Archive for February 10th, 2009

Water, from the Other Side

Sharon February 10th, 2009


 Aaron has a terrific post up about water issues and water harvesting at his blog, and he devotes an entire paragraph to the other end of the water issue – flooding, and drainage.  Me, I thought that I can’t be the only person in the world who thinks it is worth more attention than that ;-) .  While I know that water shortages are the big issue worldwide, where I live, too much water is far more often the problem.

My area gets more than 50 inches of precipitation a year, a mix of snow and rain – and usually pretty evenly spread out.  Our summers have warm days, cool nights and plenty of rain – now the summer 3 years ago when I barely had to water even my *container* plants because it rained so much is pretty unusual, but except for establishing seedlings occasionally, I have *NEVER* watered most of my garden.  The hose doesn’t even reach it.  The first two years we lived here were drought years, and even then, we did not water and things grew fine.

Part of this is because I live between two steep hills – most of the water runs down those hills, and eventually runs to the creek that borders the north side of my property.  Before it gets to the creek, it runs across most of the rest of my property.  During spring melt-off, we have several days of mild-to-moderate flooding.  And once in a while, we get serious flooding, usually in early spring. 

But even ignoring the flooding (and Aaron’s prescription to put your garden where it doesn’t flood is good), our soil tends to hold water.  Waiting for things to dry out is the real limiting factor in gardening – it isn’t warmth we need (although that helps the drying) but enough dry out to be able to go forward.  It really isn’t worth planting seeds into the muck – they simply rot.  Transplants can sometimes tolerate it, but honestly, everything sits in the muddy wet soil (with the exception of a few plants that like it) and waits for dryer days – I’ve learned the hard way not to rush it, that plants transplanted a week later when conditions are better grow faster than the ones that sulk because their early conditions weren’t better.

One thing that I’ve discovered is indispensible to wet gardening is mulch – now much is made of the capacity of mulch to retain water.  This is not exactly my issue.  Instead, I use sheet mulch to protect my soil from flooding and heavy rains – the mulched areas shrug off some of the water, and the organic material helps absorb some more of it, so my mulched garden areas tend to look better after spring thaw, and to be ready to plant earlier.  I rake away the mulch on warm day to let the soil warm a bit more, but I can be out on the mulched patches planting days ahead of any unmulched areas.  I’ve never read any other garden writer’s discussions of the value of mulch in wet climates.

 Generally speaking, as long as you have decent drainage and plenty of organic material, most garden crops tolerate the wetness pretty well – in fact, many of them like it.  We do have problems with tomato cracking, and with getting hot peppers hot enough for me, but container growing helps with the peppers, and harvesting regularly before the rains with the tomatoes.

If you don’t have decent drainage, you may have to get some.  At its simplest, you can dig a swale or trench and redirect water by hand.  If you get fancy, and go for tile and backhoes, you are looking at money.  We have areas still awaiting sufficient funds to justify the drainage work that is needed.  Still, we do save on irrigation hoses ;-) .  And we try, as much as we can, to work with what we’ve got, to see our wetness as an advantage, that brings other species and possibilities.

Perennial plantings that aren’t wetland tolerant get the dryest spots, and they generally do fine.  It is worth watching nature to see what does well – I have a thicket of cultivated plum trees in the back field that gets very wet in springtime – I was reluctant to plant much of anything but alders and elderberries there, because of the wet land, but native plum trees kept springing up, and I decided to take that as meaning I could get away with the cultivated type – and so I can, apparently.

Actual wet spots have their uses as well – I’m in the process of transforming the end of the side yard, which was uninspiredly planted to reed grass,  into a wetland garden – swamp white oaks have edible acorns, beautiful wood and are great fungal hosts, buttonbush is a nectary plant that blooms at a helpful time for wild pollinators, primroses and irises add beauty, alders fix nitrogen and are a coppicing and mushroom hosting species, elders, blueberries and cranberrybush viburnums provide food for me and for wildlife – what’s not to love about wet spots!  Not to mention the fact that the world is desperate for diversified wetlands – so not draining your land to get every single inch of cultivable space has some real merits.

