January is the month of new beginnings. For me, that means looking ahead to what I’ll grow in the garden this summer. The kitchen table is four inches deep in seed catalogues, garden journals from several years, saved seed packets, and a sleeping cat.
There is a wonderful seduction to seed catalogues. All those voluptuous beefsteak tomatoes; red, yellow, and purple bell peppers the size of a small hippo’s head; melons so perfectly luscious looking you just know that’s what God has for breakfast with His bran muffin.
Not one of those glories will grow in my garden, though. This is the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn about gardening: like most seduction, it’s much better in the imagination than in the reality.
Oh, I’ve had my flirations with those heat-loving, long-season, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” veggies. I tried for years to grow bell peppers big enough to stuff with something bigger than an olive. I desperately tried to nurse along cantaloupes larger than a tennis ball. I ran out with a quilt to try to protect those gorgeous, humongous green tomatoes from the frost for just one more night.
Which was all fine when I had a day job. If my hobby garden had a failure of bell peppers, tomatoes, peas, onions or anything else, it was a setback, a black eye for my gardening ego, but I had the discretionary income to cover the loss at the supermarket. Now that I am retired, however, I have a strong economic incentive (ie., living on half my former income) for making my garden productive. Happily, this is an endeavor that enriches my soul, too. I need dirt under my fingernails and sunshine on my back to be a happy woman.
Much of that happiness starts with some careful planning now. This calls for a reality-check regarding the things I will grow and how much space in the raised beds I will give them. For years I grew bush green beans, for instance, but the cold, hard truth is the amount of green beans I actually eat in the winter is miniscule. I haven’t had good luck with freezing them–they get freezer burn no matter what I do–and, anyway, I don’t eat the kind of potato-meat-and-veg meals that would use up the bags and bags of beans I used to freeze. So, although their roots would enrich the soil, I have eliminated green beans from the garden. I buy some at the farmers’ market if I get a hankering for them.
The same is true for corn. I love sweet corn. I used to plant a Three Sisters patch with green beans twining up the corn stalks and pumpkins sprawling beneath. I felt eco-virtuous until reality intruded:
- Raccoons also love corn.
- Short-season corn has a stalk about five feet tall, and any pole bean worth its heritage grows taller than that, faster, and with more vigor, and the result of this is that if four bean vines gang up on one corn stalk, they’re going to pull that sucker over every time.
- Pumpkins are not happy in the shaded jungle of a corn patch and will seek every opportunity to escape into the hinterlands and put themselves in the way of the lawnmower.
- Raccoons also love corn.
So now I buy gorgeous corn at the farmers’ market and freeze it for winter use. Rather than growing pumpkins, I buy a couple of cans of pumpkin produced by a family company about forty miles away. It makes a lovely pie at Thanksgiving.
For other crops, I have expanded production, notably of tomatoes. Rather than beefsteaks, I grow paste tomatoes and a wonderful saladette. My default tomato is always Juliet, a mini plum with bright flavor, good vigor, some disease resistance, and a prodigious talent for churning out tomatoes that are perfect for drying, salads, and even sauce if you don’t mind peeling all those little tomatoes. Juliet is a hybrid, but I find hundreds of seedlings all over my compost pile every early summer and if I let them grow, I get tomatoes that look and taste just like Juliets, so I don’t know what’s going on there. They are so vigorous, I once had a seedling sprout in the cracked pavement of the driveway, where I must have dropped some compost as I was trundling a wheelbarrow over to the roses. The seedling didn’t live long, but I admired its spunk. I am trying to find a similarly vigorous paste tomato. My default is Grandma Mary’s, an open-pollinated Maine variety that has been selected for earliness and size. It isn’t stable, though. Some years I get tomatoes that are hefty and ripen fully on the vine, but other years it’s small and wants to drop off the plant before it ripens. Too, we’re getting increasing pressure from late blight here, and Grandma is susceptible. For that reason, I’ve been trialing other pastes alongside her for a couple of years now. Opalka was a bust, ditto Amish Paste. This year, I’ll be ordering a hybrid roma which is supposed to be prolific, fits my short-season requirements better than the heirloom varieties, is of a decent size, and has some disease resistance. We’ll see.
It’s wonderful to sit with a cup of tea on a January day, dreaming over catalogues, envisioning neat beds full of onions, carrots, rainbow chard, potatoes, Italian frying peppers and Hungarian Hot Wax peppers for next winter’s chili, one zucchini plant (one must be firm with zucchini because it has an in-born desire to take over the garden), tomatoes, basil, oregano, cilantro–
Seduced again, and loving every minute of it.