For many gardeners and nongardeners, this year has us loitering around the house at a record rate. Whether sequestered by riots or pandemics, we are homebound and find ourselves cooking our own meals and thinking more and more about where our food comes from. Trips to Guido’s have been heartening, showing a steady supply of produce and meat coming into the area (if not yeast and toilet paper), but not enough to stop us from worrying about what to put on the table each night. And that has us thinking about self-sustenance.
Friends and clients confide that they wish they had started a vegetable garden this year. Unfortunately, they say, they were so focused on reading reports from the CDC, and then too overwhelmed by the protests and riots that they hesitated to leave their homes. And now they lament that it is too late to start growing this season, which makes me want to scream. It is almost never too late to start a vegetable garden, though it may impact what you grow and how, a topic on which I pontificated last Sunday for a smattering of Berkshire Botanical Garden members.
We all know that many vegetable gardeners begin their gardens in the cold winter months, using a greenhouse or a basement fitted with grow lights to start seedlings of heirloom tomatoes and peppers, cabbages and kale, and even herbs such as basil and cilantro. They even head out as soon as the soil can be worked to put in peas and fava beans, as if racing against one another to bring in the first of each crop, hoping to upstage their friends. Thomas Jefferson was known to grow every known variety of pea in order to be the first to have peas on the table in Albermarle County.
I admire these people and have even occasionally been one of them, but this has been a busy spring for me, having just moved back here and wanting to catch up on so many tasks outside. And then I remembered, there are also people like my friend Shanyn, who likes to think of herself as a lazy gardener (which is hardly the case), who simply forgo the months of advance work. They plant their gardens using their knowledge of when things are most likely to prosper in the great outdoors. Shanyn even grows most of her garden from seeds that are direct sown into the garden itself. Gardeners like Shanyn smile when they see lettuce starts lined out for sale at nurseries, because they know that direct sowing will have seedlings up in a matter of days. That is why I grow cut-and-come-again lettuce on an old jerry-rigged park bench on which I replaced the seat, with a growing tray built out of two by fours and some landscape fabric. I simply fill the bench with soil, sow the seeds by scattering them on top, and water it all in. Within four days my lettuce is coming up and two dollars of seeds provides a lot more lettuce for the months ahead that a six pack of lettuce plants at the same cost.
Many crops can be, and even are best off direct sown. Cucumbers and beans, pumpkins and squash, and melons are not really meant to go into the ground until the soil warms, and will be up and running in no time if planted this week. There is some belief that many of these plants suffer from transplant shock and actually do better being planted directly versus being moved out of containers into the ground. I have certainly found this to be the case with cucumbers and, even if they were a week behind my neighbors, so be it. While I admire much of Jefferson’s intellect and passion for gardening, I also remember that he died in debt, and perhaps it was his competitiveness over the peas that did him in. After all, if I keep growing the same variety of peas that I always have and save some at the end of the season for next year, I can bank a few dollars, and back in the 18th century that might have saved me from having to sell the family farm.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.