The biggest problem, besides occasional flooding, of wet spots is leaching – the nutrients you place get washed away quickly, so fast you can’t keep up.  This is another good argument for mulched soil in my climate, for lots of organic matter and humus in your soil, for terra preta practices, and for emphasizing slow release fertility rather than quick. 

In the end, I personally like my wet spot – I’m grateful for the rains, and the snow.  But living on the damp edges of the world requires, as all spots to, becoming native to that place and its conditions.


25 Plants You Should Consider Growing

Sharon February 10th, 2009

There are a million gardening books out there to tell you how to grow perfect tomatoes and lettuces. And that’s important – in my house, salsa is a food group. But the reality is that for those of us attempting to produce a large portion of our calories, tomatoes and lettuce are not sufficient – we need to get either the most calories or the best possible nutrition out of our kitchen gardens and landscaping. So I’ve compiled a list of plants that I think are an important addition to many home gardens – both annual and perennial.

1. Buckwheat. Buckwheat is the perfect multipurpose plant. Many of you have probably used it as a green manure, taking advantage of its remarkable capacity to shade out weeds and produce lots of green material. But it is also one of the easiest grains to grow in the garden – simply let it mature and harvest the seed, and it makes a delicious and highly nutritious salad and cooking green. Although it won’t be quite as good at soil building if you do it this way, buckwheat can be used as a triple-purpose crop – plant a few beds with it, harvest the greens steadily (but lightly) for salad (it is particularly good during the heat of summer since it has a lightly nutty taste not too far off lettuce and will grow in hot weather), cook some of the mature greens, harvest seed, cut the plants back to about an inch leaving the plant material on the ground. The buckwheat will then grow back up again, and you can harvest young salad greens and cut it back again for green manure.

2. Sweet potatoes. Think this is a southern crop? Not for me. I grow “Porto Rico” sweet potatoes in upstate New York. Garden writer Laura Simon grows them on cool, windy Nantucket. I’ve met people who grow them in Ontario and North Dakota. Sweet potatoes have quite a range if started indoors, and more northerners should grow them. They are enormously nutritious, store extremely well (some of my sweets last more than a year), and unutterably delicious. They do need light, sandy soil and good drainage, so I grow them mostly in raised beds with heavily amended soil – my own heavy wet clay won’t do.

3. Blueberries. If there was ever an ornamental edible, this is it. A prettier shrub than privet or most common privacy hedge plants, it produces berries and turns as flaming red as any burning bush in the autumn. I have no idea why more people don’t landscape with blueberries. Add to that the fact that blueberries constitute a “super food.” They have more antioxidants than any single food, and are nutritional powerhouses. They do need acidic soil, but there are blueberries for all climates. Definitely worth replacing your shrubs with.

4. Amaranth – I’ve grown amaranth before, but my first year growing “Golden Giant” and “Orange” was fascinating. In two 5′x4′ beds I harvested 11.2 and 13.9 lbs of amaranth seed respectively. The plants are stunningly beautiful – 9′ tall, bright honey gold or deep orange, with green variegated leaves. The leaves are also a good vegetable cooked with garlic and sauteed, or cooked southern style. Amaranth is an easy grain crop to harvest and make use of, is delicious, can be popped like popcorn, and makes wonderful cereal. Despite its adaptation to the Southwest (where it routinely yields extremely well with minimal water), it tolerated my wet, humid climate just fine.  My chickens love it too.

5. Chick peas. Unlike most beans, which must be planted after the last frost, chick peas are highly nutritious and extremely frost tolerant. Plant breeder Carol Deppe has had them overwinter in the pacific northwest, and they can be planted as early as April here, or as late as July and still mature a crop. Unlike peas and favas that don’t like hot weather, and most dry beans that don’t like cold, chick peas seem happy no matter what. If you’ve only ever eaten store chick peas, you’ll be fascinated to experience home grown ones – it is, in many ways, as big a revelation as homegrown tomatoes.

