Making things grow

Gardening season has arrived, and nurseries and seed companies report a  financial  bumper crop this year as more people than usual put in yard gardens.   In the e-mail newsletter Johnny’s Selected Seeds sent out at the beginning of the May, Joann Matuzas accounts for this seed-change saying, €œThe uncertainty of the economy definitely has prompted more people to put in vegetable gardens this year. €

The Pinetree Garden Seeds website, on the other hand, acknowledges that the reasons people have for sweating up their brows a bit more than they have been are more complex.   Any financial downturn, personal, nationwide, or worldwide, might well prompt such a change.   But quavering in the safety and quality control  of produce sold in U.S. markets has also likely provided impetus for the rise in self-reliance.   This year’s jag upward in garden seed and plant sales reflects increased desire to control the quality of food flowing in to the household as well as a greater need to more carefully direct the stream of financial resources flowing out.

Some of us have been gardening for years for both reasons.   When I was a starving student, I tried to supplement my diet with fresh produce grown on ground surrounding apartments where I lived  whenever  possible.   In better times, cultivating a garden provided a way to supplement the family dinner table through comparatively frugal means.

In many ways, the quality side of the question interests me more.   On that side of the gardening equation, tomato enthusiasts like me gave up on grocery store tomatoes long ago as the market switched from selling flavorful, locally produced tomatoes to mass-production-hardy hybrid varieties that taste more like the boxes they’re shipped in than like the complex mixture of the earth, air, fire, and water tomatoes ought—indeed, want—to be.

Also a question of quality: A rising desire not to have my gardening choices controlled by mega-corporations.   This has prompted my interest in  open-pollinating and heirloom  flower and vegetable varieties, from which one might maintain or increase biological diversity in one’s garden, widen the flavor palette, select and save true-to-type seeds, and  cultivate traditional flower and vegetable strains that might intertwine with one’s family tree, two genetic stories growing together in a biological plot.  

I hold as another aspect of quality the aesthetics of growing  open-pollinating  varieties. Open-pollinating plants’ diversity of appearance and depths of flavor inspire me above and beyond the conformity factor at work in many hybrids.   Hybrid fruit and vegetable strains have their charms.    When  eaten fresh from the garden, they  surpass in quality the usual grocery store offerings (though since the contaminated food scare peaked  some grocery stores  have returned  to the “buy local” practice—we’ll see if that lasts).   But many hybrids lack the intriguing color and flavor spectra open-pollination produces with wild enthusiasm.   Furthermore, the end-stopped nature of many hybrids does not recommend them.   The fact that €œseeds € from many F-1 type hybrids of  flowers and vegetables won’t sprout—or, if they do, they might produce plants from which the qualities of the parent plant split out  or otherwise destabilize—provides a clear advantage to marketers of such strains.   If one finds a hybrid variety that appeals, then one must buy either seeds or seedlings of that variety year after year.   Once a fetching heirloom strain grabs your attention, you can propagate it yourself from seed garnered from successful plants.

Of course, if not carefully husbanded, many open-pollinating plants will engage in unabashed genetic experiments, which means that if saving seeds is a goal, you need to consider carefully how you arrange the vegetable neighborhoods in your garden.   I won’t be planting my open-pollinating strain of yellow crookneck squash in vicinity with my heirloom golden zucchini.   While my heirloom tomato varieties probably won’t mess overmuch with each other’s genetics, I’m separating them anyway, especially the Brandywines, the Cherokee Purples, and the Striped Germans, the three main strains from which I hope to gather seed.   I’m trying an heirloom bush bean variety from the Seed Savers Exchange called Empress.   To prevent the Empresses from   crossing with my tried and true but commoner Bush Blue Lakes, I’ll plant the Empress variety not only in a different section of the garden but also at a different time from when I plant the BBLs. Bush Blue Lakes, I’ve read, are open-pollinating.   I’ve never tried saving seed from BBLs before, but I’ll try this year and see what we get.

In this season’s store seed kiosks and catalogues, I’ve noticed some contraction in the variety of open-pollinating squash offered for sale.   Much to my surprise, I was unable to find any variety of open-pollinating crookneck seed sold in the local stores, only a hybrid straight-necked yellow squash, probably the same kind as or something similar  to  what  has  started showing up in grocery stores.   This year, Pinetree Gardens offered open-pollinating crookneck seed only in its €œLast Chance € section, a list of vegetable and flower seeds the nursery’s discontinuing.   All  of their  current yellow squash offerings are F1 hybrids.   On the other hand, most of the seed catalogues I receive continue to lay out a grand spread of open-pollinating tomatoes, presumably because their popularity remains high, and hence the profitability of selling them.

