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Meet my garden helpers, Chloë and Maia:

The girls

I’m sure they will be immensely helpful in the garden. Someday.

In the meantime: hello, gardening world, I’m back! Infrequently, probably, though my current plan involves scheduling gardening time at least twice a week so I can be sure to (a) get things planted and picked at least, and if possible tended as well, and (b) get the girls (and me) outside, especially Chloë. We’ll see how that goes.

While I’ve been gone gestating and raising an infant, the USDA decided to sneak in a new zone map. I am now in zone 6. Hurrah! Not that this changes anything, but it makes me feel better about getting my seeds started and plants planted earlier than conventional zone-based wisdom has dictated. I’m not comfortable following my instincts. I like to be following the rules instead. (Pay no attention to the lack of tilling, weeding, proper support, soil testing, etc. previously recorded here…)

So Chloë and I have planted a few early seeds, mainly the ones I’m not sure are actually going to germinate–onions; leek; cotton; old kale, komatsuna, and choy sum; and some flowers. Some were “winter sown” (though I’m not sure that term actually applies with the mildness of the winter and the lateness of the date) and some started in Jiffy pots and put in the window. Chloë was intrigued by the process, particularly the “sprinkle seeds on the dirt” and “mix the dirt and seeds around with your fingers” bits, and when I came home today with more seeds immediately wanted to plant again. I sure hope some of the ones in the window sprout.

Today’s seeds are from the Toledo Botanical Garden (actually Toledo GROWS, I think) Seed Swap, which was a hell of a thing. In previous years it was at the actual Toledo Botanical Garden and was fairly crowded, but this year it was at the Erie Street Market and it was a mob scene. They took a large room, and had a whole section just for kids to pet bunnies and look at chickens; there were the usual tables for corn, roots, greens, cucurbits, flowers, etc., plus some displays on native flowers and rain gardens and such; and there was also a corner for garden-related stuff for classrooms (I loved the straw-and-Saran-Wrap greenhouse and the five-plastic-bottle-and-rope seed starter with central water reservoir); a table of seed bombs; dozens of displays; tables from commercial farms, nurseries, and other less relevant businesses from the area; a silent auction; and probably more that I didn’t catch because I thought I was just going to pick up a few seeds among a few gardeners, not fight my way among half the city.

The place was packed. I got there about forty-five minutes in (because I’d had to get the kids to naps first, and then get a bag of apples from the farmer’s market and a new 9×13 pan from the Libbey Outlet) and the tables were two and three people deep, except for the legumes table where they’d run out of green beans. This was something I’d come for, but by the time I was getting ready to go later donations had shown up and I got some Chinese beans, which should be interesting, and some cowpeas. And I think I’ve got some Kentucky Wonders on the windowsill and I’ve still got Trionfo Violettos from a number of different recent years, so I think I’m fine. And I got some cucumbers and more carrots and a lettuce, which was all I’d really come for, plus some other interesting-looking stuff because why not? and I needed the crush of people to be worth it. I did recommend Russian Red kale to someone, and help someone else by pointing out the purple kohlrabi, and maybe the seeds I donated ended up with people who’ll use and enjoy them.

Last year was a washout on gardening, by the by. I planted five tomato plants in pots, plus some green beans and some basil. The basil did fine, and we got a small number of grape tomatoes. But tomatoes in pots are clearly not a good idea without more care than I put into them–though cleanup was great. I did get the gardens covered in plastic to kill the weeds–and by “I got” I mean “Dad did it while he was here for Maia’s birth”–but only got one uncovered last fall, so there’s plenty of prep work to do once it decides to stop snowing/slushing/being ridiculously windy.

In summary: hello again! I’m going to be gardening this year. Some. With the dubious help of a toddler at times. (I’m considering growing a Mammoth sunflower “fort” for her.) Watch this space. But not with any assiduity or you’ll probably be disappointed. But believe that I’m glad to be back.

 

I just wrote this for a job application I’m hoping to finish tonight. (The ad asks for a writing sample regarding a situation I’m in that exhorts the reader to take an action. Isn’t that what a cover letter is? Situation: I need a new job. Action: Hire me.) But it occurred to me that it’s really pretty much my mission statement for this blog, if you take out the bits about the weeds and the baby and the fruit trees and the mulch and the weeds. So:

Big Boy. Better Boy. Early Girl. Beefsteak.

