rethinking the vegetable garden and one seed-shopping ‘rule’ of mine

tomatoes from max mxI’M RETHINKING MY VEGETABLE GARDEN, I realized while sitting down with a friend for what was meant to be the annual ritual of tea-drinking and seed-shopping—emphasis on the shopping.

Across the table (below), Tod powered through catalog after catalog as is our custom, voicing highlights as he went–utterances like:

“What about fava beans?” and then a minute later, “Definitely getting more sweet potato slips from Southern Exposure.”

This all as I mostly just sat—uttering only the occasional, “I just don’t know what to grow this year.”

seed shopping 2015For the moment, that thought has me frozen (and not just because of an often-single-digit weather week). I haven’t bought a single seed; I haven’t sketched a single raised bed’s potential contents.

Frozen. But why?

I’m blaming the arrival of Max Morningstar, an organic farmer who relocated to my hometown late last winter. With two other organic farm operations, he’s part of a social-investment project that is under way converting 200ish acres in our little downtown from conventional ag to organic, while snapping up three houses that are have become home to young farmers and their extended families. (More on the Copake Agricultural Center and similar projects, in the box at the bottom of the page.)

I’m blaming Max because he built a farmstand (below, the stand half-built) that he then stuffed with perfectly grown, chemical-free vegetables all last summer-into-fall, opening it several days a week. That last bit’s what got me.

10495711_842988909058744_6772134955122894023_oIn doing so, he made me rethink Number 3 in my Seed-Catalog Shopping Rules, part of the “math” of what to grow and what to skip, since neither space nor time are limitless:

RULE 3: What really rates your precious square-footage in the garden, based on these two factors:

(a) What do you eat most of/can’t live without?

(b) From that list of “big loves,” what is available locally for a reasonable price in season, and therefore doesn’t rate inclusion?

(This second bit of thinking may help those of us who define “can’t live without” as “the entire botanical world.” For instance, I skip things like eggplant, and simply buy the occasional one instead, and don’t make room for plain old zucchini, a space-hog that’s cheap and omnipresent in summer markets.)

Yes, there have long been exceptional farmers’ markets full of organic produce nearby, but none so close, or open other than on Saturdays. Max and his crew (below) just made it too easy, widening the “what’s available locally” palette.

And I was grateful. An explosion of rabbits in the garden sent me down the road to explore the new stand at first, when my beans were suddenly disappeared.

A month later, when the coldest summer I can recall never provided much impetus for tomatoes, I was happy to score a crate of paste types to augment my own. They became the sauce in the photo on the top of the page, destined for the freezer, and another batch after that. I enjoyed arugula when I was between my own pickings, and the most beautiful ‘Watermelon’ radishes, and more.

truck-920x690So now what? Order two or three crates and skip growing paste tomatoes altogether for a year, and just plant my usual cherry plant and a couple of slicers? That would free up at least one 20-foot bed (besides resting the soil in it from tomatoes for a year). Or use the “paste bed” for a tomato trial of my own, finally having room to try crazy-named ones like ‘Nyagous’ that I’ve never even seen, or tasted?

Then I could be more like Tod, who grew 16 varieties last year (and from across the table, I learned, is desperately trying to pare down to maybe eight). Because of all the paste types required for putting up a year of sauce, I can’t do things like that, I always tell myself.

Maybe now I can?

Other fantasies are germinating:

heirloom squashPlant all the winter squash I “haven’t had room for” for years—not just my staple ‘Butternut’ and ‘Delicata,’ but old friends like the dirigible called ‘Jumbo Pink Banana’ and blue, three-cornered ‘Triamble’ (both above) and even ‘Blue Hubbard,’ warts and all.

Grow heirloom dry beans, maybe, since they are one of the things I love most to eat. A 20-foot-long bed wide enough for two rows could perhaps yield 15 pounds, if I got it right.

I guess the fact that I am pondering at least means I am no longer frozen, technically, doesn’t it?