The  risk  that seems to  have become part of buying  produce from outside sources  gives  good  cause for  concern.    In my opinion, however, changing your behavior on the basis of anxiety alone  not only sets  you up for greater uncertainty but also reduces your depth of enjoyment  in whatever it is you’re trying to do differently or better.  

I’m still learning how to make things grow, or rather, how to  sort through  the  fruits of persuasion that plants offer up, since many have adapted fruiting strategies to attract our (and other creatures’) best interest.   I’m certain that  I’ve heard  my  Brandywine tomato plants whisper,  “My fruit is to be desired above all others.”   I have always seen my yard gardens as ways to improve the household’s well being.   Only lately have I come to consider that the garden might provide an edible inheritance for my children and for their children, in the form of seed from strains of plants my  family  has  lived with, each side growing down the line together.   Also, giving seeds to friends  symbolizes nicely the organic and intimate nature by which lives intertwine.   How my selections today will affect the garden, both the  one in my back yard and the ones that grow beyond my sight,  I can’t say, but  whatever happens  ought to prove interesting.

14 thoughts on “Making things grow”

  1. I perpetually make the mistake of thinking that other’s lives are like my own. But the more I read about your garden, the more I’m coming to conclude that it’s very unlike mine, which is tucked away in a relatively small plot in my backyard.

    My aunt from south of Cedar City, UT had what I have come to think of as the Platonic perfection of backyard gardens– almost a quarter acre of vegetables that she irrigated with ditch rights. My 8’X20′ garden, in comparison, hardly qualifies for the name, though it still produces enough carrots and beets to feed me and the rabbits all winter, and I still have space for oddments like eggplants (flavor’s insipid, but they look totally cool when they fruit) and bush beans (which bear too heavily for me to eat fresh all they grow, not enough space to make pressure canning a sensible option).

    So exactly how big is yours? 😉

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  2. Exactly how big? Can I count the blue flax, bachelors’ buttons, and black-eyed Susans that jumped the flowerbed wall and are rapidly colonizing the yard, or are we just talking veggies? What about the toads, do they count? They shift the boundaries rather dramatically at times, especially at mating season, yet I consider them part of the garden. The hummingbirds sit on the fence I put up for the peas, looking like they think it’s theirs. I definitely need to factor in the hummingbirds (16 at the feeders this evening), some of whom travel out into the desert for part of the day. Hummingbirds will make use of the tomato cages when those go up, too. And if I’m going to be honest, I’ll have to mention in passing the thousands of elastomer-propelled newborn grasshoppers, some of which have already incorporated a seedling or two. Then there are the swallows that hunt through the garden, and the nighthawks (Hm, now that I think about it, where are the nighthawks? Haven’t seen them yet).

    The garden won’t hold still long enough for me to take measurements. 😉

    Lest anybody think I’ve got something ordered and dependable going, let me say my garden is a rough affair, built up in between other household matters. Currently, I have seven casually constructed raised beds, approximately 10’x3′, and I plan to put in five or so more this year, if it works out. The flowerbed runs about 40’x4′, but the boundaries have blurred on account of those wayward plants mentioned above and a tough alfalfa strain blown in from neighbors’ fields. The old tillage, which I just cleaned up, raking out the dead weeds, is probably another 40’x25′, but nothing much is there right now except for wild plants: a few seedling sage plants, a globe mallow plant, and three seedlings of a bush one sees in the local canyons, recognized but not identified, status in the garden: undetermined. Four of our six recently acquired fruit trees stand at the edge of the old tillage, with a big space open between them and the rest of the garden area. More than half an acre of the yard is completely uncultivated and half-wild, containing snakeweed, globe mallow (which is blooming right now—always fun), wild phlox, sage, a couple four-wing saltbushes, a few tall rabbit brush plants, Russian thistle (tumbleweeds), wild mustard, and stuff I haven’t the slightest idea what it is. In the past, we’ve had prairie dogs try to move in, but they went through a die-off last year, along with a kill-off (not our doing—we used nonviolent persuasion to convince them to look elsewhere).

    We have one well for the yard and house. Given that we live in a pretty dry pocket of Utah, I don’t know how much more garden area would be reasonable to work up with our current water source, but I intend to find out. I’d really like to learn how to grow dry beans, especially black beans. It would be cool to open up part of the yard for that.

    You grow eggplants for their appearance?

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  3. Aubergines are the most unctuously lovely of all vegetables. They’re only insipid if you refuse to treat them to the robust application of flavor that their spongeniess desires.

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  4. Also: why do the seeds we have purchased for our little balcony garden had “best by” date (generally this Dec.)? Is it the whole hybrid thing?

