the concrete wall that is tomato growing.

  8. Growing tomatoes is like pulling teeth here in WV. It is just difficult. And painful, to watch allll those plants quickly wither with late blight (late blight comes early around here). We have to plant a lot just to get enough to make sauce, or canned, or dried, or whatever.

    Kale (even the lovely russian varieties) should be reserved for places that receive frost. I consider it passable (and it is usually beautiful) in the summer, but once, as someone once expressed it to me at market, it has been “kissed by the frost” it is really something to behold. Of course, the tender of this blog certainly is familiar with this phenomenon.

    But I’m totally with you on the radishes. I love to grow them. Picking them is true satisfaction. But eating them … not so much. I plant them just for the fun of picking them, and to get to plant something super early just to get in the dirt, maybe too early, but who cares if they don’t grow well because we don’t actually like to eat them. They are the perfect sacrificial crop.

  9. Too funny…I will be planting my first vegetable garden this year (I’m going to try straw bales) and for some reason I am drawn to plant tomatoes…even though none of us ever eat tomatoes! What is this strange pull…?

    Looking forward to learning more from your blog for sure, though…especially what not to do! :)

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