6. Beets. I know, I know, there’ s no vegetable anyone hates as much as the beet. Poor beets – they are so maligned. We should all be eating more beets – especially pregnant women, women in their childbearing years who may become pregnant, and those at risk of heart disease and stomach and colon cancer. Beets are rich in folate (which prevents birth defects) and in studies have shown enormous capacity to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, and fight colon and stomach cancer. Beets store well, yield heavily, provide highly nutritious greens for salad and cooking and are the sweetest food in nature. If you hate beets, give them another try – consider roasting beets with salt and pepper, or steaming them and pureeing them with apples and ginger. Laurie Colwin used to swear that her recipe for beets with angel hair pasta could convert anyone into a beet lover, whereas a recipe for beets with tahini has converted many of my friends. Really, try them again!

7. Flax. You can grow this one in your flower beds, mixed in with your marigolds. Flax is usually a glorious blue – the kind of blue all flower gardeners covet. But the real reason to grow it is the seeds. Flaxseed oils are almost half omega-three fatty acids. A recent article claimed that we have no choice but to turn to GMO crops to provide essential omega threes without stripping the ocean – ignoring the fact that we can and should be growing flax everywhere, and enjoying flaxseed in our baked goods and our meals. Flax has particular value in nothern intensive gardening, which tends to be low in fats. If you grow more than you need, flaxseed is an excellent chicken feed – my poultry adore it.

8. Popcorn. If I could grow only one kind of corn, it would be popcorn, and popcorn is particularly suited to home scale gardening. There are many dwarf varieties, and many that yield well. And popcorn can be ground for flour (it is a bit of work, though, since popcorn is very hard), or popped for food. My kids like popcorn as breakfast cereal, or, of course, as a snack. Popcorn yields quite well for me in raised beds, and is always a treat at my house. It has all the merits of a whole grain, but is “accessible” to people not accustomed to eating brown rice or whole wheat – a great way to transition to a whole foods diet.

9. Kidney beans. While kidneys have lower protein levels than soy beans, they are very close to soy in total protein, and have the advantage of yielding more per acre. There are a number of pole variety kidney beans that are suitable to “three sisters” polyculture as well, so you can grow the two together. If I could grow only one dry bean (I usually grow 10 or more) it would probably be a kidney variety.

10. Rhubarb. Why rhubarb? Because it will tolerate almost any growing conditions, including part shade (most vegetables won’t), wet soil, and you jumping up and down on it and trying to get it out.  Once it is established, rhubarb is tireless. It is also delicious – it does require a fair bit of sweetener (stevia, applejuice or pureed cooked beets will do if you are avoiding sugar). We like it cooked to tart-sweet for a few minutes with just a little almond extract. But its great value is that it provides fresh, nutritious, “fruity” tasting food as early as April here, and goes on as late as July, happily producing spear after spear of calcium rich, tasty food, right when you are desperate for something, anything but dandilions and lettuce. I’m in the process of converting the north side of my house to a vast rhubarb plantation (ok, not that vast), because we can never get enough of it here.

11. Turnips. Let’s say you live in an apartment, and want greens all winter, but don’t have even a south facing windowsill available. What can you do? Well, you can buy a bag of turnips from your farmer’s market. Eat some of them raw, enjoying the delicious sweet crispness of them. Shredded, they are a wonderful salad vegetable. Cook some, and mash them or roast them crisp. And take a few of the smaller turnips, and put them in a pot with some dirt on it, and stick them in a corner – east or west facing is best, but even north will work. And miraculously, using only its stored energy, the pots will go on producing delicious, nutritious turnip greens even in insufficient light. It is magic. If you do have a south facing windowsill, save it for the herbs, and put your potted turnips in the others.

