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.

How Does My Garden Grow?

baby kale and arugula, growing in a pot in our yard

I hate to taunt any of y’all living in more Northern climes, but, spring is here! The trees are budding, the sun is hot, the fever has struck. It is a bit harder to feel like it’s spring when it was never proper winter (yes, it got as cold as 20 degrees, but with no snow, and still green grass everywhere, it didn’t feel like winter), but that it is. Having my community garden plot finished, finally, finally! and ready for planting helps the fever hit pitch.

Oh, yes, have I neglected to mention? (I have so many things to say, and so little time in which to say them.) I finally just couldn’t wait for the help of kind but busy friends anymore. I had a load of dirt/compost delivered. $200, but I have been able to sell some of that to other gardeners. More than the cost, what I don’t like is the quality. They call it soil, but it’s compost, and hardly compost by my (very high) standards. It looks like black wood shavings, mixed with a little sand. Although it would be a great amendment to a pre-existing garden, since I built my bed from scratch, and that’s all I could find to fill it with, I will be growing in the stuff straight up. My garden advisor assures me that, although not ideal, it will work, and that by next fall it will have broken down almost completely into very good, very organic soil.

But, it’s too rough to start seeds in, which is why I’m starting all my seeds here at home, in flats. This is kind of better anyway, since seedlings take daily watering, and it’s much easier at home.

In addition to my newly built bed, the garden coordinator has handed over the care of the bed next to mine. He was growing it out and sharing the produce with an elderly woman who used to tend it. So, now I will do the same. With basically half of that bed, and the one I built, I have about as much square footage as the other gardeners, which is to say about 75 square feet. That’s very exciting! You can do a lot with 75 sqft. Particularly since I will get at least two crops a year from it.

Now that my garden is a physical reality, I’m feeling very daunted about how to go about it. It really cramps the growing style to be going back to Alaska for the summer, leaving mid-May. Spring is here now and the temperatures are positively lovely, but summer and it’s wicked heat are well on their way. By the end of April it will be sweltering, much too hot for “cool season” crops. But we will be leaving before the “hot season” crops really come into their own. Supposedly, I should be able to get some tomatoes and beans before we leave, but it’s cutting it very close.

So, what am I growing then? Greens, lots of greens. The great thing about greens is that they’re never a complete waste. Even if you have to harvest them at half size to avoid the heat, you still get a half sized kale. If you have to cut short a tomato plant, you get a big fat nothing for your two months of work. So, I’m heavy on the kale, collards, chard, salads and spinach (the latter of course pretty marginal, but maybe I’ll get babies). But I can’t resist at least trying tomatoes, beans, and even a few pepper plants. I also planted some basil and nasturtiums, a few beets and carrots for experimental purposes, potatoes and oh yeah, two kinds of summer squash. We’ll see.

i bought these collard, chard and kale plants from the farmer's market, just so I'd have some leaves to play with. They've already doubled in size!

I’m so curious how this all works, and feeling so completely inadequate. I’m such a garden planner, and have really found that the only way to get a viable quantity of food from my garden. But here, I just don’t even know what or how to plan. You can only get so much from books, the rest has to come hard won from experience (read: failure). And, it’s a bit depressing, because I know enough about gardening to know how long it takes to learn just how to plan for a specific climate, and we’ll only be here two more years.

But! Not to bring things down. I’m so excited to have my hands in dirt, seeds germinating, leaves unfurling, woohoo!

And oh boy, next fall, I’m gonna be ready. My dirt matured, a little growing experience under my belt, seeds already in my desk drawer. I’ll take the New Orleans gardening world by storm!

anyone has enough outdoor access for a few pots of quick growing salad greens...

Hands in Dirt=Happy Mama

A few years ago, I invested in a soil blocker, I love it.

Isn’t is strange how moods change your perception so completely? Last night, after a kind of crappy day in which I didn’t get a damn thing done or even goof off properly, I surveyed the ruins around me with utter hopelessness and went straight to bed. This morning, after a decent sleep, a cup of coffee and a lovely walk to pick kumquats with my little butterball, I feel rejuvenated. I look around and think instead, ‘okay, no prob. I’ll whip the house into shape, then hang the laundry, then process the kumquats, then plant my beans, go to the garden and water the transplants, rebatch some marmalade, make laundry soap, make another batch of bar soap……’ etc, etc.

We’ll see how far I get on that list.

Ah, remember the days dear friends, when you could actually do that, if you so desired? Wake in the morning and feel inspired. Drink your coffee and just get straight into it. Work at your projects all day if you wanted, until sleep lulled you into bed.

But, I have to keep reminding myself. First on my daily list, and I accomplish it every single day, feed and nurture two budding human beings. Check.

I ought to share that last Wednesday I had a really great day. One of the absolute best since The Babe was born (not counting of course the epic blissful days immediately following birth). I finally found a mama interested in kid-trading (babysitting), and now my little girl, who everywhere we go picks some kid out and follows them around like a puppy, copying their every move and trying to kiss them constantly, has a best friend. It’s the sweetest thing. We just started last week, I took them on Monday, for two hours, then Wednesday she took them.

Through the work of some kind Djinns, the Babe took an hour and a half long nap during the time the Toddler was gone. So I actually got that time truly to myself. The day was sunny and warm, and I had recently stocked up on supplies to start seeds, so I set right into it. Then later on, he took a two hour nap! All in one day I got to have quality time with both kids, individually, clean the house, and play in the dirt! Wow.

seeding my soil blocks
Ahhhh... a type A gardener's dream

My Man stayed up all night last night (literally, went to bed after I got up at 5:45. He does that fairly frequently, bless his heart. Night is the best, quietest time for him to work), so he’ll be sleeping late. I usually try to take the kidlets for a strategicly timed walk on Sunday mornings, so he can have one morning a week to relax with his paper. Because after he gets up, if the Toddler’s around, she latches right onto him and won’t let go. She is a Papa’s Girl all the way. Then, after the walk, he’s usually happy to spend most of the rest of the day doing kid stuff. So I do have high hopes for today.

Wish me luck!