The Fat of the Land

Month: May, 2015

Volunteers

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As much as I love the controlled chaos of sowing seed pots—the desire to grow bridled by little plastic cubes that make my young plants so easy to pop out and place just where I’d like them—I must admit it isn’t nature’s way. Nature’s way is something like Darwin outlined: an intersection of chance, genetic aptitude, and opportunism. This is how the forest floor is gardened, how a meadow gets planted, or a rockface, a riverbank, the cracks of a sidewalk. As much effort as we put into making it otherwise, the same forces are at play in our own gardens.

Someone once told me, and I’ve heard it said many times since, that a weed is just a plant that pops up where you don’t want it to be. As all gardeners know, flora we intentionally plant may also prove a bit weedy for our tastes (foxglove, hellebore, many ornamental grasses, to name but a few). Even the vegetable plot sometimes gains a confidence of its own, sprouting seedlings without express permission. While a dandelion is almost always a weed, we often call these little upstarts “volunteers.”

Some vegetables are more likely to voluntarily emerge than others: tomatoes and cucurbits are common. In the height of summer, fruits drop; if we don’t pick them up, they rot, leaving primed seeds behind. Lettuces, brassicas (like kale or mustard greens), arugula, sunflowers, and cilantro are equally prolific if your harvesting habits allow them to reach seed-bearing stage. I’ve never dug up a potato patch without inadvertently leaving behind a few tiny spuds that inevitably re-sprout the following spring.

So it goes. If allowed, your garden would start gardening itself. Some gardeners suppress the garden’s urge to volunteer, others are charmed by it. Where you stand on the scale between methodical and improvisational is a matter of personal preference. I’ve envied both bountifully tidy garden rows and those described by Masanobu Fukuoka, a 20th Century Japanese farmer and writer who pioneered his own eclectic brand of natural farming. Fukuoka planted his un-tilled fields using seed balls, a method that capitalizes on the spirit of volunteerism. Seed balls contain a variety of seeds rolled into little clay globes that the farmer chucks into their fields at just the right time (when the cover crop has died down and weed competition is at its lowest). Those that land in an opportunistic place will, in theory, grow to be robust, drought-resistant plants.

Though seed ball planting is not necessarily the best choice for residential gardens (or any garden desiring specific levels of productivity), it’s a useful metaphor for what we are always doing when we garden—throwing our seeds into the ring and hoping they have a fighting chance. Volunteers are accidental victories, and because they made it through Darwin’s qualifying rounds, they deserve consideration. Not surprisingly, volunteers often end up being highly productive, vigorous plants. Unlike transplants, their roots never felt the shock of moving from one environment to another, nor were they ever stopped in their downward descent by the bottom of a plastic pot.

Equally unsurprising is that volunteers are unpredictable. Most tomato seeds will grow back true to type; volunteers sprouting where you grew that cherry variety last year will likely grow up to be the same cherry variety. Cucurbits, like zucchinis and cucumbers, often do the same, especially if you only planted one or two varieties the year before. However, in a few rare but notable instances a cucurbit will revert to its ancestral genetics, over-producing cucurbitacin, a bitter compound used by wild cucurbits to repel insects. If you bite into a zuke, cuke, winter squash, or melon that tastes unbelievably bitter, spit it out. Toxic squash syndrome, the name for what happens if you swallow that bite, causes gastrointestinal mayhem and can result in serious complications from dehydration.

Though not a human health concern, allowing volunteers to reappear in the same place year after year permits the buildup of soil diseases: onion and garlic grown in the same spot will cultivate damaging fungal communities, an everlasting potato patch will soon be host to many debilitating pathogens, even tomatoes (who otherwise don’t nutritionally suffer from repeated plantings in the same soil) will attract a population of blight spores that will eventually be powerful enough to take out a whole patch in two days. Once in the soil, these diseases won’t leave in a gardener’s lifetime, hence the oft-repeated advice to rotate your garden vegetables.

