By: Roberta Owen
Picture this. Spring comes along and the vegetable seedlings you nursed to maturity are ready to be planted in rich, dark soil. Spring rolls through and you see the little inch-high seedlings begin to take shape and form into something a little bigger, a little sturdier and a little more like a vegetable than a weed. It’s amazing, almost miraculous, to see the little lettuces, leeks, carrots, onions or beets battling against spring’s unexpected frosts, winds or heavy rains.
As gardeners, we tend to these little lives with a special love and care. They grow bigger and heartier through summer’s heat and sun. And our green thumbs weed around all our hard work. We nurture them endlessly:
- Watering when rain is scarce
- Supplementing with minerals and vitamins
- Plucking out pests in and around our inviting habitat
- Leafing through the entire garden making sure every little life is flourishing
Now picture this. All the life that was once small and seemingly helpless is now full grown vegetables. Tomatoes are in full bloom, bursting in radiant color. Zucchini sits lazily on the ground, long and plump. Potatoes are snug deep below the rich soil. Beets are boasting in purple glory. Onions, leeks, garlic and chives are shades of green so vibrant you feel healthier just looking at it. Cabbages are spherically shaped in ruffled perfection. Carrots and parsnips are laced in intermingled unison, nearly begging to be plucked and devoured. Your entire garden is ready to be harvested. It’s a bittersweet moment: the moment, you’ve been waiting for. There’s something inside of us that silently says “I’m sorry.” Not that we’re entirely remorseful (we wouldn’t have grown them in the first place if this were the case), but there is an undeniable hint of mixed feelings as we see our garden slowly getting smaller due to cropping. But, it sure tastes good!
My husband and I have a vegetable, fruit and flower garden at home. In addition to this, we have a garden plot (20×20) through the city’s community gardens program. The vegetable garden includes potatoes, leeks, onions, chives, various herbs, eggplant, tomatoes, radishes, carrots, parsnips, squash, cabbages, cauliflower, lettuces, pole beans, sugar snap peas, garlic, zucchini, cucumbers, brussel sprouts and beets. Needless to say, its upkeep took extreme dedication (thanks primarily to my husband) and time. This is a 100 percent organic garden, no chemicals to rid pests. This means every plant required manual riddance of slugs, aphids, caterpillars and cutworms (top four pests we encountered this year). Most plants survived, but some did not.
The top three “successful” vegetables in our garden were tomatoes, cabbages and potatoes. If you are a newcomer to growing a vegetable garden, I would highly recommend these three vegetables (in addition to lettuces, sugar snap peas and carrots).
We chose the Hillbilly and Riesentraube Heirloom tomatoes, bought from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog. The Hillbillies are meaty and pink, rich in flavor and relatively easy to grow. Because of their individual weight (two pounds) supporting the plant with poles is mandatory (we chose thick bamboo rods). The Riesentraube tomatoes are smaller, excellent for salads and bear so much fruit you feel like you’ve become a master gardener. Cutworms and tomato fruit worms are common pest dwellers for tomatoes; if you’re not the squeamish type, just pluck them off when you see them. Early blight is another difficult and sometimes harder disease to control with tomatoes. This occurs during hotter, wetter months of the season and targets older leaves. Simply pruning off the diseased leaves before it infects the entire plant (early blight is highly contagious) can help the plant. Proper irrigation and air circulation also helps to reduce the risk of early blight.
Early and Late Cabbage proved to be a success for us. Early cabbage is very small (the size of a softball) so if you do grow this, keep this in mind. We were expecting it to be much like late cabbage (the size of a basketball) as we left it nearly too late. In its earlier stage, cutworms and root maggots almost annihilated our crop. You’ll know a cutworm or root maggot has gotten its feisty little grip on it when you see the leaves chewed off or if the plant seems stunted in growth. Removing cutworms is easy: just pick them off. Root maggots, on the contrary, pose a different problem because they burrow inside the soil, attached to the root. When this happens, the only natural way to remove them (from what I know and have researched) is to carefully uproot the cabbage, find the pest, remove it and carefully search for any more that may be in or around the soil. Sometimes this helps, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s good to remember that the vegetable will not always survive the uprooting and replanting. In cabbages later stages (both in Early Cabbage and Late Cabbage), aphids pose a serious and annoying threat to both the plant itself and the gardener. Spraying them off with water or wiping them away is a natural and organic way to eliminate this problem. Aphids are tricky, though: they burrow deep in the leaves and require time and dedication to eliminate them. This is gardening, though: this is why it’s hard work and why we’re so grateful when it turns out beautiful.
We planted Red, Purple and Yellow Seed Potatoes we purchased from Hohl’s Feed and Seed. Potatoes flourish when planted in cool spring soil, but bear in mind you don’t want to plant them in water logged soil (this could rot the potato). This is a fun plant to grow if you have children: set the potatoes out in an area of your home where there is plenty of sunlight and “warm” temperatures (about 65F) and in a few weeks you’ll notice little buds. The buds will determine where you can slice the potatoes (if larger) in halves or thirds. Smaller potatoes can be left whole. Plant them in rich soil and you’re pretty much done. They are low maintenance and offer a hearty bulb, therefore, children can easily plant the potato in soil themselves and feel a sense of accomplishment. After time, when the potatoes are growing in leafy bushes and hotter weather rolls in, covering the plants in straw is a good idea (potatoes aren’t too keen on hot weather). Each potato bushel yielded an average of seven delicious, colorful potatoes.