    I haven’t gardened intensely since I was a boy helping my grandfather with close to a full acre of amazing stuff in Kanab.

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  5. greenfrog,

    That’s really interesting that you grow eggplants for their presentation to your eye, it looks like as a kind of symbolic endeavor. Is “aubergine” the color of the void? Looking it up on color palettes, it appears to be darker than the color some call “eggplant.” That’s to say, some palettes contain both “aubergine” and “eggplant,” and “aubergine” is darker than “eggplant,” almost black.

    I’m assuming you do eat them, at least sometimes.

    Still, how fun, to grow an edible plant because the shape and color of the fruit is important. I grow my heirloom tomatoes for a similar reason—the shapes and colors are part of my thinking about them, along with flavors—but I eat just about every single one of them.

    I grow Moon and Stars watermelons mostly for their appearance, dark, dark, sky-green, with large and small yellow spots that do indeed look like moons and stars. We do eat them, but that particular choice is a symbolic one. I like having a fruit in the garden that mirrors the night sky. The night sky showing, for me, “someplace else, where other things happen than happen here.” Also, Moon and Stars watermelons are heirlooms, so I can and have saved their seeds successfully.

    (Invisilink embedded in “Moon and Stars”)

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  6. Wm,

    I don’t know why seeds would have “best by” dates, since most seeds are viable for years. This year, I planted spinach seeds that were ten years old and they germinated well. The Old Flame tomatoes I planted were much older than that, yet two of the nine sprouted, much to my delight. Provided they make it to maturity, two plants are quite enough to save new seeds.

    I understand you can freeze seeds to preserve them even longer. Haven’t tried that yet, but I might.

    While many seeds will be viable for years, most seed catalogues, with their order forms and layout, expire in December of the year they’re published for. Maybe it has something to do with that. And maybe some folks are persuaded they need to buy “fresher” seeds when they’re past the “best by” dates. Most of my packets have “Packed for” dates, so you can keep track of how old the seed is. Only my NK (Northrup King) packets have “Sell by” dates, probably a processing thing for them. It doesn’t mean the seed isn’t valuable. Unless NK has found a way to produce seeds that “expire.” Wouldn’t that be something.

    I’m going to stop using NK seeds anyway.

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  7. Just a thought– for those of us in dry climes, the “best by” dates are pretty much a bogus marketing scam. (Recall wheat seeds retrieved from the pyramid tombs at Giza sprouting when tested a few years ago.) But when I lived in humid places, seeds would deteriorate significantly if we didn’t plant them promptly.

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  8. Here’s a tip I ever learned from Martha White’s TV show:
    If you want to test the germination capabilities of an old packet of seeds, wrap ten seeds in a wet paper towel. Give them so many days (a week?) and check for sprouts. The percentage of sprouts tells you the percentage for the entire packet. If you only sprout three of the ten seeds, they might not be worth the soil, water, and energy for growing. If you sprout seven of the ten, that’s good.

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  9. Oh for heaven’s sake, that should be Martha Stewart. And I don’t know why that ‘ever’ is in there. I probably had two different sentences in my head at the time and the one on the screen morphed into some sort of hybrid.

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  10. Lora,

    You live in a humid part of the eastern U.S. How long do your seeds last? Do you save leftover seed from the previous year or just buy new packets every year?

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  11. We save more seeds with each year. They do fine for a couple years. I dry them thoroughly on a paper towel and then store them in zip style sandwich bags inside yet another bag. That keeps out extra moisture. As long as I dried them thoroughly, they don’t take any extra moisture in the bag with them. I also store them in a cupboard away from light, but the cupboard is in the kitchen where the moisture is high. Well, anywhere in my house the moisture is high.
    Seeds that are two years old still work well for us. The only older seeds I have are some lavender I found that I had bought ten years ago. About a third of that is showing life.
    Final point: my seeds are labeled and not mixed together, but I still carry quite a mix of hybrid and heirloom. They usually produce no matter what, which surprised me. I didn’t think hybrids had good seeds. There have also been a few strange tomato plants that come up in the garden each year which must be wild mixes from all the genetic material we’ve been providing. I saved seeds from one of those, as well. They came in orange! They are mongrels. Yummy mongrels, especially for me, because I am having trouble eating red toms.

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  12. Thanks for that good information, Lora.

    I’ve witnessed hybrid winter squash split out and produce not only lovely but wonderfully-flavored fruit that ruined me for anything else. Which turned out to be too bad for me, since I’ve never seen its like since.

    I’m uneducated on how that works—maybe one of your hybrid tomatoes had an orange, open-pollinating parent. But lucky you to get something compatible with your needs. Want to go to Las Vegas with me to win money to buy a 4-wheel drive vehicle? 🙂

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