For the Sake of Refuge and Joy

What to plant? Everything. Sort of.

March 7, 2015

HomesteadIssue 11: March/April 2015

“As for marigolds, poppies, hollyhocks, and valorous sunfl owers,
we shall never have a garden without them, both for their own sake,
and for the sake of old-fashioned folks who used to love them.”

— Ward Beecher

An early memory of mine involves tramping around a neighbor’s garden. I used to have poor boundaries as a kid, at least when it came to property lines. But the gardener on the block was growing sunflowers, the really tall kind. And I found myself nestling in their dappled light shelter on balmy spring days. Even today when I encounter a large row of tall sunflowers, my inclination is to take refuge beneath their nodding heads.

I have mentioned before the benefits of the tidy cool-season garden. There’s predictability of space usage and production volume is high, given that almost the entire plant of most cool-season crops is edible. But this point misses what I consider an important and vastly overlooked value to the sprawling, towering nature of warm season crops, which has no real measured economic value. It is a quality that children instinctively understand—or it is an instinct that they don’t squelch. I still have this instinct and, on occasion, I indulge.

Go plant some gigantic sunflowers. Because they are awesome. They also make great climbing structures for beans, so plant those too. It’s spring—it’s time.

Russian black-seeded sunfl ower in seed (Helianthus annuus)

Russian black-seeded sunfl ower in seed (Helianthus annuus)

What to plant?
Sort of.

I always get drunk with enthusiasm at this time of year. The garden looks its best and you can plant almost anything. You’ll probably want to plant the warm season stuff right now. But perhaps you didn’t get a chance to plant arugula or carrots yet. Well, there is time. But pay attention to seasonality when selecting cool or warm season crops. For greens, root vegetables, and winter herbs like cilantro, dill, and parsley, you really want to select shorter season varieties now. If you look at seed packets, you will see something like “60 days” in the text. What that generally means is that it takes about 60 days from seed to harvest. For cool season crops, May is about as long as you’ve got. So if you still have 60 days between now and then, you can generally plant that crop. You can also look for monikers like “slow bolting” and “heat tolerant.” These two terms generally mean that the plant will be slow to let the heat inspire it to go to seed (which for your greens and herbs and root crops is the end of the line).

The good news is, if you are sick of root vegetables and greens, you can start tomatoes, peppers, and lovely delicious basil. And paying attention to how many days it takes a plant to go from seed to harvest is also important for warm season crops. The main difference is that it is often the fruit (and not the leaves or plant) that you are harvesting, so the duration listed is about how long it’ll be before you get your first fruits. Some crops come from the tropics and require many months before you can harvest that first fruit. Make sure you have enough time between now and the first frost before that first fruit appears—and hopefully another month or so to give you time for more harvests.

Chiltepin (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum)

Chiltepin (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum)

Refresh the Soil, Organically

Even though our winter has not been very cold, the soil is somewhat less active during that time. As that cool earth wakes up, it is going to be hungry. It is time to feed your soil. If you have been reading this column for some time, then you will know I only encourage organic methods of raising food. Therefore it is time to be making or purchasing compost and aged manure and working it into the soil. If you are switching out crops, this is a good time to dig things up and work that organic material into the soil. If you have growing plants that you don’t want to disturb, work the organic material in around them and consider using a water-soluble organic fertilizer like kelp powder.

With organic gardening, you aren’t really feeding plants. You are keeping the microbes in the soil fed and happy. The results of happy, well-fed microbes in your garden soil are nutrients for your plants. As microbes eat, poop, procreate, and die they yield just about everything a plant needs. And this is why I am so adamant about not cheating by using a synthetic fertilizer: synthetic fertilizers (and also pesticides) actually do the opposite. They kill microbes.

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)

Microbes cannot tolerate the heavy salts in fertilizers—they become dehydrated and die. Your plant might get a chance to soak up some of the nutrients in water-soluble synthetic fertilizers before they either wash into the water supply, or collect in extremely unhealthy concentrations just below the root zone of your plants forming a dead, salty zone. But it is something akin to drinking soda pop: a quick dose of energy before and nothing left afterward. Organic soil foods and compost make a soil alive and healthy because they work with the cycles of nature and feed the plant steadily. The point is, you can’t force-feed the soil. And you cannot ignore the microbes.

Crop Features

Tohono O’odham “Ha:l” Squash
(Cucurbita argyrosperma)

A common misconception is that a “winter squash” is one that you plant in winter. The fact is that no squash should be planted in the winter. The term winter squash is used to designate types of squash that store well, providing you with fruit into the winter. We’ve written before about Tohono O’odham Ha:l squash—an amazing variety, delicious and rare in that it is a winter squash, but can also be used as a “summer squash.” That is, the young, immature fruits are picked and used much like a zucchini. Plants are tough, heat tolerant, and fairly quick to mature. Seeds can be obtained from Native Seeds/SEARCH (

Tohono O’odham “Ha:l” Squash (Cucurbita argyrosperma)

Tohono O’odham “Ha:l” Squash (Cucurbita argyrosperma)

Mexican Sour Gherkin
(Melothria scabra)

I like this plant—not only it is a great edible for the garden, but it also looks cool. An old heirloom that has experienced a resurgence in popularity, Mexican sour gherkins look like tiny watermelons (in Mexico they are called sandíita which translates to little watermelon). They are delicious eaten raw, cooked, or pickled. Plants are highly productive, vigorous, vining plants so give them some place to attach and grow, like a fence. Mulching or shading roots will keep them healthy when the heat picks up. Seeds available from Territorial Seeds ( ✜

Mexican Sour Gherkin (Melothria scabra)

Mexican Sour Gherkin (Melothria scabra)

Jared R. McKinley is the associate publisher
of Edible Baja Arizona.

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