If you grow tomatoes at all, you probably recognize these as some of the most commonly available tomato plants available from nurseries every spring. They grow well; they’re easy to care for; and everyone grows them. This is partly because they’re what people know and grew up with, and partly because that’s all that’s available at nurseries. With the recent upswing in interest in gardening in general and heirloom tomatoes in particular, that’s changing somewhat; you might see a dozen, or maybe even two dozen, varieties available at any given nursery.

But there are literally hundreds of tomato varieties out there. Have you ever tried a Cosmonaut Volkov? A Persimmon? A Zapotec Pleated? If you haven’t planted them yourself, chances are you haven’t. And chances are you won’t find those varieties in a nursery, even if you find the better-known heirlooms (Brandywine, Purple Cherokee, and Mortgage Lifter, for example). The only way to even try to experience the wonderful range of tomato variety is to start them from seed.

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed. A sunny windowsill, a bag of potting soil, and a few Jiffy or Dixie cups are all you need. Other vegetables are equally easy to grow from seed, and their marvelous varieties equally passed over. Take green beans, for example. Every gardener has seen Kentucky Wonders and Blue Lakes, and they’re great producers and great-tasting. But what about Trionfo Violettos, which are equally tasty, deep purple, and wildly productive (as well as much easier to see among the bean foliage)? Everyone has seen purple eggplant, but what about eggplant that’s white as a ghost, or apple green, or purple-and-pink striped?

Gardeners often buy plants from nurseries because they’re easy, hardy, and convenient. Growing your own takes more planning and a little more work. But it yields more interesting plants with different flavors and textures for less money, and it’s been part of gardening over the world and since cultivation began: saving seeds from the best plants, and growing new plants from them. Pick up a packet of seeds this spring: a tomato you’ve never heard of, an herb variety that intrigues you, a melon you can’t get at the grocery store or the farmer’s market. Plant them, and see what new worlds of taste and color open up before you. Grow diversity. Grow the world. Grow from seed.

(P.S. Hire me.)

Gardening appears to be alive and well in Toledo. The Toledo Botanical Gardens Seed Swap was packed–so much so that I was detained at the door a few minutes by an attendant because there were too many people already inside. I can certainly imagine vegetable gardening being even more popular this year than last year, though I did keep hearing people saying “I want to get to the flower table, but there’s no room.”

I picked up what I wanted–two kinds of onions, more carrots (including “Olds’ Science Fiction Mix–It’s out of this world!” just because of the name; it includes Atomic Red, Cosmic Purple, Lunar White, and Solar Yellow), some parsley root and parsnips, and a couple of herbs, skullcap and Russian tarragon. I also got some greens and some extra pickling cucumbers, and Green Macerata cauliflower because why not? And I got a red canna rhizome. I’m not sure where to put it, but since I also couldn’t get near the flower table and planted no bulbs last fall, I can probably use whatever decorative plants I can get, and a rhizome sounds easy–it comes with its own insurance, so it will rely less on me, and that’s a good thing.

(Though it’s not like I have no bulbs in the yard. The daffodils are peeking up from their accustomary crowded spot. I meant to dig them up last year and I’ll probably continue to mean to dig them up this year; but it’s nice to have them where I can see them from the car in the mornings.)

It sure doesn’t feel like it’s been a week since I last wrote here. How are the days slipping by so fast when winter feels like it’s lasted forever? It’s raining now, which is a marked improvement on the snow, though I’ll probably feel differently when the fall comes around again. It’s not really warm (or dry) enough to start doing things in the yard again, but it’s not-cold enough that I’m tempted.

I did not get my broccoli planted, though only for the want of tape and a decent plumbing system–a lot of the weekend was taken up with figuring out how our house’s waterpipes were connected and how on earth to get to the leaky spigot in the herb garden to replace it.  I didn’t get my plant rack inside either, though I think that was just laziness–not wanting to rip the dead plastic cover off and bring it inside and wipe it down. Laziness is a key characteristic of my gardening style, so this really isn’t a big surprise.

I did get the garlic bulbils and the walking onions into apple cider jugs and they seem to be doing well; the onions are standing tall and the garlic jugs are peppered with slender white spears, a lot that weren’t there a few days ago. I want to put them outside, but since they’ve been coddled all winter (well, as coddled as one can be in a moldy plastic bag) I don’t want to shock them, so I think I’m just going to have to suffer without my counter space for a while.

