Plan But Be Yielding

For gardeners, this is the season of lists and callow hopefulness.

November 1, 2013

HomesteadIssue 3: November/December 2013

“For gardeners, this is the season of lists and callow hopefulness; hundreds of thousands of bewitched readers are poring over their catalogues, making lists for their seed and plant orders, and dreaming their dreams.”

— Katherine S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden

Heritage-Issue-3In the late 1950s and 1960s, Katherine S. White wrote a series of literary criticisms for the New Yorker. The object of her analysis: seed catalogs. She judged them based on the information they gave about the plants being offered, or how helpful or delightful the pictures or illustrations were. After her death, her husband, famed writer E. B. White, compiled the articles into a book, Onward and Upward in the Garden, a smart, charming read, especially if you love both gardening and literature.

Many of the best gardeners, in the fashion of White, make a habit of studying seed catalogs ahead of the season. Making yourself familiar with what is available to plant, you can choose and plan what you want to grow in an intelligent manner. All too often, gardens can be haphazard expressions of what caught the attention of the distracted consumer.

Planning is critical for an efficient garden. But, like anything, it can be taken too far. When one has the ambition to raise food from the soil, specific expectations arise. We become attached to them, and assume they can be recreated consistently; ironically, these efforts can make an enemy out of nature. Nature is neither predictable nor consistent. Instead, nature has tendencies.

Of course, nobody loves to fail; it’s frustrating when our hard work and ambitions can lead to results that are not aligned with our expectations. But considering where our unwillingness to accept nature’s whimsical tendencies has led us, perhaps we might learn to accept failure.
Instead of being tempted to purchase some sort of pest control from Home Depot (deemed organic or not) to “control” the aphids on your lettuce plant, why not just pull that plant out? Or try merely washing them off with water first. Sometimes, something this simple works. Either way, consider the following: Perhaps that variety is not the best for this month. Perhaps you didn’t plant it in enough sun. Perhaps there is just a spike in the aphid population. You can plant again, learn from your mistakes, and grow more if you accept your misalignment with nature and learn about how that misalignment happened. If you cannot find a reason, accept that the unexpected happened.

Heritage-Issue-3Speaking of unwelcome forces of nature, frost is on the horizon. And speaking of being aligned with the season, consider this: While frost may put an end to your basil, pepper and tomato season, it enriches the flavor of cabbage and other brassicas, and the cooler temperatures allow for plants like mache (a very underappreciated green, nutritionally dense, with a mild flavor and smooth, pleasant texture) to flourish. Move with the season, for there is a lot to plant.

Germination is slower as the winter progresses. But because we’re lucky to live in a subtropical climate, we can grow all winter long. Of the crops you really enjoy, keep planting new successions. Most edible foods are best when young and tender.

Sometimes we get spikes in temperature in our winters, and this can cause more sensitive plants to bolt (go to flower and put all energy into seed production)—yet another reason to be prepared to replant new successions.

Heritage-Issue-3Plant Now

The Greens and Cole Crops
There are endless greens to choose from in the cool season: lettuces, cabbages, the leaf chichories (radicchio, escarole, endive, frisée), Asian greens (bok choy, garland greens), kale, collards, arugula, mustards, mache, orach, cress, miner’s lettuce, salad burnet, spinach, chard, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, rapini.

The Root Crops

Root crops are easy to grow, so long as the soil is loose and well-drained: radishes (don’t forget the delicious daikon radishes), beets, turnips, parsnip, carrots, root chicory, burdock, horseradish.

Beans are not just for summer: peas, garbanzos, lentil, fava.

You can plant most perennial herbs (omitting dormant or frost-tender crops) and many annual herbs: parsley, dill, chervil, cilantro, fennel, borage, salad burnet.

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