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.

Community Garden Politics

I’m back to work on my garden plot, and oh am I ever excited. Got the bed frame built today (and yesterday, thanks to a good Husband who took the wee ones for long walks, which is about all that makes the Babe happy these days). Now I just have to wait for the dirt. Which could be awhile. Bacon said two weeks (the non-profit in charge of all the community gardens is getting a giant soil donation), which could mean significantly longer…. boohoo.

garden bed in progress

I hate to be an ungrateful mother, I do love those little buggers like nothing else, but man oh man do I love working on a project without kids around! Having the time spread out before you, and a task at hand that you can actually concentrate on is sheer bliss. Bonus that the sun was shiny and warm through the nippy edge of the air. Sawdust, dirt and sunshine– is there anything better?

While I was blissing out on the memory of myself as someone who got shit done, the woman with the tidiest bed in the garden came to water it. She introduced herself and we chatted for quite a while. She’s really cool, a slightly older punky artist type. I liked her immediately, and we got right into it. She was surprised that I live so far (about a mile) and said, without malice, “I thought the garden was for people who live in the neighborhood, there’s a long waiting list…” I explained that there are no community gardens closer to me (if that is in fact an excuse, I don’t know) but had no explanation for why I had been floated to the top of the waiting list. Tenacity? Sheer force of will? Black magic? We talked about the ilk of your average community garden tenant, what a shame it is that people who aren’t using their plots are allowed to keep hold of them, and the prevalence of chemical use (I had been worried that my organic gardener self was about to be shocked out of it’s naivety by some bonafide bugs! But she gardens organically, and as I said, has the prettiest bed of all. Phew. It is possible).

So after all the discussion about available beds, and the trouble of building a new one, the one next to mine has just come available, and the coordinator says I’m welcome to it. He’s volunteer, and I know he gets quite disappointed and frustrated by how little people actually use their plots once they get one, let alone that they don’t help in the general upkeep of the communal space. I like to think he is impressed by how much work I’m doing. I have put in a lot of hours already, and I don’t even have dirt to put a seed in yet!

If I were in charge (notice I’m not stepping right up to volunteer), I’d first off make the plots about a quarter the size (they’re huge, my newly built one is 4×12, but the rest are 8×12 or bigger). I think a little plot, like 3×3 is perfect for most people. Enough to get their hands in the dirt, and grow a few heads of lettuce and a tomato plant. Most people have big ideas, but little time or desire to actually do the work. And that’s fine, they should still get the opportunity to get some dirt under their nails. But then any extra spaces could be divvied up between those who really work their plots. Of course, I myself feel that 4×12 is hardly enough…

Secondly, and more importantly, I’d mandate 5 hours of communal space weeding before anyone could get into their own dirt. That’d knock the top 90% off the waiting list!

Speaking of weeding, I followed my epic acetosa removal in November with layers of cardboard and leaves. Today I pulled back some cardboard, to dig a little hole for a corner post, and the dirt underneath was just rife with that wicked stuff, regrowing as thick as if I hadn’t spent so many hours on my hands and knees sifting those damn little corms out. Holy Shicksa Baby! That is downright creepy.