While investigating the leaky spigot I did determine that both the oregano and the thyme have survived (hurrah!), and that the wormwood and lemon balm seem to have enjoyed the winter. There are a few leftover scallions that I didn’t pick before the snow came, and I’ll probably leave them for seed at this point. I’m not sure whether the kale made it or not, but it’s the dwarf Scotch Blue Curled Vates whatever it’s called, which was my least favorite last year (though by no means bad), so I’ll probably pull it out regardless. I’m going to need that space.

I updated my seed spreadsheet and reluctantly decided that I’m not going to order any seeds this year. I might buy a packet of onion seeds if I don’t get any at the Seed Swap, but otherwise there’s nothing I really need that I can’t supply from my own stores. I’m pretty sure this is exactly the point of seed saving, but it makes me kind of sad anyhow. (Notably, having enough seeds would not have stopped me from ordering more if I weren’t under budget constraints. Onions we use, but motherwort and Lemon Drop peppers we probably won’t, significantly, so I can’t justify buying them.)

This week: plant those broccoli seeds already, decide which seeds I’m planting and which I’m not and draw up my planting schedule. Last year’s is still up on my wall (and the sidebar), which helps, but I need to adjust a few things and add some species. And I can’t properly chastise myself for planting late if I don’t know exactly when I’m supposed to plant.

I started going through my seed box to update my spreadsheet of what I have, preparatory to figuring out what I can possibly plant, and made a most distressing discovery. My Georgian Crystal garlic bulbils have  molded. This is either because of or coincident to the fact they also started sprouting roots. I knew I should have planted them in the fall–I meant to, but I forgot, and even the regular garlic went in late. Is it too late for these guys? I’ll get a pot and see. At least now I know it’s not a good idea to overwinter bulbils in a box.

I roasted the last of the French Fingerling and some of the All-Blue potatoes for dinner the other day. (It’s not that there were so many that they’ve lasted through the winter; it’s just that I didn’t feel up to washing so many tiny spuds until recently.) They both showed their age, the French Fingerlings in softness/wrinkliness and the All-Blues in sprouts, but they were  both tasty. I was surprised the All-Blues were so firm. They weren’t badly gone to sprouting, but I should use them up soon–though there’s a particularly fine one I should probably save for planting. I wonder how the ones I kept for planting in the fridge are doing.

We’ve been having a thaw–it’s not going to last, but it’s lovely while it’s here; I took a long walk yesterday for the first time since fall. I can see our leaf-covered backyard again; I can see the remains of the kale and the green onions…I can see the leeks looking pretty darn sprightly. I haven’t pulled one, but I ought to, to see if they actually made it through the winter. I think I see some low-lying greenery in the herb garden that might be thyme or might be oregano, though I haven’t gone out to verify. I’ll be pleased with either one.

I’ve been intending to write more, but not doing it. I’m not sure what I’ve been doing instead–reading a lot, and goofing off a lot. This week planning the garden absolutely must go on my list–also sending out a seed trade. This weekend I hope to discuss seed orders with Carol (yes?) and start broccoli, and in two weekends I plan to attend the Toledo Botanical Garden Seed Swap. And then it’s off to the races. I’m not in shape for a race, but luckily this one starts slow, and I know I won last year, which helps.

My greenhouse is on its side by the steps that go up to my back door, a ragged hole torn in its top. I guess I’ll be using it as a rack only once I’ve rescued it from the ice and snowdrifts. I haven’t emptied my compost bin (now grown to include a compost tub) in weeks, mainly because there’s a foot of snow covering the yard and I never want to pull on my boots and dump my containers. This is an even greater pity because I’ve been consuming vast quantities of citrus over the past several weeks. (“We should buy stock in grapefruit,” I told Eric. He laughed. But seriously, Sunkist stock might be a great buy if it were available.) Luckily dried grapefruit and orange peel doesn’t smell bad. It’ll have to get done soon, though.

Likewise, seed ordering needs to happen soon. I’m coming out of my first-trimester funk (partly because the nausea and tiredness are lessening, partly because the filthiness of my house has become worse than my disinclination for doing things) and realizing that broccoli seeds need to be started in two weeks (and maybe pepper seeds too, based on last year’s experience). This means I need to rework last year’s planting schedule for this year, too, and of course make sure I’ve actually got the seeds I want. Since broccoli is still not something I want to eat, I’m just going to use up the seeds I’ve got and hope that I’ll want to eat them by the time they’re ready. I’m going to try to be conservative in general with my garden planning for 2009–or at least, not too expansive. Especially in things that need starting inside. Though at least I’ll have a planting rack to use.

