Zero degrees seems colder than any reasonable life-form can endure, and the other day it was twenty below; it was the same temperature here as the planet Mars. I was born on Earth, not Mars. I need some sun. Michigan has become the Arctic Circle. I expect to see penguins waddling across the frozen tundra of my snow-covered back yard any minute now.
I’d like to share some gardening wisdom with you, but I can’t: I’m buried under the snow and my brain is frozen. Usually I romantically dream over my morning coffee in the winter about glorious summer days to come. Usually I gaze out the window at the spaces only known to me where the first crocuses and hellebores will wave “Hello! Happy spring!” Usually I have enough imagination to survive a few cold days in February without losing my equilibrium.
But enough. Enough! Bitter relentless sub-zero weather started in late December, and shows no sign of abating. We have to leave a tap running in the house so the pipes don’t freeze. The house is never warm, just tolerable. We’re so bundled up indoors my husband and I call each other “Comrade.” You know that cute little bird bath I like to feature in my photos? Well, you can’t see it. It’s buried. My stump is buried. Have I mentioned how much I love my stump? It’s in my ironic Forgotten Garden, surrounded by hellebores and snowdrops. The lovely late winter vignette I planned for the Forgotten Garden’s first spring is buried, and even if it wasn’t, it’s too cold to step outside or leave the blinds open and allow precious molecules of heat to escape. I don’t even look out the window anymore. There is literally nothing to see. Until the polar bears show up. Then I’ll take some pictures, I promise.
My over-wintering crops are buried. Is that good for them? I don’t know. Cilantro inexplicably overwinters in my garden, but that was before Earth became a hostile frozen wasteland. I supposedly have Mache, Mustard and Dandelion greens overwintering for a punchy spring salad – are they alive under the mountain of snow? My carrots and beets for Christmas harvest are still out there in the ground because the freeze came six weeks early and there has been no thaw, not even a hint of thaw. They’ll probably have to go straight into the compost, but I don’t know because I have never experienced cold as cold as this. This cold is just wrong.
It’s so cold here, I have to wonder: do real people live in Canada? Or are they robots designed to explore alien landscapes? I’ve known lots of Canadians, and they seem more or less human. Except when they talk about “plugging in” the car at night. Really? If your mechanically engineered devices cannot withstand the cold, what makes you think your mammalian flesh can survive? I’m done with winter. It’s over; if there was ever anything between us, the thrill is gone.
I’m breaking up with winter. Go on, leave me and take all your things with you. Take every little icicle and snowflake and ice-dam and black chunk of whatever that is falling off my car, take your windy nights that make it impossible to breathe outdoors, take your pelting freezing rain that stings my face, take your mounds of sticky messy gloppy snow destroying my shoes, take your relentless nagging “white white white white white.” Shut up winter. Just stop. Go back to your momma and set me free to fall in love with spring. My heart is ready to burst out of this snow-covered tomb.
This year’s veggie garden theme is Organization. While I foster wildness in the flower gardens, I’ve learned from previous failures that a chaotic approach in the veggie garden decreases the harvest. To be honest, though, beauty is probably my biggest motivation in taming the veggie patch. Wild veggies look unbelievably ugly by July or August. And I need more than nutrition; I need beauty.
A creative approach in plant placement that works in a flower garden will undermine all beauty in a veggie garden. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive. The more rows, repetition, and regimentation in a veggie garden, the more lovely it becomes. Veggie plants grow very quickly, and some like tomatoes and cucumbers are very disorderly vines hell-bent on the destruction of all logic in their mad rush to reproduce. Others like cilantro and spinach bolt into flower suddenly, ruining the leaf crop. With a combination of good vertical support, careful attention to warning signs of bolting, and successional sowing, I hope to have a beautiful and productive garden this year all the way through Fall.
I’m also trying to be really really healthy by eating my own chemical free organic produce. Surprisingly this doesn’t translate into thriftiness or time saving. Since I can buy less at the grocery store, I just buy more expensive stuff; but it’s so yummy! How could I not? As far as time management, I’ve spent a lot of time washing my lettuce with obsessive-compulsive vigor since I discovered caterpillars munching it. I am fully aware that insects contain ridiculously large quantities of nutrients, and when the world ends and there are no stores and everyone’s starving I’ll know what weeds I can eat and I’ll be glad about all these bugs…but not yet. Not until the apocalypse. For now, I just want salad in my salad.
The Texas Tomato Cages are performing beautifully, and I’m using the regular tomato cages for my eggplant. I start my tender plants earlier than weather allows by using water cloches, and I already have one green tomato starting to ripen up! My favorite tomato, the German Queen, has lots of flowers. She makes very ugly tomatoes, after all, she’s a German Queen; but they taste astounding.
I discovered radishes this year. We finished batch one last week, have batch two almost ready to harvest, and seeds sprouting on batch three. They sprout fast and are very easy. I use radishes in salad, and as a chip substitute with humus or guacamole, and like a cracker with goat cheese and chives on top. Basically I’ve decided radishes are nature’s crunchy peppery potato chips, and I need to grow an infinite quantity.