With some discrimination, volunteers can be good for the garden (and gardener). Wind-dispersed seeds like lettuce will move about the garden on their own. If you’d like to rotate tomato or cucurbit volunteers, throw a few fruits here or there in late summer. Naturally occurring variations and adaptations make the going fun. If you aren’t a stickler for specific varieties, seeing and tasting what your volunteers become makes your garden unknown territory and you the explorer. This, along with a general appreciation for a garden’s will to live, is the point of volunteer gardening—to discover.

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Salad as Still Life, Revisited

GTF Lettuce

This month marks the start of my fourth year writing these blog posts. When I began, I hadn’t written anything substantial in almost ten years and it felt good to get out and stretch my creative legs in the realm of the garden, market, and kitchen, territory that had by then become as beloved and familiar as the books that initially inspired me to write. Discovering gardening and fresh vegetables through studying horticulture and working in the small farm community gave me the compelling muse I felt I lacked as an aspiring young writer.

Three years after I wrote my first blog post, Salad as Still Life, I sold my first article to a print magazine, which draws on the same infatuation with spring lettuces, and the same metaphor. You can read an online version of the introduction and following lettuce variety descriptions, originally printed in the May/June 2015 issue of Rodale’s Organic Life magazine.

I still love the way this piece set the tone for the ones that would follow; because, in the words of one of my favorite garden writers, Wendy Johnson, when it comes to vegetables, “Beauty counts.”

Thank you all for reading, commenting, and encouraging me along the way!

The following is a reworked version of the post originally published on May 3, 2012:

Salad is an ancient meal. The modern chopped and dressed version has not wandered far from those baskets of wild leaves gathered in forests and meadows since before remembered time. Our tastes have expanded and contracted over the millennia; the iceberg faze of the mid-twentieth century being the most recent contraction, and the diversity of greens we see in today’s markets and restaurants the next expansion.

Salad has changed the way I see my own garden. Never quite the place I once intended it to be—neat rows of lettuces for tearing and tossing with vinaigrette, peas for raw eating or a quick sauté, kale for soups or braising—it has become something akin to those prehistoric meadows. I wander through, nibbling, learning the flavors of young and old leaves, stems, tendrils, and, when they come, flower petals or whole blossoms.

Even my garden’s weeds have occasionally delighted me with surprising complexity of flavor. Little Western bittercress, a common weed in early spring’s wet soil, is so delicious I fend competitors away from a few specimens to let them grow large, their tender compound leaves lending a lively blend of herb and pepper to the salad bowl. I have found myself on a hike now and then choosing carefully identified foliage for a quick nudge of powerful flavor that acts as a true appetizer, sparking dreams of the meal I’ll make when I get home.

Of course, eating indiscriminately even from your own garden is not without hazard. Be safe and look it up if you don’t know. I once spent an afternoon trying to discern whether the leaf I impulsively consumed was chervil, finally germinated months after I’d planted the seeds, or its close relative, poison hemlock. I would have rather conducted that research without monitoring for symptoms of impending doom.

Since I began seeing my garden as a forager, endless combinations have appeared on my plate. With a dose of romanticism, I’ve begun to think of salad components as a painter would her paints. I search for beauty in juxtaposition, so diverse my palette of flavors and textures has become: silky, curly, nutty, tender, mineral, crunchy, buttery, briny, muscular, juicy, bright, bitter, grassy, tangy, piquant. From the herb patch comes a whole spice cabinet of accents—anise-flavored tarragon, floral parsley, peppery or cooling mint, clove-scented basil.

And the colors—deep purples and reds, green splashed with red, reds and greens fading into one another like clouds at sunset, green as pure as spring itself spanning all the way to green deep forest dark. From chard, shiso, amaranth and quinoa leaves, we get pinks and violets, oranges and yellows bright as any citrus rind. Left to the whims of a curious tender, the garden becomes as diverse as a painter’s box.

Spring is salad’s grandest season for eaters like me who adore the soft, supple flavors of greens grown in the cool sun and frequent showers of Western Oregon’s lengthiest season. I do almost nothing to help them along, then carry my salad bowl outside and collect at whim: small leaves from the bolting stalks of overwintered kale or broccoli, mache, baby arugula, mizuna, pea shoots, spring planted chard, miner’s lettuce, bittercress, and, of course, plump lettuces (crowns of the spring garden) with names like ‘Red Earred Butterheart,’ ‘Flashy Trout’s Back,’ and ‘Ice Queen.’

Salads made this way need very little else to accompany them. Fresh oil, a splash of light vinegar, flaky salt, a few cracks of pepper, and a good toss will have you on your way, leaves glistening and bare, to museum quality.

*A quick note on bitter, the flavor in the garden perhaps most difficult to love. In my experience, there are two main categories of bitter: the one that fills the mouth with a hard, pungent taste that lingers the way skunk musk persists over a patch of road, and the one that starts like the first but finishes sweet, a deep hint of caramel at the back of your mouth that makes you reach for another leaf. I used to go for nothing bitter, and now the second category, with its alluring sweetness, has become something I rarely want a salad to be without.

Tomato Fever!

Tomato Plants

For those of us with an inclination to garden, this time of year boils with excitement—we start more seedlings than our beds could ever hold, bring home bundles of baby plants, imagining how, with a bit of warmth and water, they’ll transform our little plot into a paradise. It starts innocently enough with things like kale or lettuce, a pea plant or twenty, but nothing sets the mind strolling down a summer lane quite like the sight of a tomato plant. They arrive in nurseries and farmers markets in early April, tempting our better judgment with their perky green stems and floppy leaves.

If you have the gardening bug, you probably won’t be able to resist them. Go ahead and pick out the ones that fit your fancy, take them home even, but do not plant them. Not in April. Not really even in May (without accessories). Not, that is, unless you want your tomatoes to delay their fruiting and become more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Tomatoes are a tropical species that evolved in the jungles of Central America; subjecting young plants to winter-chilled soil and damp, cool nights shocks them into dormancy, where they’ll sit, barely growing a centimeter, until they are assured by a long string of warm days and nights that the world (as their DNA understands it to be) has returned to normal.

In the meantime, the path to tomato greatness that started in a posh greenhouse spa—where their seeds were cajoled into germinating with the help of heated mats that warmed their fluffy potted soil to a perfect 75-degrees, and their young shoots were encouraged to grow because a shelter of stretched plastic kept the cold dew from reaching their panic button—well, all that fine work has been undone. A tomato plant gone into cold dormancy has a hard time recovering even when it does spring back to life. You’ve given it reason to hesitate, you see, to doubt its boundless trust for the world (a trust all tropical plants have, living completely without caution because, in constant warmth, in a crowded jungle, they don’t need it). In its hesitation, it becomes weak.

So do this instead: bring those jolly little jungle babies home and find a place under an awning, under an overhang, even under a tree, where they can wait for summer in some semblance of shelter. If the day is sunny, take them out to bask in it (unless you have a sheltered spot that gets sun, in which case, lucky you); but when night falls, don’t forget to bring them back. It seems counter intuitive, but the roots of a tomato plant, tucked neatly into a plastic pot, will fare better in above ground temperatures this time of year, which warm more readily than the soil in spring’s on-again-off-again sunshine. That little overhang, pathetic as it may seem, does moderate night temperatures somewhat, buffering your tomato plants from the wider temperature swings happening just a few feet away.

If you feel you must plant your tomatoes directly into the garden when you bring them home on an unseasonably warm spring day, be aware that (to avoid cold dormancy) they will need some protection—a tool to increase their site’s soil temperature, moderate nightly drops, and, for bonus points, keep their leaves dry when the rain inevitably returns. Plastic sheeting—draped over a tomato cage, or even a couple of sticks, held down by something that will keep the wind from blowing it away—accomplishes all three. After wrestling with plastic sheeting a few times (it must be removed on sunny days to prevent “burning” the delicate young plants), you’ll begin to understand the allure of a greenhouse.

