Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Backyard Wisdom

My backyard has been a great teacher.  As I clean up the vegetable plot at the end of the growing season, I take time to list the lessons learned.

Lesson 1: Spacing is important
Stunted, forked carrots are the result of inadequate space between the plants. The wise gardener thins ruthlessly when the plants are still young.  Scientists tell us that roots can actually sense others of the same species within close range, and will politely limit their own growth when touching.  This carrot pack reminds me of a human family that's become dysfunctional due to proximity.  A little distance encourages healthy independence and maturation.

Lesson 2:  Pampering may be worth the effort
There are some prima donna plants that demand special attention.  Tomatoes have to be started early, indoors. When transplanted outside, they need to be supported with stakes and twine or a wire cage.  In coastal regions like ours, where the wind is particularly strong, the extra protection of an ice cream pail collar prevents tender stems from breakage.  Tomatoes don't like excessive nitrogen, are susceptible to fungus, tend to wilt and lose their flowers in a heat wave, and require 1-4 gallons of water every 24 hours.  With our short Canadian growing season, it's often an early frost that dashes dreams of a vine-ripened tomato crop.  (Green tomato relish is a specialty in Cap-Pele.)

 Is it really worth the trouble?  Yes, a genuine home grown garden tomato is vastly superior to its anaemic relative, the supermarket hothouse fruit.   There are no shortcuts and no guarantees, but this high-maintenance plant can be the most rewarding cultivar.

Lesson 3:  Even the edges should be beautiful
 I planted a row of insect-repellent nasturtiums at the edge of the garden and discovered that the sight of those vivid orange blooms was as nourishing as the fresh-picked vegetables.   A decorative floral border reminded me that the frame is just as important as the work it contains.

Lesson 4: If you plant it, they will come
 I waited patiently for the fat ears of sweet corn to ripen to the milk stage, the precise moment of maximum flavour. Toward the end of September, when the day for harvesting finally arrived, I found the backyard littered with cobs that had been stripped clean of every perfect kernel.  Raccoons had raided the garden and finished off all of my Silver Queen.  I had never seen a raccoon in the backyard, and had not anticipated their midnight invasion.  When presented with a free meal featuring a favourite food, wildlife (just like humans) can't resist.

Lesson 5:  Share the harvest with your neighbours
The man across the street is an expert gardener who feeds his five grown children and their families from a well-established backyard plot.  When I offered him a box of cherry tomatoes from my garden, he reciprocated with a bag of potatoes from his.   The friendly trade went back and forth all summer - cucumbers for arugula, dill for zucchini, beans for peppers - along with a portion of sound advice on ways to improve my practice.  His voice of experience has been most helpful in this first year of cultivating my Maritime garden.  We had a good laugh about the raccoons and he suggested a novel method for preventing corn theft.   Next year I'll give it a try.

An illustration from "The Harvest Gardener" by Susan McClure

"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."  - Marcus Tullius Cicero

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