It occurred to me last night that it’s about time to be solidifying my seed orders. I haven’t thought about them since before Christmas. (Oh, how I have fallen.) I may want to wait until after the Toledo Seed Swap, at least for some things–I’m pretty confident of getting all the carrots and beets I want, based on last year’s experience, but I may or may not find particular herbs or onions or beans–though broccoli starts in February, as I recall. I’ve still got last year’s seed-planting chart up on my wall by my computer. I’m going to have to go through my notes and modify it appropriately for this year; I’m pretty sure that I’m going to have some sort of forgetfulness disaster if I don’t write it all down.

I did a seed swap with Carol not long ago, while our respective husbands played D&D, and got some yummy things, including some perennial herbs that I’ve been wanting. I really liked my nonculinary herbs last year–I loved the wormwood and feverfew especially–and I want to expand that part of the garden this year. I also sincerely hope the plants that are already there will survive. It was forbiddingly cold last week–highs of 5 and 8 degrees–but they were under a thick blanket of snow, so we’ll see what happens when the snow melts. If it does. I’m in that part of winter when I fear it will never end, even though I’m thinking about seeds.

I’m so hungry. And so tired. And so nauseated by the smell of brassicas. You probably know what this means: I’m pregnant–eleven weeks along and waiting for the second-trimester energy of which I hear so many good things.

And so I haven’t been posting much, or thinking much about gardening. Get this: the pictures in seed catalogs make me nauseated. Is this my body’s way of making sure I don’t spend so much money on gardening that I can’t afford diapers and baby wipes?

I’m reading about seed-saving here and there, and seed-breeding, and contemplating doing a cross myself next year to see what happens. And I keep seeing the same grating message to seed-savers: “You can’t save seed from hybrids because the seeds will be sterile.” People, this is not true. There are other, good reasons for people not to save seed from hybrids–they won’t come true to type or they’re patented, for example–but this one is, with possible rare exceptions, totally false.

I think the main problem is the word “hybrid,” which has a couple of meanings (like the word “theory,” but let’s not get into that right now). Sometimes it means “organism/object/whatever created from two different species/departments/whatever.” Like the mule, which is certainly sterile. But in gardening, it generally means “species created from parents of the same species but dissimilar traits.” (Here’s where the rare exceptions could come in–it’s perfectly possible to get offspring from two different species wherein the offspring really are sterile–like the mule. But it’s not common in animals and I don’t think it’s common in plants.) It doesn’t mean creating a chimera. A plant hybrid is the equivalent of crossing a purebred cocker spaniel with a purebred poodle–or a black man with a white woman, for that matter, except without the genetic purity. You get the same species with the same procreative abilities (unless you start looking at bulldogs, which I’m told have been bred for looks so much that they can’t procreate on their own), plus a new mix of characteristics. You get a mutt. Mutts can breed.

It would make seed-breeding really hard if it weren’t possible to cross different types of peas, or tomatoes, or C. moschata squash, or what-have-you. How would you get genetic diversity? Different traits? How do you explain the wanton crossing of squash and corn? Yes, they’re domesticated and their characteristics aren’t quite like they would be in the wild, but they don’t cross like the proverbial chicken because it’s a lousy way to propagate their species. They do it because it’s a great way to propagate their species. Genetic diversity –> wide variety of traits –> greater chance that some will live no matter what happens –> species survival. They don’t care whether they still taste the same as long as they keep on surviving to the next generation. (An organism is a gene’s way of making more genes.)

Inbreeding plants also have a good method for ensuring their survival, doin’ it for themselves; it’s just a different one. But they too can be crossed. Look at Rebsie’s beautiful pea-breeding experiments. (I’ve mentioned these before. I just love them.) That’s what I’d like to do, only with beans because I like them better (and I don’t want to be a copycat). There’s no scientific reason why it won’t work. And there’s no scientific reason not to save seed from hybrids. There are practical ones, but if you want to save seed from that Early Girl or Graffiti cauliflower to see what happens, you’ll get plants next year. Maybe you’ll get something good, maybe you won’t–but you will get perfectly viable plants.

Flowers and even fruit are only the beginning. In the seed lies the life and the future.

Marion Zimmer Bradley

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