Another nifty tool involves a ring of plastic tube-like sacks with which you encircle your plant. Once in place, you fill the sacks with water to create an instant, if strange, protective dwelling. This wall o’ water, as one brand has christened it, capitalizes on water’s ability to moderate temperature exchange, holding some of the day’s warmth well into the night. And, once you’ve managed the awkward task of filling it up, you don’t need to touch it again until summer is here and it’s time to take it off.

Despite all the hoopla, tomatoes are as uncomplicated as a delicious annual fruiting plant could be. By mid-summer their jungle disposition becomes obvious—those suckers grow like crazy and seem, to gardeners who try to tame them, unstoppable. Their persistent nature will reward you with at least a few tomatoes even if you throw them in the ground willy-nilly and occasionally splash them with water. However, to succeed, to get the tomato plant of your dreams, you must start dreaming like a tomato.

Tomato Planting Tips:

  • Wait to set tomato plants out in the garden until the nighttime and soil temperatures are firmly and forever above 50-degrees (generally this isn’t until June in our area).
  • The bigger the plant, the better the start: Hold your tomato seedlings above ground until they are 10- 15-inches tall, robust and flowering, or even setting fruit. The plants will grow more vigorously in pots (so much so you may have to transplant them to a larger pot before putting them in the garden, but only if the pot it came in was quite small or you feel like really going for tomato glory this year), which helps bide your time while you wait for that soil to warm. Planting larger starts also means you can bury them more deeply. Clip the stems and leaves from all but the top third of the plant and dig a hole deep enough for the root ball and the lower part of the plant to fit underground. Once exposed to soil and moisture, the buried portion of the plant will begin to sprout roots, increasing its stability and expanding its ability to collect water and nutrients.
  • Tomatoes need specific nutrients to produce exceptional fruits. In our region, winter rains leach minerals from the soil, lowering their pH. Along with a complete (and, I would recommend, organic) fertilizer applied at the rate the packaging suggests and mixed, for best results, with the soil at the bottom of the planting hole, also treat your soil with compost and garden lime. The compost will increase the soil’s water and nutrient capacity, and the lime will adjust the soil’s pH, making more nutrients available to all of your plants’ roots. For tomatoes, lime brings an extra boost of calcium, which, along with regular watering until ripening initiates, will prevent blossom end rot.
  • Choose a site with eight hours of sun (six if you must, but expect less fruit) and some protection from the wind, being cautious not to place them in a low or wet spot that will encourage the cool/damp sort of diseases that strike tomatoes. And make sure their roots have room to stretch downward—as much room as you can give them. Tomato roots grow over twenty feet deep, when allowed. If you are planting directly into the ground, your work in this department is finished. If you are planting into raised beds, for best results, be sure there is no barrier between the bottom of the box and the earth below it. If you are planting in containers, a warning: some container gardening books depict tomato plants in things like repurposed olive oil cans. While this combination makes a cute picture, it will result in a harvest of zero to three tomatoes and cost you more than it would to just go buy zero to three tomatoes at the store. Use the biggest container you can find and keep in mind that anything smaller than five gallons just isn’t worth it.
  • A note on staking: Tomatoes without a jungle full of things to climb on need support. Tomato cages work alright, in a flimsy, caged-in kind of way. There are a plethora of products out there to make trellising your tomato plants prettier, funkier, “better,” or more “professional.” They’re all good in their own way; how you stake your tomatoes is more personal preference than proper technique. For minimalists like myself, you can just use a bamboo stick or three (made into a tripod) set firmly into the ground to which you tie your growing tomato plant using string or twine. I end up needing to prune my plants a bit more than when I’ve caged them, but I like the way the bamboo becomes camouflaged and the mature plants seem hold themselves upright—unbound and heavy with fruit.