Lessons from the Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s harvest time. One of the strangest things I find about gardening is how many gardeners plant and tend, but never harvest. For me, harvesting is the whole point, so those non-harvesters leave me scratching my head. If you don’t want to harvest, why not go with flowers? I’ve seen it often enough that it no longer surprises me. I think they fall into three categories: Those who plant for the visual payback (see my earlier post, “Gardeners/Florists”); those who like the idea of fresh from the garden food, but who, when push comes to shove, don’t like to cook; and finally those who overplant, and can’t possibly keep up with it when the garden starts to mature. (I think we’ve all been there from time to time—at the moment I’m having a little trouble keeping up with the crookneck.) Occasionally, you’ll get hit with a heat wave and things will bolt—and it’s a mad dash to eat up before it all goes bitter.

I’ve said before that one of my favorite things is to walk in the garden in the late afternoon to let what’s ripe determine my menu. More than once, since I’ve been here, the garden has been my salvation—funds were tight and having this amazing bounty took the pressure off the budget. And, if you can, the bounty continues through the winter months. New polls, released yesterday, revealed that far more Americans, than one would expect in this land of plenty, have gone hungry in this past year. I worry that that may continue, given the drought-parched fields in the Midwest this season. Food prices will have to respond and that will put the pinch on family budgets. I wish more people found the kind of solace and pleasure in gardening that I do. There is no down side, it’s food at its freshest and healthiest, it’s relaxing and enjoyable and it brings us closer to our most basic connections to the planet. What’s not to like?

Yesterday, I was poking around and I noted what should be obvious, but now that we’re in full season, is proven out by the garden. We have just over a dozen pepper plants. There are seven green/red bell peppers (depending on how long you wait) and the rest are a variety of sweets and hots. Some of them came to the garden late, refugees from too long in too small pots. Now, at mid-season, despite many weeks of equal treatment, you can still tell which was which, with some very real impact on output. Those that were put in young, and early, have filled out with many branches and leaves (which shade the peppers and prevent sunburn.) They are bearing peppers now, but they are also putting out new blossoms, promising a long pepper-bearing season. The ones who came in spindly and late, never developed a full canopy. They, too, are bearing but some of those peppers have their shoulders burned from the sun. They need extra water, since their more sparse foliage doesn’t shield them from the sun, and the soil in their buckets bakes. And, those plants didn’t branch out as much, leaving less foliage and fewer end buds for new blossoms. So our leggy, late arrivals will end up producing less than half the peppers as their somewhat pampered brethren.

There’s a potent argument for taking care early for a good crop. That requires knowing your climate, and timing your starts. (Especially peppers and eggplants which are soooooooo finicky about germination temperatures.) If you start too early, the garden isn’t ready when your starts are, and you risk leggy, root-bound transplants or plants that can be shock-dwarfed by a chilly transplant home. Taken beyond the garden, the message is that any new endeavor fares best if its needs are met early on. It’s a pretty common sense concept, but one too often lost in the throes of gardening, and rushing around harried in life generally. Still, as a gardener I’m sometimes surprised by the unexpected. Last year, some sorry cabbages, spindly and finally rescued late in the season, ended up delicious, their flavor piqued by the frost that nipped at their necessarily late harvest. This is tough territory for me, and many gardeners, who have trouble giving up on any little plant. But this year’s peppers have convinced me to be more orderly in my starting and planting practices. I’m still left with the problem of having to turn away orphans from well-meaning friends and neighbors though, and I’m not sure I’m up to it.

There’s another lesson in the garden. It’s a comeuppance for me. I did my second round of starts for peppers and eggplants a little late. My first set took forever, which I later learned was because they are particular about temperatures. The second set was a mad dash to try to fill in the buckets. In my rush, I wasn’t so organized about labeling. They sprouted early and I got them into their bucket homes as soon as the sprouts were strong enough. Now that it’s midseason, I see that some of the plants in the eggplant buckets are peppers and vice versa. Not a real problem, but a bit of an embarrassment. Those little label-sticks are important.

I’ve been gardening in a serious way for over thirty years now and still, every year, the garden teaches me something new.

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