Sixty degrees in January hurls back nature’s blanket of white snow to reveal a soggy brown world unready to be awakened. A mock spring teasing energetic gardeners just doesn’t quite have the right light. The weather seems awkward, suspect. I don’t like this climate change game.
I’m tempted to try starting some kale seeds to get a jump on the cabbage whites. My mid-summer sowing of kale for winter greens yielded exactly one plant. It’s still alive and well, standing alone, the Omega Man of the garden. We’ve had a few meals from its leaves, much more delicious than store-bought kale, and certainly more nutritious since the caterpillars add extra protein. I clean the leaves carefully, but let’s face it: butterflies glue their microscopic eggs onto the leaves, and no amount of washing will remove all of them.
If you think you don’t eat bugs, you’re probably wrong. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe and nutritious, and there’s even a gourmet insectivore movement happening in America right now. Creative chefs are promoting upscale insect cuisine. It’s all so cutting edge; but really it’s what indigenous people and survivalists have always known. Crickets are nutty in flavor, and make a great power snack.
I learned from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that the traditional vegetarian diet of Hindus was unintentionally supplemented by insect protein for hundreds of years. And I once learned from an especially chatty pest control guy that all our grains, cereals, and dried goods contain dormant insect parts. Since only a few slow-moving easily-squished larvae were hatching out of the flour spilled in the nooks and crannies by the previous tenant, and since I had reservations about applying chemicals, he cheerfully acquiesced to doing nothing. He enlightened me extensively about the pervasive presence of bugs in all our “clean” homes. He came down firmly on the side of peaceful cohabitation, and seemed delighted not to spread poison. I wish I had been taking notes.
Insects are everywhere. Organic food hosts whole communities of little livestock. Kale and other brassicas are the frontier in the battle of habitat gardening vs. vegetable gardening because of the aggressive cabbage white butterfly. There’s a spot in my yard where the veggie garden and the butterfly garden are about three feet apart. In this small space, there is no hope of isolating pests from crops. And do I consider butterflies pests? Well, no. I have a whole garden devoted to their host and nectar plants. The cabbage white is not a native butterfly to North America, but this wouldn’t be my garden without things buzzing all around like mad. The white butterflies are the first and last to flutter their wings each year.
Cabbage whites don’t do much damage to the kale, mustard, arugula, or rapini, especially once the plants progress past the seedling stage. At the first blush of leaf production, I simply look for caterpillars and knocked them off the plants. (With a stick. I’m squeamish.)
But broccoli was impossible. It stank. It was a love boat of cabbage white sex trysts. It was covered not only with an unbelievable number of caterpillars, but also with dark green globs that I gradually realized were caterpillar poop. We didn’t harvest any broccoli. Basically, just smelling it made me feel ill, and I couldn’t pick even one third of the caterpillars off successfully. The poop really sealed the deal. I just had to compost the broccoli and walk away.
So next year, when I try broccoli again, I have an idea. Excuse me, you’re saying, you’re going to try it again? But it stank, and it had poop; are you insane? Well of course I’m insane; I’m a gardener. Gardeners are nothing if not pathologically optimistic. I’m looking out at the dead world planning all the next year’s harvest. Anyway, next year, I plan to use mesh netting over a frame to protect the broccoli. My theory is that the broccoli stank because it was getting chewed and pooped on, and broccoli protected from munching bugs will not smell. Imagine cutting fresh broccoli from the garden for a stir fry on a sunny summer night in June, dining on the patio and smelling the smoky spicy aroma of a meal grown, harvested, cooked and consumed within a ten foot radius of where you repose. Isn’t it worth the risk?
Inspecting the dank, dreary garden in this soggy unseasonal warmth, I don’t see much insect activity. Maybe the bugs know something I don’t know. Maybe it will freeze again next week. The sky seems to say it’s getting dark again and preparing to snow. The bulbs aren’t fooled by this fake spring. The lilac hasn’t started blooming. Winter persists.
For your winter reading amusement, here are some links to gourmet bug cuisine: