End-of-Year Lessons

December 30, 2009 at 11:50 am

Brad Moldofsky

William Alexander’s The $64 Tomato is a treatise on how one family spent thousands of dollars to grow a few bushels of vegetables. While Mr. Alexander’s methods and situations are very different from my own, I found myself sympathizing with his outlook on life, his reasons for gardening, his frustrations with nature’s refusal to obey his will and his children’s propensity to roll their eyes at his gardening obsession.

For the few hundred dollars I spent on gardening supplies in 2009 ($250, to be close to exact), I got a modest return in food ($165, by my estimation). The value I put on the harvest is based on farmer’s market prices rather than on-sale-at-the-local-grocery-store costs. And the input costs don’t include long-since-amortized capital investments like the rain barrel, compost bin and, of course the land on which I grew the greens. If I had to add a portion of the mortgage payments to my input costs, the results would be much worse.

But since I’m doing the math my own way and since the balance sheet has to balance, the $85 difference between input and output paid for trial-and-error gardening lessons that I won’t need to learn again next year. Here (free to you!) are a few of these lessons, at a cost to me of just over $10 a lesson.

The Cages Worked

More than once, I watched a flock of birds land on the caged Square Foot Gardens and I chortled at their helplessness. Perched in confusion atop the plastic rigging, they seemed bewildered at how yummy insects could be so close, and yet so unobtainable. They squawked and chirped a lot, crapped a bit, and left my garden little worse for wear.

While the unprotected tomatoes were quickly stolen by squirrels, the ones in the cages avoided animal attack. It was weather that killed the caged tomatoes, and we only four or five fruits from the square foot gardens. Still, they were the tastiest fruits I’ve ever eaten. Candy-like, in fact. With each bite (actually, these were small enough that there was only one bite), I smugly thought, “I get these and you don’t.” I shook my tiny fist in victory at the rodents who were no doubt hiding behind a wall somewhere.

Something There is That Doesn’t Love a Cage

One problem with fencing out the world is that, in upsetting the natural order of things, I was faced with a slug problem that could otherwise have been handled adroitly by the birds who frequented the unprotected garden. The cages were a pain to build and to move each time I needed to get at the garden. It was an eyesore to visitors who came looking to buy the house and storing two 64 cubic foot, splinter-covered wobbly monstrosities remains a challenge.

Planning Pays Off

The notion of succession planting—that a single plot of land can bear multiple harvests in a season—was only possible because I sketched the garden out in advance and thought through what seeds or transplants would fit nicely in which spots. By knowing ahead of time exactly which seeds went where, I was able to give most of the plants enough space to grow unfettered and live out their leafy lives to the best of their abilities. After that, it remained up to me to figure out how to cook vegetables that I only grew in the first place because they fit my plan, and not because I really looked forward to eating them. Still, it was pretty easy to fall in love with collard greens.

I Should Plan Better

Among the many things I failed to think through was how large some plants can grow (both tall and wide) and how their heft might affect their neighbors. My Brussels sprouts, which produced two or three meals’ worth of veggies for the four of us, were so tall and heavy, that the smaller cage lacked the height to let them grow. So I had to let them lay on the soil, which took up precious horizontal space in my square foot garden. Next year, I can extend the height of the cage so I can stake them up vertically.

Despite all my careful planning, I didn’t think in terms of shade. An important lesson I learned is that plants needing the most sunlight should be on the south end of the garden. Kind of a no-brainer, I guess, but it’s hard to tell when they’re seedlings that they’re going to block each other’s light. My tomatoes and peppers, suffering from a cool summer already, didn’t need the knockout punch of being on the far side from the sun. Out of more than half a dozen pepper plants, I probably only harvested eight or nine fruits altogether. On the other hand, three luscious purple eggplants (no thanks to my foresight) got enough sunlight (even when shaded by beans) to grow to fruition and contributed to a few outstanding all-garden eggplant, hot pepper and basil sandwiches. For some reason, the unprotected eggplants avoided all insects and critters. No tiny fist shaking necessary. Nobody wanted to nibble on them except me, and they were as pretty as they were tasty.

I had thrown a bunch of peas in the ground weeks before the frost hit. They sprouted a few inches, then died a feeble death. Had I been quicker to plant them, or even started them indoors so I could have transplanted them while six inches tall, I might have gotten one last crop. Next year, I shall plan in four dimensions and not just the boring old three.

Experimenting Is its Own Reward

While adding Epsom salt to my tomato roots seemed to do absolutely nothing (or may, in fact, have done damage) one of my biggest finds was how good broccoli leaves can be. I had originally assumed they were poisonous, because you never see them in the grocery store or on menus. But when picked young, they are the culinary equivalent to collard greens, and retain a smell of broccoli when eaten.

Much of the reward for me has been just watching different plants grow, seeing what effect treating plots differently had on my plants, and noting how wind, water and sunlight influenced the outcomes. I garden, in part, just to satisfy my curiosity. Next year I intend to change things just for the sake of change.

Once thing I tried that I’ve never done before is intentionally saving seeds. In this case, I emptied out a number of bean pods, dried the beans in the sun and placed them in a sealed jelly jar with several silica gel packets (do not eat the silica packet!). They’re sitting in a cool, dark place, and we’ll see if they can spring back to life in May.

Nature Can Restore its Own Balance

The hawks who had been circling I-94 in the spring later began circling over my neighborhood. One day I drove down the alley to see a hawk perched on a neighbor’s tree and stopped the car for a minute just to observe it resting. I waited and admired it until it flew off on its own before I parked in the garage.

The Avian virus had killed off first the large grackles and crows, then the smaller sparrows, robins and starlings earlier in the decade to the point where we would wake up on a spring morning, Rachel Carson-like, and hear only silence. Shortly after that, squirrel and chipmunk corpses began appearing on the sidewalks.

Two years later, free of predators, the small mammal population skyrocketed. Chipmunks dug holes freely wherever they liked and springtime squirrel orgies were so frequent that cars had to slow down on our street to avoid squashing two or three of them chasing each other from tree to tree. Although they hid themselves better, somewhere there were rats or mice as well. On our block, a single cat, owned by a neighbor who doesn’t believe in neutering or restraining their pets, roamed the alley, fattening itself on the abundant prey. But one cat alone does not make the peak of a food pyramid.

Finally, just recently, the rodent population declined and leveled off. I believe it’s the hawks that brought death from the skies, probably eliminating the babies first, then bringing fear back to the alley so the chipmunks conceal their holes better and the squirrels keep their fornicating in the privacy of wherever the hell they do it.

Nature Works Best Without Our Help

My lawn, compared to my neighbors who hire services to spray and maintain theirs, is a sad-looking plot of earth. And yet, you could eat off it. Or from it, as it were. The clover and crabgrass have found their niche and reached an accord with the Kentucky bluegrass that lets them co-exist in harmony. I won’t make the cover of any home care magazines, but if I decide next year to start eating wild dandelions, I won’t have to worry about ingesting pesticides.

This Would be a Heck of a Way to Make a Living

As much as I’ve read about American farmers and as many as I’ve spoken to, I’m still quizzical about why they do it. I know much of what draws farmers to the soil is tradition, history, a love of solitude and self-determination and a desire to avoid the draw of urban life. Still, as much as people complain about subsidies to farmers, our financial system is stacked against them. Our economic/agricultural system is built to make middlemen rich (futures and options traders, petroleum companies, transportation networks, retail stores) and suppress the true cost of good food for consumers. Those who don’t own their own land but instead work to harvest someone else’s crops are even worse off.

Gardening means I don’t have to feed anyone but myself and my family. I don’t need motorized equipment and I don’t have to anticipate what the market might desire by harvest time. I eat what I plant and I plant what I like. I’ve become closer, physically and spiritually, to the land I own and spent more time outdoors as a result. I intend to turn this hobby into a habit and turn these cheap lessons into a better harvest in 2010, when I try again to double my record and grow enough food to feed my family for at least 9 days.

A happy new year to all, and best of luck in 2010.