How is your seed-shopping going—what are you inclined to give your own precious space to in 2015? Any suggestions to help blast me from my point of seeming fixity, into action, over here?

when social investment yields organic vegetables, and more

Copake_map_July_2014:2COPAKE AGRICULTURAL CENTER is one project of Northeast Farm Access, a social-investment entity that uses investor capital to buy farmland, transition it to organic, and lease it longterm to intermediate-level farmers—offering them affordable, 30-year access to more acres than they could afford otherwise, so they can grow their businesses. Other such projects are under way elsewhere in the region.

In the process, towns like mine get new citizens and revitalized houses–and a lot of positive energy. And farmstands, perhaps, too, full of local, clean produce.

(Farmstand and farm photos from MX Morningstar Farm. Map and farmer photo from Northeast Farm Access.)

  1. Kathe says:

    I built raised beds in a 50×50 foot field 3 years ago. Filled with native soil and good steer manure, tested the soil, have full sun and thought I was good to go. Am a life-long vegetable and perennial gardener and owned a plant nursery for many years. I have had nothing but trouble growing vegetables in these beds. Weak growth on many things, except pole beans and sugar peas, broccoli, and greens okay. Wire worms decimate my root crops and seem to get worse each year. Tomatoes, my favorite, grown in the greenhouse, or in the beds or on the deck in pots get blight at a hint of color, while my next door neighbor says he never gets blight. Wasn’t able to even grow carrots last year due to wire worms and this year they got the beets, potatoes the same. Then the seeds I saved and stored in what I thought was a secure out-building where pretty much eaten up by rats. I am discouraged and frustrated to say the least and have been staring at the packets of seeds the rats left me, knowing I need to find out what is actually left and can’t get up the energy to do so. We have a bounty of organic farmers in my location that grow excellent crops, but prices are high so that isn’t really an option for me, except occasionally. Thank you for your post Margaret, I think I need to take a break from trying to grow, once again those things I want and just stick to those that grow well (at least I have some). Your post and responses have helped me find a little direction.

    1. margaret says:

      Sorry for such challenges, Kathe, though you seem to have followed all the right steps! Maybe this year will be different (which of course is the gardener’s basic mantra, right — try, try, try again)?

  2. Polly says:

    Having little room or sun in my yard, I joined a community garden in order to grow vegetables. After a few years there, I have given up on a number of my favorites because of total crop failure. Cucumbers – the cucumber beetle causes the vines to wilt. Beans – the bean beetle finally won out because I got sick of squishing those yellow fuzzy larvae. Community gardens are like big old hospital wards, where pests and mildew and blight flow freely. Thank goodness for our farmers’ market! I can grow a few sure things that I love, especially the reliable chard and snap peas, and shop for the rest.

  3. Sarina says:

    For zucchini flowers, may I recommend tromboncino? It isn’t technically a zucchini and it is a rambler, so it can be trained up something and will supply more huge flowers than anything else I know. I am in Pretoria, South Africa, so we are in the middle of our growing season. I can highly recommend the squash “Rugosa friulana: which looks like yellow crookneck but is in a league of its own. Lettuce “De Morges Braun” is also wonderful: huge with a wonderful texture and slow to bolt. Green Sausage tomato was very early and prolific, and wild Za’tar from Baker Creek grew easily from seed and smells amazing. We do not have good farmers’ markets so I plant in every nook and cranny and mulch with ground alfalfa to feed and keep maintenance down.

  4. Karen says:

    Hi Margaret!

    I’m going to turn 75 in May. Over the years our garden has increased and decreased in size as children arrived, grew, and left home. I have canned, frozen, pickled, and dried garden produce all along. Now my husband is living with Alzheimer’s and I am his caregiver and I just don’t have the time anymore. So, I grow tomatoes, peppers, lettuce varieties, broccoli, sugar snap peas and have introduced fall-bearing raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries to my vegetable garden. These are foods that we really love and can build our summer and fall meals around. Like you, we are fortunate to sosurces for fresh, organic produce in our small rural town so I can purchase those items that I used to grow, such as winter squash, potatoes, onions, sweet corn, etc. The items in our garden are tasty, easy to grow, pick, and prepare.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Karen. I learned to garden when I moved home to care for my mother, who had early onset Alzheimer’s around age 49 or 50 (I was mid-20s then). Being “stuck” at home by day (someone came to be with her at night), I needed something to pass the time. I started remaking the front yard!

