Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Opportunistic Gardener

Managing a garden for food tests my ability to walk and chew gum and the same time. I can't decide whether this is more like playing at air traffic controller or valet parking attendant.

It's just not as simple as tossing a few seeds in the ground and waiting for dinner to appear. Vegetables mature in their own good time, according to the rules of soil, rain and sun. And of course you didn't imagine they shared the same schedule, all coming to ripeness at the same time and putting up a sign that says, "I'm done."

No, there's a good amount of tracking that must be done, attention that must be paid first to make sure that the carrots and radishes are harvested before they go woody and that the cucumbers and green beans aren't spoiling on the vine. But just as important is having a clue what to plant next when those earlier vegetables are done and to plant the new seeds at the appropriate time so they have a chance to grow and produce before the season turns.

That is, if you want to keep your soil in constant production and have something to eat tomorrow--and we certainly do--a certain amount of timely action must be taken. We and nature both abhor an empty patch of soil. Gardeners call this "succession planting," ensuring the garden is always producing something for the table.

For instance, it was pretty clear that my bed of Italian squashes, cucumbers, onions and edamame beans was spent. We had already pulled the bean plants and harvested the edamame. The cucumbers and squashes both had produced admirable quantities of vegetables. They would all be pulled out of the ground, cut from their trellising and dispatched to the compost pile. Now I had a vegetable bed four feet wide and 20 feet long. What to put there?

Well it just so happens this is the time to be planting root vegetables for the fall and winter. And it just so happens I have several seed packets for "laurentian" rutabaga. It also just so happens that I am determined to grow some worthy beats. Turnips are also on the agenda. A quick read of the seed catalogue confirms that I have just enough time to grow these rutabaga (95 days to maturity) and bring in a crop around Thanksgiving. Of course, I could always pick them early if need be.

The first order of business is preparing the bed. I rake up the half-rotted straw that I had placed (before it was rotted) back in May to hold back weeds. Next I dig into one of my compost heaps and lay a layer about 1-inch thick on my vegetable bed. I work this into the soil with a stirrup hoe. The soil is rich and soft. But just to make things a little easier for my root crops, I work the entire bed with my forked spade, plunging the spade deep into the soil and easing the tool back and forth just enough to loosen the subsurface.

Rutabaga, a cross between a turnip and a cabbage, is one of your bigger root vegetables. Some people think of it as one of those vegetable dishes to be avoided at Thanksgiving, but I love the earthy, somewhat bitter flavor, especially after applying some kitchen magic and turning it into a creamy bisque or a cheesy souffle. I had tried planting rutabaga last fall, but too late. I scattered seeds and they germinated all right. But they never grew larger than a pencil-thick root.

Part of the problem, I recognize, is planting the rutabaga too thickly, then neglecting to come back after the plants have begun to grow and thinning them. I hate thinning. So my new system is to make individual holes for the seeds, properly spaced for them to grow into mature plants. In the case of rutabaga, this means six inches of spacing between seeds. So I am on my hands and knees, the tiny black seeds--perfectly round, like miniature buckshot--poured into one hand, plucking out seeds with two fingers from the other hand and plunging the seeds into the soil at six-inch intervals.

First one row of seeds, then another and another, until I've filled up fully half my bed. It's a large area and potentially a lot of rutabaga. Enough, I think, to get us through the winter and into spring. Not all the seeds will germinate, I know. So I am prepared to come back and plant more seeds where holes appear in the pattern. Now it's just a matter of keeping the soil moist, meaning watered once or twice daily, until the seeds germinate.

Vacancies are appearing elsewhere in the garden--for instance, where I am harvesting the carrots and beets planted earlier in the year. I have seeds for radishes and lettuces, arugula and mizuna--all cool-weather crops waiting their turn in the fall rotation. And in case you think this is pure genius, that I have some kind of master plan for all these substitutions and seasonal calculations, I can assure you that is not the case. That is why I call this "opportunistic" gardening. I just go where the holes are and grab something out of my bag of seeds.

Of course, there are things to consider, such as rotating the crops. You wouldn't want to be planting Brassicas in the same soil, over and over, for fear of encouraging pests and diseases. Things need to be moved around--rotated--to promote soil health and increase production.

More than anything what this involves is grabbing the big bag of seed packets I keep in a crisper drawer in the refrigerator and periodically sifting through it to remind myself what I should be planting next. I spread the seed packets across the kitchen table, setting aside those that need to be planted now--or soon--and making a note of seeds that are lacking. I just placed an order for more arugula, turnips, radishes. It's also time to start thinking about ordering garlic sets for the fall planting.

So there you have it. Food at random. Vegetables by accident. Whatever you want to call it, it's dinner to us.

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