12. Maximillian sunflowers. These are the perennials. They are ornamental, tall and stunning in the back of a border. They will tolerate any soil you can offer them, as long as they get full sun. They also produce oil seeds and edible roots, prevent erosion and can tolerate steep slopes, minimal water and complete and utter neglect. Don’t forget to eat them!

13. Hopi Orange Winter Squash. We all have our favorite winter squash, and perhaps you know one that I’ll like even better. But this variety has the advantage of keeping up to 18 months without softening, delicious flavor that improves in storage, and high nutritional value.  

14. Annual Alfalfa. Most alfalfa is grown for forage, and it has to be grown on comparatively good, limed soil. But alfalfa is good people food too, and even a garden bed’s worth can be enormously valuable. First, of course, it is a nitrogen fixer. While you can grow perennial varieties, the annual fixes more available nitrogen, faster. It can be cut back several times as green manure during the course of a season, or you can harvest it for hay to feed your bunnies or chickens. Don’t forget to dehydrate some for tea – alfalfa is a nutritional powerhouse. And if you permit it to go to seed, the seeds make delicious sprouts and have the virtue of lasting for years. I’ve found that the annual version will make seed at the end of the season for harvest.

15. Potatoes. A few years ago I did an experiment – I threw a bit of compost on top of a section of my gravel driveway (and by “a bit” I do mean a little bit – not a garden bed’s worth but a light coating), added a sprinking of bone meal, dropped some pieces of potatoes on the ground, and covered them with mulch hay. Periodically I added a bit more and replaced the sign that said “please don’t drive on my potatoes” and in September, I harvested a reasonably good yield, given the conditions (about 30lbs from a 4′x4′ square). I did it just to confirm what people have always known – potatoes grow in places on rocky, poor soil (or no soil) that no other staple crop can handle. Don’t get me wrong – potatoes will be happier in better conditions, but potatoes can tolerate all sorts of bad situations, and come back strong. And potatoes respond better to hand cultivation than any other grain – until the 1960s hand grown, manured potatoes routinely outyielded green revolution varlieties of grains grown with chemical fertilizers. If there’s hope to feed the world, it probably lies in potatoes.

16. Sumac. No, not the poison stuff, but yes, I mean the weedy tree that grows along the roadsides here. That weedy tree, you may not realize, has many virtues. Besides its flaming fall color and value for wildlife habitat and food, sumac makes a lovely beverage. If you harvest the red fruits in July or August and soak them, you’ll get a lemony tasting beverage, as high in vitamin C as lemonjuice. Since sumac grows essentially over the entire US area that won’t support lemons, this is enormously valuable. You can can freeze or can sumac lemonade for seasoning and drinking all year round. Poison sumac has white or greenish white berries, so they are easy to tell apart. Sumac’s other value is as a restorative to damaged soil – densely planted sumac returns bare sand to fertility fairly quickly, as a University of Tennesee study shows.

17. Parsnips. If you don’t live in the northeast, or do biointensive gardening, you probably don’t eat parsnips. Me, I’m a New Englander, and the sweet, fragrant flavor of parsnips is a childhood joy. But even I hadn’t ever had a real parsnip – one left in the garden after the ground freezes for its starches to convert to sugars. Parsnips are one of the most delicious things in nature, nutritionally dense, and just about the only food you can harvest in upstate New York in February (you do have to mulch them deeply if you don’t want them frozen in the ground.

18. Potato onions. Onion seed doesn’t last very long – and that’s a worrisome thing. The truth is that if we can’t get seed easily, and we can’t grow out plants for seed easily because of some personal or environmental crisis, we might find ourselves without onions, and what a tragedy that would be. Who can cook without onions? No, we need to have onions. Which is why the perennial potato onions, that simply stay in the ground and are pulled and replanted are so enormously valuable – good tasting, put them where you want them, pull up what you need and ignore the rest. They’ll give you scallions before you could get them any other way, and will provide a decent supply of small, but storable and delicious onions.

