Je Ne Regrette Rien


All the vegetable gardeners in my part of the world are complaining about what a weird year it’s been, thanks to a late frost followed by a hot spell followed by six weeks of cold, beating rain.

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.


  1. Thirded. However, I’m told you actually do need at least two tomatillo plants for successful fruiting for most varieties.

    Are the eggplants Rosa Biancas? I technically have two plants of that, but they’re still at the two-leaf stage (started from seed late, planted out in June) so I’m not tasting it this year unless I find one at the farmer’s market.

  2. Jenny, good to know about the tomatillos. I’ll just keep two strapped into place.

    I bought my eggplants as seedlings and so promptly forgot what variety they are. But they look just like Rosa Biancas, so that is probably what I’ve got. They have just an excellent flavor and texture.

  3. Here is a great salsa recipe that will change your opinion regarding the usefulness of tomatillos. I grow 5 plants every year, just to make this salsa. Sorry, but I don’t have a recipe that will make Sarah Palin seem more useful.

    Tomatillo Salsa

    Roasting the tomatillos brings out their naturally sweet flavor. This can be done on a grill or over a dry skillet.

    1 pound tomatillos, husked and washed
    1-2 chipotles soaked in hot water till soft
    2 large cloves garlic
    salt to taste

    Cover a large skillet or a grill rack with foil, then place the tomatillos and garlic on the foil over high heat. After the garlic begins to brown on one side turn it to brown the other side, then remove from heat and allow to cool before peeling. When the tomatillos begin to lose liquid and soften or brown on the bottom turn them over. Remove from the heat when they have softened completely.

    Cut the chipotles open and remove the seeds and veins, unless you want blazing hot salsa, in which case leave them in. Chop the chipotles and put them in a blender with everything else. Puree until smooth. Store in fridge for up to a week. This salsa also freezes well.

  4. It may not make you feel any better about this chore, but thinning carrots and beets never really makes me upset because I eat both of them in baby form. (And the greens of the beets, too!) And then I add some compost into the spots where I pulled them, just to help the leftover plants along.

    Since I’ve never planted turnips before, I don’t know: Can you harvest baby turnips in the same way?

  5. Kim, the thing you can do with turnip thinnings is cook the greens. They are DELICIOUS! Over pasta, with bacon and shallots especially.

    I have three bags in my refrigerator at the moment from an attempted late crop.

    But I still hate sitting on my butt pulling out the excess.

  6. Thank you for making me feel better – my veggie garden is a mess too. And I couldn’t figure out why the tomatoes tasted so…bad. Do you have any idea what the name of the eggplant that worked is?
    And the explanation for the broccoli helped also – what a disappointment that was. My 12 year old was so excited after last years broccoli that he insisted on putting in tons of it…and it all went to seed. I think it will take me years to win him back over to veggie gardening!

  7. Moi non plus!

    It’s been an interesting vegie year here too. Surprises, disappointments and some successes, see: (You might like the eggplant recipe I posted here as well!)

    Unfortunately, my only patty pan favorite to share is grilling with pepper, salt, and onion in foil on the grill. I could eat it all summer long.

    And I love your pea planting finding. It sounds like many a clematis trellis nightmare!

    If you’re patient, you’ll be able to divide your articokes. At least here in Seattle they seem ready to divide every other year or so…even if they crash to the ground in a freeze, they come back beautifully!

  8. I’m sitting here crossing my fingers that the first fall frost holds out for 3-4 weeks. My cukes and zukes are just starting to produce. It’s been a crappy year.

    I’ve given up on turnips, mine are always infested with root maggots.

  9. I feel better about my CSA experience after reading this. A friend and I shared a membership last year, envisioning all the healthy and diverse eating we’d be doing. Instead we got weeks on end of greens and radishes, and black radishes, at that!

    I harvested 5 or 6 artichokes from a one gallon plant, much to my surprise. They were very tasty and I will grow them again.

  10. Hasn’t anyone ever told you not to bring up politics among friends? Why, you may ask? Because you’ll inevitably piss off someone. I’m that someone. I’m honestly sad. I like this blog and I’m really tempted to unsubscribe. I respect that everyone has their own political opinion, I just beg of you to keep it out of the gardening blog.

  11. Broccoli shouldn’t have gone to seed without producing because of low soil temperatures. You must have bought root bound oldies.
    If you start curcurbits no earlier than May inside you will do better. Start Artichokes Jan 1 inside.

  12. Definitely a weird summer for veggies here too, although the tomatoes have been great. The cukes got the wilt, but the second planting is just beginning to set fruit so I still have hopes.

    I have an Italian eggplant too, and it is wonderful — the fruits are lavender, and look like porcelain. It’s not Rosa Bianca — the label’s still there in the pot, but Tropical Storm Hannah is also still here and I am NOT going outside to look. (my rain gauge says we are at 6.4 inches so far, but it’s starting to be windy so maybe it’s going to leave soon).

    I planted one tomatillo and it has tangled itself into a number of other plants, including the thorniest rose in the world. I find it very pretty though, and have been cutting bits of it for flower vases, where it lasts for more than a week. Thanks for the recipe, Tamra — I have copied it.

  13. H/T Cindy! Thank you for voicing what I was feeling myself. Tired of reading candidate digs in supposedly nonpolitical blogs. (I get it, Garden Rant, you’re liberal.) Save it for another venue, please!

  14. Christine, I spent two of the most enjoyable years of my life working for the Republican governor of Massachusetts, William Weld. I’d call myself a pro-life libertarian, not a liberal, not a good Democrat, not at all. But I am nonetheless heartily sick of social conservatives calling the shots in my country. Separation of church and state people!

    And who said we were non-political? We think gardening is important. We mean it. Unlike most namby-pamby gardening pubs, we see no particular reason to separate gardening from the tide of current events.

  15. OK, my apologies for calling you “liberal.” But still not sure what Sarah Palin did/said (or apparently didn’t do) that merited the “limited usefulness” jab. I’m curious, which of the other candidates has proven more “useful”? And as far as gardening and the tide of current events, I garden, in part, to escape the pressures and unpleasantries of everyday life and politics and the preponderance of sniping in the world — must be just me.

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