Bolting continues to be my Evil Nemesis. I had to abandon rapini after about two and a half harvests (one very substantial), and my beloved Mizuna mustard seems to want to make flowers instead of leaves. The spinach is threatening to bolt despite its shady spot, so tomorrow I’ll harvest all the leaves I can for dinner. I thought these plants could keep producing all season, the mustard especially. There’s so much I need to learn.
Beets and carrots are lined up like little soldiers, and I have respectively two and three batches started a few weeks apart so there won’t be a glut of one thing, or too much food for a family of two. I’m proud that I thinned the beets and carrots this year; it’s hard to pluck out your darlings and toss them in the compost. I always taste things just for the hell of it, and those beet thinnings were delicious; I included them raw in a salad, and they lent a nice woodsy/meaty undertone, so now I can relax about thinning the beets and get some use out of them.
I did the same salad treatment with radish thinnings on my first batch, but then decided with the second batch to plant the seeds farther apart. It worked; no thinning was needed, and no seeds were wasted. I kind of tried it with carrots, but those damn seeds are almost microscopic. I don’t have time to sort out that kind of nonsense.
Peas are climbing their vertical support, mint is taking over a rocky corner by the back door, and red leaf akashiso which I couldn’t find seeds for this year obligingly self seeded. Now I’m just waiting for the Armenian cucumber to start climbing the black obelisk.
The lack of chaos in the veggie garden so far this year fills me with pride. The interplay of colors is pleasing, the plants are growing well and making food, and no pesticides, fertilizers, or other chemicals have gone into the food. There’s an almost zero carbon footprint compared to produce trucked in from California and Mexico. No one was exploited or injured in growing or harvesting this food. I hope I can learn to do this better and better every year, and I hope the veggie patch isn’t a hot mess by August.
First day of spring, amazing blue skies, unreasonably mild weather, and a surprise day off work; what could possibly go wrong? My fence could go wrong, that’s what. And what does this have to do with seed starting? The veggie garden runs the whole length of the fence, from garage to back door. The fence is falling down. You haven’t seen it in the pictures I post because I have carefully hidden it. Here’s the ugly truth I’ve shielded you from:
I love the old texture of the fence, and the silver-grey color, but the broken posts and boards, the warping panels literally flapping in the wind, the massive holes providing rabbit doors, and the gate which cannot be opened without heaving the whole frame upward with one’s foot: these are things I can live without. The posts in fact, are not fence posts, according to a contractor friend of mine. The placement of the fence violates city codes. The fence leans treacherously over the sidewalk, and someday when it crushes someone’s child or family pet, we will surely get sued. So I ordered a new fence.
When the fence goes up, I know men in work boots will stomp mercilessly all over every inch of my garden. Even though I had it written into the contract to be careful of the “landscaping” and wrote in by name specific plants that they could not harm, I know it’s a lost cause. They will crush everything.
I accepted this before I signed a contract. I was prepared to feel relentless dread and anxiety about these garden marauders for about two weeks. And then, they changed the plan. They needed another week to get supplies. Ah! Make it stop!
Deep breaths, deep breaths; okay, when the dread subsides, I’m left with a visceral burning desire to start some seeds, but because the men in boots will crush everything, I cannot. It’s 80 degrees in March, and I can’t start peas. I can’t start spinach and mustard. I can’t even start a few radishes.
Or maybe I could. I’m scheming how I could squeeze a few batches in strategically without blocking the men in boots and without ruining the garden plan for the whole summer. Or how I could put caution tape around planted areas, and trust the booted marauders, the neighborhood dogs, the feral rabbits and feral children to all respect my seedlings and carefully, delicately step around them.
I’ve cleaned enough liquor bottles and dog poo out of my street gardens to know better. I know I need to wait. I know this temporary delay of gratification will lead to a much better garden in the future. I know it’s early spring and we could still have frost, so really smart gardeners wouldn’t start seeds anyway.
But I’m not a smart gardener. I’m an emotional gardener. I might just go out there and start some seeds right now, otherwise, I’ll DIE!
Picture Detroit as a self-sufficient network of communities where food comes from gardens in the now-empty lots instead of McDevils and the Party Store. Along with Feedom Freedom Gardens and Earthworks Garden, it’s starting to really happen. As one of the cities hit the hardest and the longest by recession, Detroit may become the new urban agriculture model of self-sufficiency.
Photo: Patrick CrouchEdith Floyd is the real deal. With little in the way of funding or organizational infrastructure, she runs Growing Joy Community Garden on the northeast side of Detroit. Not many folks bother to venture out to her neighborhood, but Edith has been inspiring me for years. I caught up with her on a cold, rainy November afternoon. While we talked in the dining room, her husband Henry watched their grandkids.
Q.You haven’t always been an urban farmer. What did you do before this?
A. I worked at Detroit Public Schools. I started out with the Head Start Center and then I went to the middle school, to the Ed Tech, [which is] now the Computer Lab. I started farming because they laid me off and didn’t call me back. Farming is not making a living, it’s just keeping food in my freezer. I try to sell some…
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