19. King Stropharia Mushrooms  (aka winecaps) – Mushrooms have complex nutritional values, and offer soil improving benefits.  The King Stropharia has the advantage of growing well in wood chip mulch in your garden, having few poisonous cognates (ie, you are unlikely to kill yourself harvesting it, tastes great, and is a natural nematodacidal.  They give you something meaty and tasty from your garden and can actually improve total yields in a given space.  If you fear fungi, this is an easy one to start with.

20. Filberts/Hazelnuts – The best small space nuts, it has an astounding range and and various varities tolerate quite a number of soils.  The nuts are delicious, it is fairly easy to grow and the yields are generally high.  In cold climates, oil rich plants can be hard to come by – this is a useful exception Oh, and if you have chocolate, you can make that basic food staple, nutella ;-) .

21. Elderberries.  Got a wet spot?  What doesn’t care if it has wet feet, has virocidal qualities, incredible vitamin C value, delicious and nutritious flowers, grows like a weed, is ornamental and will feed the birds anything you don’t want.  Yup, the remarkable elder.  What’s not to love?

 22. Sunflowers – Our local dairy farmers sometimes alternate cow corn with sunflowers as a winter feed.  There is truly no more beautiful edible crop in the world than a field full of glowing sunflowers in late summer.  They would be valuable enough if they didn’t produce delicious food, high in vitamin E and a host of trace minerals, food for the birds, and stalks that when dry burn extremely well and hot in your woodstove. 

23. Rice.  In India, nearly half of all rice comes from the gardens of those who farm less than 5 acres – often from home plots of much less than that.  This is true over much of Asia – the staple food of their population is often grown in what we’d consider garden sized plots – and the aggregate feeds a population.  While the far northermost growers may struggle with this, rice is one of the few staple grains totally amenable to home scale cultivation, and if you can grow rice, you might want to consider it.  It is a nearly univeral staple – studies have found that rice allergy essentially does not exist.  While growing and harvesting rice on a home scale is some work (some cultures call it “the tyrant with a soul”), rice is worth the time and energy for many of us.

24.  Jerusalem artichokes – I know, duh.  Sweet and tasty, crisp and nutty, perennials who will take over your house if you let them – what’s not to love?  Those who worry that the bad guys are coming to take their food can plant these in their flower beds without fear that most people will recognize them as anything other than something pretty.  When first harvested, the carbohydrates are in the form of inulin so that diabetics can eat pretty freely of these. 

25. Kale/Collards.  They don’t mind heat – 100 degree days don’t phase them once they are mature.  They grow all summer, north or south.  They don’t mind cold – some strains will overwinter uncovered here in icy upstate NY, while almost all will overwinter covered.  They are nutritionally dense, great cooked, or raw in the baby stage.  In the cold, their starches turn to sugar.  Stir fry them with oyster sauce, steam them and toss them in vinagrette, cook them with bacon dressing – it doesn’t really matter, they are universally good. 


Revisiting "Slow Clothing" and "Jewish Farming"

Sharon February 10th, 2009

Yours truly is having a media blitz this week (ok, a very, very small blitz).  First, there’s a Christian Science Monitor piece on the “Slow Fashion/Slow Clothing” movement, which apparently, I invented.  I never invented anything before, so that seems cool to me.  It was one of my very first published pieces.  I’ve been meaning to write something revisiting the question of how to dress ethically, so maybe this will be the kick in the behind that I need.  My family just thinks it is funny that my name is associated with the word “fashion” in any way, given that my motto for dressing is the same as the late, great Molly Ivins, who said that your clothes say something about you, and hers said “Woman who wears clothes so she won’t be nekkid.” 

Also, the Dallas Morning News ran a revised version of my essay about being a Jewish Farmer this week on their Sunday Commentary Pages.  I was very pleased and flattered that they wanted it, and am hoping that it will generate some discussion of Jewish and minority group agriculture.  A big thanks to Rod Dreher, who pointed the piece out to the relevant editor, and who almost certainly has done more to promote my career than I ever have!



