I Love/Hate Gardening


Mostly I love gardening. I mean, to the bone adore it. But goddamn, it can get disappointing sometimes! Especially here in the swamps, where everything grows like crazy, until you’re practically drooling, and then dies. Mysteriously.

Summer is the off season here. Gardens limp along. Smarter, richer people than me just cover the whole thing up with plastic to keep the weeds back, then get on a plane headed north. But I just had to at least try all those elusive true summer crops that I can’t grow in Alaska. Melons, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers.

Last year cukes, peppers and beans were stars. No one but me is very keen on peppers in our house, even though the red-ripe homegrowns are so incredible. Cucumbers become pickles which are practically candy as far as the 4yo is concerned. Beans go over well at the dinner table, so I planted about half my summer garden to them. Mostly snap beans– a purple bush and a yellow Romano pole variety that produced like crazy last year. A few rows of limas too.

The only gardening “wisdom” I’ve learned in my almost 20 years is that whatever works banner one year may or may not ever work again. And similarly, whatever works for one person may or may not work for anybody else, including the next door neighbor.

This is a long way of saying that the beans are all, every single plant resolutely, dying. Tiny, stunted beans all over the succumbing plants. I want to cry. Why? Why? Why me? Have I not put in my years? Have I not said my Hail Marys? Hung my crystals? Consulted the Farmers’ Almanac?

(Oh, right. I didn’t do any of those things, I deserve what may come, heathen of faithlessness.)

That jungle up top looks so promising, right? That was on Saturday, at the beginning of my garden day. As lush as that is, there’s almost no actual food in that photo.

The tomatoes were not a surprise, they’re hard around here even for the non-organic growers. I was judicious at least, with their planting. Only 8 plants. Consider my restraint! Four of those withered and died without giving so much as a single ripe tomato. The plants are long gone.

The melon story, you’ve heard. Since that anti-climactic harvest the plants and the one ripening melon left completely died, rotted, and dehydrated within a single week.

I got a decent wave of cucumbers, enough for five jars of pickles, before those plants bit the big one, months ago.

On a more productive note, I have a long Italian red pepper pumping ’em out as fast as I can figure out how to disguise them into dinner. The eggplants are coming on too, just as I realize that, yet again, I’m the only person who eats eggplant in this house. Five plants? Umm, who planned this garden?

The problem is, you can’t grow the things my family does like in the hot New Orleans summer. No brassicas whatsoever, carrots, potatoes, beets, peas, spinach, all long gone around here. Even the chard gave up the ghost. And of the summer crops, the only one that really gets some love at our table are snap beans.

And here we are full circle, back at the bean issue.

Reading all of y’alls green sprouting luscious garden posts is making me righteously jealous. But then, I must remember, there are 3 growing seasons in a year here. This is the icky one, the might as well give up one. I should consider this winter, really. Then my Alaskan soul would pine appropriately for spring, which happens to come in late October. And, lucky me, I will get two lovely growing seasons before the ick comes back around.

Patience sweet pea. Only three more months.

the gutted garden, post Saturday’s work day

Around the Garden

It’s been awhile since you had a look at my garden. We are winding down here, summer is the time of rest, too hot and jungly. Being mid-June, my summer crops are already succumbing to all manner of weird diseases and unknown bugs, and I’m slowly replacing them with a cover crop. Beans, peppers and eggplants are the only things I have still to look forward to.

My garden is sorely lacking any collards. I don’t understand how I let that slip. I do have one straggly looking start, which might still grow up to take over the world. I have trouble planning my garden right. I mean, I plan it beautifully, but I have trouble actually implementing the plan. It’s quite a bit more challenging here where there are essentially three growing seasons/year. A continual in and out, the ground is never bare all at once, I dig it up and amend in little chunks as plants finish out.

I’m really excited to have some eggplants growing. I hope they make it. I’ve never grown eggplant before, to my Alaskan self it seems quite exotic. I have two melons growing too, in the little bed at our house, but one of them has some kind of abscess so I don’t hold much hope. I harvested a few winter squash, which are equally exotic and exciting, but the plant got killed off by squash vine borers before they had a chance to fully ripen, so although they’re perfectly fine eating, they’re not sweet and luscious.

Gardening here is so anti-climactic. In Alaska things grow slow, but as long as you grow the right crops and the slugs don’t get them when they’re starts, they do mature and you get to eat them eventually. Here, you might have a big beautiful plant, covered in green tomatoes and next week a bunch of rotting, bug eaten fruit falling off of a withering diseased plant. Geez. You have to be strong. Keep up the morale.

my two community garden beds

Climbing yellow romano beans along that fence in back, and a lot of purple bush beans all over.

don't count your beans until the pod forms, right?

I pulled up some of my cover crop beans already, they grow crazy fast here. Look at those nodules of free nitrogen! Oh boy!

These pretty Striped Romas have since spoogified, the plants died and I pulled them up to plant cover crop. Boo hoo.