  5. Rebecca says:

    Herbs! I will not give up growing herbs. They add the zip, the zest, the interest to the organic veggies I buy at our local Farmer’s Market. Also green beans, not necessarily without challenges but the flavor of homegrown can’t be beat. I also find they can be a bit pricey at the market. And this is understandable. I have said many many times everyone should spend a few hours picking beans!

  6. LK says:

    I guess as gardeners we sometimes go through the same things. After I read The Third Plate by Dan Barber I knew I had to change the way I was planning my garden. It’s time to kind of thank my garden for producing so many beautiful vegetables by growing plants that feed it and us. I’ve grown as many as 18 tomato plants and given a lot way, and as many pepper plants. This year I’m growing about half of each and planting more things like cowpeas and different things that I’ve never grown or heard of before. I think if I had a wonderful farm stand close to my house I would definitely do what you’re doing. You’re not closing a chapter, you’re adding a new one. I hadn’t realized how much of a pattern I’d grown myself into. I’m having a lot of fun exploring new things things year.
    Have fun Margaret!

    1. margaret says:

      Cowpeas sound good, LK–I remember that cowpeas are in a different genus than more familiar peas and beans, in the genus Vigna with the asparagus and yardlong beans and the Chinese mosaic and noodle beans. Haven’t grown them, but tempted to try. Thanks for reminding me.

  7. Tom says:

    In response to Polly’s comment about “community gardens being a sick ward.” A former farmer’s son, I have no land so must rely on community gardens to grow my food. I use floating row cover to protect my crops from insects and critters alike. Haven’t had a problem with insects, critters, or mildew for years. Healthy plants grown in a balanced soil fend off insects and disease pretty well. I use the covers mainly to keep groundhogs out of my garden beds. The floating covers seem to confuse them.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Tom. I love the many uses of row covers, too, including all of the ones in this story. Pest control, climate control… Thanks for saying hello, and good luck with the 2015 woodchucks. Usually here I see the first lumbering, hungry visitor in March.

      1. Polly says:

        Thanks, Tom. I didn’t know that row cover is a woodchuck deterrent. In addition to beetle-related crop loss, the chuck ate ALL my lettuce and cabbage. You have convinced me to give row cover a try. I will do my homework and (fingers crossed) have some bumper crops.

  8. Shelley says:

    My first year with a vegetable garden (this spring will be my 4th year) I planted 38 tomato plants! All different varieties! All from seed! I QUICKLY learned that you cannot survive on tomatoes alone- especially when realizing that i was inexperienced at how to can or save them all. It was a real eye-opening experience (and quite wasteful well). I have now scaled back tremendously to 5-6 tomato plants and expanded to include beans, peas, asparagus (now in there 3rd year) and new this past fall hardneck and artichoke type GARLIC! Items i actually use a lot of. This spring, I will be looking to try my hand at some greens/spinach and then really plan out a fall garden after my spring/summer crops to maximize my harvest.

  9. Mark says:

    I’ll turn 64 this year and am looking forward to gardening no less than I was 20 years ago. I’ve been growing microgreens indoors to make the Iowa winter more tolerable (I really can’t complain about this year….so far). Last year I experimented with several new Asian greens and tatsoi emerged as one of my new favorites. This year, I’ve gone overboard once more with seeds (my favorite new seed source is High Mowing, thanks to you, Margaret) and am going to try several new veggies like salsify, celeriac and scorzonera, along with more Asian greens and the usual suspects.

  10. That’s great you have farmers growing organic produce in Copake Margaret. This same reason saves me from having to grow the “entire botanical world” in my garden. I am lucky to have Willow Wisp Organic Farm nearby to grow most of my “best loves”.
    That means my backyard garden can accommodate some experimental things like muskmelons and sweet potatoes, more varieties of garlic, cabbage for saurkraut, and lots of herbs and flowers. I’m aiming to have my seeds ordered by the end of the week!

