My tomatoes are not only a month late, they don’t taste remotely like sunshine, which is how a tomato is supposed to taste. Half of my first crop of potatoes rotted in the ground. My turnips were woody. And that really makes me mad, because if there is one gardening chore I dislike, it’s thinning a root crop like turnips. Also, my vegetable garden–always a thing of beauty, unlike my ornamental gardens, which frequently frustrate me–looks as beaten down, yellowed, and fungus-ridden as anything else I’ve had a hand in.
It’s years like this that remind me that I’m not a professional farmer. Of course, I said such a thing last night to a friend who runs a Community Supported Agriculture operation–in other words, vegetables by subscription– and she said, “All the professional farmers are complaining, too.” My country neighbors, who subscribe to a different CSA, told me that they basically got three months of lettuce this year. “And the lettuce wasn’t really great, either.”
Still, the profound thing about growing vegetables is that every year is its own lesson, even for an old salt like me. Here are the life-altering conclusions I’ve come to in 2008.
1. I will never start another cucurbit seedling in the house again. Not another squash, cucumber, or melon. There is no point. These are heat-lovers. When I plant them out on Memorial Day, they sulk, shrivel, and disappear because the soil is just too cold. This year, we actually had a frost after Memorial Day. Next year, I am putting seeds in the ground on Memorial Day. The direct-seeded plants seem to be sturdier anyway.
2. It’s not wise to plant soup peas on one side of the trellis and snow peas on the other. The vines become entangled, and it’s impossible to tell whether you are picking immature soup peas on the theory that they are snow peas, or overripe snow peas on the theory that they are soup peas.
3. Forget about early broccoli. I bought seedings in late April and stuck them in the ground. They went to seed without forming a head. The seedlings I planted later, in early June, performed as expected.
4. One tomatillo plant is more than enough. They root wherever a branch touches the ground, they climb the asparagus, they hang outside the fence, they topple the zinnias. Like Sarah Palin, they look delicate, but are overweeningly ambitious, given their limited usefulness.
5. Lay in more artichoke seedlings next year. I’d never have bought them, but my children insisted and to my astonishment, they will actually produce an artichoke or two in my climate! At $2.50 a plant, this is an expensive form of fun, but worth it, in my opinion.
6. Ancho chilies every year from now on! They add the perfect amount of heat to any dish. Not so much that my children won’t eat it, but enough that my husband and I, with our tired middle-aged palates, find it exciting.
7. Every year also for the softball-sized lilac-colored Italian eggplants I planted for the first time this year. For years, I’ve been planting long Japanese eggplants because they do better in a short-season climate than the big purple ones. But my mind has officially been changed. These pale-colored Italians are more tender and romantic, which I believe is consistent with the national reputation.