The only tomatoes I’ve had any success with here are hybrids, which they locally call “Creole Tomatoes” to make them sound fancy. They’re just Big Boys. This looks like a good harvest right? This is about all I got off of two plants. I got a bigger harvest digging through other people’s spent plants thrown into the compost heap in despair, still covered with half green tomatoes. Why do people go to all the trouble of growing a garden and then not even use the food they grew???? Oh, maybe because they, like me, still can’t stop ‘planting the dream’ instead of the reality…

My chard on the other hand, is finally giving up the ghost after many months of quiet, faithful service. Gotta love that stuff.

As the chard fades out, the peppers step in. Peppers and beans are the backbone of the summer garden here. Both are pretty hardy to the heat and buggies, and both keep pumping food out for quite awhile.

Well, okra is the backbone, and I suppose I should plant some just to be a good guest. But my kids don’t eat it and I’m only marginally fond of it myself, so although I bought the seed, I can’t bring myself to stick it in the ground. Anyone know any unusual, reliable crops for semi-tropical places? I’m open to ideas.

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.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Part 2

When To Buy Organic

Of course, it would be great if everything we bought was organic. But if you’re short on cash, and aren’t we all, there is a significant difference between crops. This chart is awesome for sussing out you fresh fruits and veggies. I first discovered this two years ago, and was especially interested in the apples being second. Yikes! They seem so innocuous. Potatoes are at about the midway mark, so I make an effort to get them organic. I was surprised to see broccoli and cabbage so low on the list, because they’re prone to a lot of disease and things in the home garden, so I expected they’d be high. And it’s a relief not to worry about onions, we go through tons of ’em! I had remembered carrots being low though, and they’re not. I had been buying those at the Winn-Dixie, and I guess I’d better knock it off.

1 (worst) Peach 100 (highest pesticide load)
2 Apple 93
3 Sweet Bell Pepper 83
4 Celery 82
5 Nectarine 81
6 Strawberries 80
7 Cherries 73
8 Kale 69
9 Lettuce 67
10 Grapes – Imported 66
11 Carrot 63
12 Pear 63
13 Collard Greens 60
14 Spinach 58
15 Potato 56
16 Green Beans 53
17 Summer Squash 53
18 Pepper 51
19 Cucumber 50
20 Raspberries 46
21 Grapes – Domestic 44
22 Plum 44
23 Orange 44
24 Cauliflower 39
25 Tangerine 37
26 Mushrooms 36
27 Banana 34
28 Winter Squash 34
29 Cantaloupe 33
30 Cranberries 33
31 Honeydew Melon 30
32 Grapefruit 29
33 Sweet Potato 29
34 Tomato 29
35 Broccoli 28
36 Watermelon 26
37 Papaya 20
38 Eggplant 20
39 Cabbage 17
40 Kiwi 13
41 Sweet Peas – Frozen 10
42 Asparagus 10
43 Mango 9
44 Pineapple 7
45 Sweet Corn – Frozen 2
46 Avocado 1
47 (best) Onion 1 (lowest pesticide load)

What I haven’t been able to find out about is dry goods. Wheat flour, rice, oatmeal, beans. I’d really like to know, so if anyone out there has any info on the respective “bad-ness” of said crops, please let me know. I’ve been buying non-organic wheat flour lately, because I don’t have a bulk source available, and 5 lb bags are so expensive!

If you eat much soy, check out this Soy Report from the same folks who did that organic dairy review, The Cornucopia Institute.

Buying Bulk

Back in Cordova, I used to order from a company called Azure Standard. They carry most everything that you’d find in a health food store. If you live in the Pacific Northwest they deliver for free (the minimum order is $500, but that is surprisingly easy to fill, especially if you get a few friends in on it). If you live anywhere near to, you might be able to have your order shipped for a reasonable price, via a trucking company. Living in Alaska I had my orders shipped up by barge and even though for heavy stuff like flour the shipping almost doubled the price, it was still worth it. A 50 lb bag of organic high protein whole wheat flour cost $25, add on (for Cordova) $30 for shipping. That’s still only about $1/lb, which was cheaper than the local health food store that only sold flour in 5 lb bags.

I haven’t gotten myself together here yet. There is a food co-op that does bulk orders, I really need to sign up. I asked around and the prices are usually slightly cheaper than Whole Foods. If you have an opportunity to buy bulk, even if the savings do not appear much, they add up. Often if you’re willing to get a ton at once, you can get the organic version for the same price as a little bag of standard stuff at the grocery store. It also instills a different way of thinking about your pantry, and your cooking, which cuts down on trips to the store and impulse buys. These bulk ordering gigs are usually called “Buyer’s Clubs.”

I have to admit, Costco has a very large selection of organic stuff. Of course, I wouldn’t trust ’em farther than I could throw ’em, but it’s gotta be a bit better….?

Lastly, if you’re just starting out buying in bulk, a word of caution. Do not buy 50 lbs of something unless you are sure you’re going to use it! This sounds obvious, but I myself have occasionally wasted some food buying bulk. Just be careful, and plan it out.

I have one last offering for this topic, coming soon:

Solace and Support for Non-Menu Planners!