Some of the “not-so-lucky” vegetables we encountered were cauliflower, radishes and brussel sprouts. Gardening can sometimes make you feel like a champ when all goes well, but when it doesn’t, it’s difficult not to get discouraged or frustrated.
Along with victories, every gardener has their failures. In our case, it was the radish. One word: maggots. It’s so easy to say, “just pluck them away.” However, the Radish sometimes enjoys playing peek-a-boo with the soil and its red top flirts with the rest of the radishes nearby. Radish maggots spy these tasty treats and devour them. Sadly, once a radish maggot gets to a radish, the only thing to do is toss the little red root away. It’s commonly thought that slugs get to radishes, but when you actually take a closer look, peering inside, you’ll see the little white maggot worming its way, happily munching away. I swear every year I won’t plant these difficult vegetables again, although I always do. After all, what’s a garden salad without a radish?
Eggplant is finicky. It takes its time to grow and seems like a lazy plant. I call it the “Teenager Who Won’t Get Out of Bed for School on Time” plant. Because, seriously: sometimes it misses its chance to get there on time! We had two good eggplants, but should have had more. We planted the Ping Tung; 70 days, 18” long, 2” in diameter, which claimed to be “sweet and tender, superbly delicious!” And it was. The two we grew. I just wanted more and I would have loved to see it produce more fruit than it did. There weren’t any pests and it was planted in the greenhouse (eggplants love warmth). We’ll try again next year.
Brussel Sprouts are interesting vegetables. You see so much foliage and no produce for a while. And then suddenly, as if overnight, you begin to see small little buttons emerging from the stalks. Even before they sprout their little green buds, however, aphids are attracted to the plant. They burrow on the tops of the overlapping foliage, nestling themselves so deep, the gardener has to literally unfold each leaf and wipe them off, spraying off the aphids. When the brussel sprouts do grow bigger and look more like the way we see them in markets, keep a close eye on each sprout: slugs, aphids and cutworms find these veggies a tasty meal. The ideal brussel sprout is a firm, tight brussel. To achieve this, plant in firm packed soil. Firm soil equates to firm brussels and loose soil leads to loose flaky brussels. Harvesting the sprouts if they are loose and later boiling them for your meal will result in tasteless, flaky veggies. We found that the hardest thing about growing brussel sprouts were the aphids. Getting rid of them is tedious work, especially when they return a week later!
The fun things about gardening are its unexpected surprises. These surprises can be both good and not so good, but who doesn’t like a garden surprise? Our “surprising” adventures in the garden beds were the pole beans, cauliflower and garlic.
We planted the Royalty Purple Pod pole beans. At first we didn’t think they would make it: they seemed small and wilted in the sun and lacked the desire to climb. We babied them endlessly. Manually weaving the little vines around poles, creating elaborate and intricate routes to a better direction. And then, as if they finally figured out what they were supposed to do, they flourished. They grew. They bushed out. They wrapped around in curly definition around the poles, around the fence and up the twine. They looked like they came out of the Secret Garden with their little curly-cues; their spiral little vines whimsically boasted to its neighboring apple tree; they were going to make it. And then the pole beans began to sprout. The first few we saw we ecstatically plucked them off for that night’s dinner and had a sense of pride. And then ten more came. After that, the entire bush was full of foot long beautiful, thick purple pods. We plucked them off the vine, ate them raw and discovered a new favorite. They all came to maturity nearly at the same time, so I would suggest canning, freezing and sharing with others. They are a truly scrumptious eat.
My husband and I have planted Cauliflower before and have had good luck in the past, but this year we weren’t as lucky. Cutworms devoured the roots to the point of complete annihilation. Like cabbage, you can tell a cutworm found its way in the roots just by looking at it. It stops growing (stunts) and looks horrible. Our soil was rich and full of nutrients, but in addition to the cutworm, the cabbage looper (common pest for cabbage) attacked it, infecting the white button, leaving it inedible. We planted both purple and white cauliflower. Out of about six plants, only one made it and it was very small (but delicious). With gardening, these things happen and they may be surprising, but it’s not worth getting discouraged over.
Lastly, we planted my favorite, Hardneck Garlic. I love garlic. I love cooking with it, I love roasting it and I even enjoy eating it raw (this is a very powerful immune booster). When we received the pearly white bulbs in its brown paper sack, we immediately put them in the refrigerator, until ready to plant. It’s such an easy plant to grow: get all the cloves from the bulb, directly plant in rich soil two inches deep, cover with soil and wait. They’ll sprout and grow into tall, lanky, onion-like stalks. When it’s time to harvest, be careful when you uproot it. You need to wait until the stalks “die back,” turning brown and yellow. Because of this, don’t pull; you need to dig them out. We found the easiest way to harvest Hardneck Garlic was to uproot them with good, thick gloves (my favorites are the Atlas Gloves) and dig them out with your fingers (this way you can work around the bulb). After harvesting, wipe off the dirt (don’t wash) and cure the garlic. Curing is easy: place the garlic in an area with good air-circulation, out of the sun (underneath rafters, a shed or even in an area in your house) and leave for a few weeks. After they’re good and dry, wash and bundle about ten bulbs (with stalks), braid them and hang. Voila, you have a vampire’s worst enemy.
Gardening is a lot of work, a time-consuming activity and an excellent means for sustainable living. The beautiful thing about gardening is anyone can do it. Picture this: you’re a first-time gardener and after a successful season you find that you have found a new passion, a new hobby and have a new, raw taste for sustainability. It’s delightful!