Tick Tock



Hoop houses at the MSU Student Organic Farm

A few weeks ago, while reporting a story on the farmers of downtown Detroit, I got to go on a lovely field trip to the Michigan State University Student Organic Farm and learn about season extension.  Now, this is something the theory of which I already understand, because I’ve read the Eliot Coleman book Four-Season Harvest and learned from him that with two layers of prophylactics–a passive solar greenhouse plus row covers–I could be eating arugula in January, which would make me a very happy woman indeed. 

The obstacle for me is mechanical idiocy.  I cannot make sense of the hoop house options in catalogs, am unwilling to spend large sums to make things easy, and don’t think I could assemble one myself.  So, I never make the leap past time into the realm of the eternal harvest.

While at Michigan State, horticulture professor John Biernbaum impressed me with his good sense and flexibility in telling a bunch of would-be urban farmers that there is no one right way to make a new vegetable bed.  "It’s all a matter of time and your willingness to labor," he said.  "If you’re in a hurry, you could apply Round-Up to the sod and get going.  A little more time and labor, you could till and then pick the sod out by hand.  If you’re not in a hurry, you could sheet compost over the sod, and have beautiful soil a year from now."

He’s right.  It is all a matter a time.  And most vegetable gardeners wake up every day feeling that theirs is running out.  Not that they all turn to Round-Up because of it–God forbid–but it’s hard not to urge things along where you can.

I have never met the amateur grower who isn’t always behind and always apologizing for him or herself.  "I’m getting the garden in late," they’ll wail.  Or, "I didn’t do parsnips this year, didn’t make the deadline.

This guilt makes no sense whatsoever.  I mean, maybe vegetable gardeners who live in Marin or on the Bay of Naples ought to feel guilty if they don’t manage their long, slow springs properly.  But, for Northeastern gardeners, the whole thing borders on impossible.  For example, peas, parsnips, and spinach should go into the ground in early April.  But we still had SNOW on the ground April 23.  I got some soup peas in early, but I didn’t plant my sugar snaps until early May, and they look a little sparse and spindly, possibly because they never had the slow, cool start they like.   

Plus, there’s actually some garden-making–measuring out and mulching paths, getting some organic matter into or onto the soil–that has to take place in this very same window–but that can’t be done while the ground is still sopping wet.

And by the time most of the hard labor in the vegetable garden is done–i.e., now–it’s pretty much too late to dig up and rearrange my perennial beds, because I have extremely sandy soil in my city garden.  In the July heat, anything newly planted has to be babysat with a hose–or it wilts and dies in the space of an afternoon.

So, from the second the gardening season starts, I’m already hopelessly behind.  A failure as soon as the starting gun goes off.  My spinach inevitably goes to seed before it starts to look like anything.  And here, I’m only typical of every amateur farmer I’ve ever met–hyper-conscious of the ticking clock at my back and able to keep ahead of it only by the most frantic efforts.

Why try so hard?  Because the vegetable garden is not a race against the clock merely, it’s a race against death–against the inevitability of the first frost that mows down the basil, then the hard killing frost the knocks back almost everything else, and then months when those of us without hoop houses look out the kitchen door onto a barren wasteland, sans beans, sans kale, sans broccoli, sans everything. 

It’s a race against our own mortality,too.  Life is short, youth is fleeting, and I’ll be damned if I don’t eat as many yellow-streaked tomatoes as I can possibly grow.  The fruits of our short summer are so sweet, I can’t imagine not being frantic in my attempts to wring as much life as possible out of the ground before the tomb door closes.   

I like to think of myself as supremely life-loving; all vegetable gardeners are life-loving.  But given our anguished relationship to time, it’s possible that we’re all just a tad morbid as well. 


  1. Morbid? Nah. I think we’re all just looking for the magic bullet, frankly (kind of like a diet pill). I am hoping my own coldframe/hoop house comes SOMEWHAT near Coleman’s production level this winter, but will it? I’m not sure. Will I keep trying? Yes I will. So whether it’s fatalism or stupidity or just a dogged optimism, we just keep trying. And that’s all we can do is try, right?

    (And I confess I don’t have my melons and squash planted yet. Nor my dahlias. SIGH.)

  2. The solution, of course, is to just empty out your living room and turn it over into some grow lamps that you can make very cheaply out of shop lights and PVC tubing. Give all your plants a nice head start and then move them into the garden at your leisure. At that point, you can surely dress the grow lights in something that makes them part of the decor, and not just a garden implement. Use your imagination.

    On the other hand, for the lateness of your spring you also have an abundance of sunshine during those long summer days. Take advantage. Down here in the District of Columbia, our radishes and arugula were already bolting before you had your peas started. And the peas always come down with some sort of wilt. Normally, we can’t even plant sweet peas–it’s too damn hot and humid.

    Moral of the story: we all have our crosses to bear. Work with it…

  3. See, this is why I wish more of my students were gardeners. Then they’d understand my analogy between the student who goofs off all term then stays up late the night before the exam, and the farmer who goofs off all summer then tries to plant and grow everything the night before harvest. Can’t be done. Some things just require time.

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