  11. Ava S. says:

    I’m down here in zone 8, Texas…I’ve planted my garlic and potatoes. Tomorrow I’m doing spinach and collard greens. I can and dehydrate as well. This year my goal is to grow enough tomatoes to get us through the year. Last year I had to buy cases of tomatoes at the farmer’s markets in Dallas and Grand Prairie.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for saying hello, Ava, and it makes me feel optimism to hear about your being outdoors planting away already. I have a couple of months yet to wait. Love collards–I didn’t grow any last year (not sure why?) so thanks for the reminder to buy some fresh seed!

  12. I’m feeling some of the same things this year, Margaret. We bought a new house last year and started new gardens there. This season we’re thinking of giving up our 2 community garden plots and moving everything home. I don’t think we’ll have quite the same amount of space, so, like you, I’m thinking of decreasing the amount of tomatoes I grow. I usually plant 38, but I figured for the price of our plots I could buy tomatoes from a farmstand and make room for some other things. I think it’s good to mix it up every once in awhile!

    1. margaret says:

      38 tomatoes! Well, that IS ambitious. When I realized the case price for organic paste tomatoes wasn’t so bad, really, from the farmer nearby, it started to open up a whole new range of possibilities…

  13. Carol says:

    Two years ago my friendly neighborhood rabbit nibbled every single one of my pole beans to the ground, except one that was at the far end of the row. I guess his/her tummy was full. I assumed I would have to replant, but before I did, they recovered and were growing. I had all the beans I could use. My reading tells me the initial growth is tender and sweet, while the second growth is not so tender and not so sweet, and the rabbit will probably not eat that growth.

    The other thing my resident rabbit did, I had a dandelion blooming right outside my living room window- the rabbit sniffed that bloom in three different places on the edge of the bloom, then went back to the first spot sniffed, bit it, working his way around the bloom , til I had no more dandelion bloom. He sort of redeemed himself because maybe he did that with other dandelions,

  14. Jean S says:

    This is my year for all flowers out at my community garden plot. For one thing, the dahlias need lifting and dividing; for another, there are a couple of “mystery spots” that need work (stubborn clay). And last but not least, I live close to Portland (OR) with its fantastic farmer’s market.

    So. I will be taking care of the soil, growing flowers, and hitting up the PDX market. And if I need to augment that, I’ll hit up some u-pick fields. All will be well.

  15. Beth says:

    I am downsizing veggie world this year for some of the same reasons you’ve mentioned Margaret. The honest truth is that commercial organic farmers at our lovely Cooperstown Farmers Market just grow some things better than I do. I’ve also realized that spending so much time growing food keeps me from exploring other things I’d like to do in life. We live way out in the country and so everything ( but growing our veggies) requires traveling and time . So a new direction for us this year. My big ‘give-up’ is brassicas – they did not perform well last year and so I will take a break from them. I’m sort of excited to be freed up a bit-really can’t wait.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for your story, Beth — I am looking forward to some new experiments (if only I can now decide which things to grow instead of my “usual suspects”). :)

  16. Louise says:

    I grow between 8 and 18 tomato plants, herbs, garlic, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. I tend cherry, apple, lingonberry, rhubarb, quince and elderberries which have yet to produce any fruit.

    From Johnny’s Select seed catalog, I learned that many flowers I grow and some leaves are edible. It is amazing to learn so much and keep dreaming.

  17. Margaret Z says:

    Well… I remembered this post about you rethinking your garden after our industrial catastrophe that occurred a couple of weeks ago. We live close to a petrochemical industrial complex and 99.9% of the time, the wind never blows anything in our direction. However, a cold front arrived in perfect synch with a release of Raney nickel activated catalyst. Raney nickel activated catalyst is a mixture of silica, aluminum oxide, nickel, chromium and iron. It was advised to remove all of our vegetable garden but our soil was fine. We live in zone 9 so I have several varieties of lettuces, radishes, carrots, spinach, cabbage, 100 red onion sets and over 100 garlic sets. Sigh… the lettuces etc can be replanted but the onions and garlic. That is done for this year. We have been reimbursed but it does not compensate for the joy of growing.It feels like we have had a death in the family. I will also be digging out the herb garden this week. Double sigh…

    So I am trying to be positive about the experience and think about what I can plant in the onion/garlic beds. Maybe extra beans or maybe sweet potatoes. I have never planted sweet potatoes before.

    I will be looking forward to seeing what you do differently this year.

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