Getting Organized: My Garden Calendar

Sharon February 10th, 2009

Those of who know me in real life will probably already have noted that organization isn’t my strong suit.  So how to keep up with all the garden tasks is a chronic problem of mine.  I get particularly muddled in late spring, when there are plants to be seeded outside, tender crops to be hardened off in cold frames, and long-growing fall garden plants like brussels sprouts to be seeded for transplant later…. Gack!  I have a garden record book, of course, but that meant digging it out every day to see what I’m supposed to be doing and to do that I have to find the garden record book… ;-) .

 And then I discovered the garden calendar.  What a miracle it was – I realize this is one of those “duh” things that probably most of you have figured out, but for me, it was such a revelation that I can’t resist sharing. 

What you want is a regular old monthly calendar.  You can buy a pretty one on sale in late January, when they go to 75% off, since at least in my climate, you probably won’t need it until then, or you can simply print a copy off the web.  The point being, however, unless you have a very small garden, you need a calendar entirely devoted to the garden.

Then, you sit down and write.  I start by counting back 12 weeks from my last frost date (you can find this out from your local extension).  That’s when I start my earliest plants indoors (actually, I usually start a few greens before that, but they are few enough to not worry about).  I then list off every variety of plant that gets started that early – in this case, onions, leeks, scallions, a few early greens (to be planted in the boxes on the sunporch), hollyhocks, two tomatoes (for early container tomatoes), and a pot of nasturtiums (for early flowers).  Next, we move forward to 11 weeks, when I start most of the perennial herbs and flowers that I want to produce the first year.  Then to 10 weeks…9…8… and so on until the very last things I start indoors – melons that get just a couple of week’s head start before the really warm weather kicks in here.  Since we’ve had snow in late May a couple of times, it is safer to keep them in until the second week of June.

And I don’t stop at my last frost date – because remember, I’m succession planting year round.  So I put down the date I start my fall spinach and other greens – it is hot enough that they do better started in the house, which is a bit cooler.  I want container tomatoes that produce through December, so those get started come May, along with some late chard and kale.  Generally fall crops in my climate need to get started in July or August – the sort of thing I definitely forget if I don’t write them down.  And then there are plants that do best from seed and overwintered – nuts and trees often do best planted from seed in a nursery bed and left out for the winter with some mulch.  Those get planted in October.

Now I go through all the plants I’m going to direct seed, from the very first onions and peas in April (for all you people planing them now, yeah, I’m jealous ;-) ), to the last crop of spinach direct seeded in early September to be overwintered.  I list an approximate date – but remind myself that if things dry up early in late March, I can put the peas in then.  This does require some knowledge of your place – you can start by using recommended dates from your local extension, and adapt them as you go. 

One way you develop this local knowledge is to keep track of the weather, and that’s something else we use this calendar for – we use it to jot down the first robins in January, the temperature fluctuations in March, rainfall, etc…  All that info eventually gets transferred into the garden record book, but I found that if I had to dig out the book, it often didn’t get written down at all, in the assumption that I’d just remember it.  Guess what – I didn’t.

Then I add other project information.  Ok, so I ordered some fruit trees – I have the habit of ordering trees online, and forgetting when I requested that they be sent.  And thus, the string of “oh, craps” when the box of fruit trees arrives to be planted just as we’re neck deep in some other project.  This way, when I flip to May, I can see that the apples are coming.

Pruning goes on the list.  Fruit trees in January and early February, the lilac bush after flowering.  So do animal projects – we put down the goat due dates, the days our chicks are expected to arrive and the day by which we need to have cleaned out the barn from winter.  Now this doesn’t always make me do these projects on time, but the site of the list of projects for May makes me realize that getting this done in March is going to make me a lot happier.

Do I ever ignore the calendar?  Sure, I do.  But the good thing about it is that if I don’t get the ageratums and sweet peas started on the week I listed, it is easy to draw an arrow down to the next week as a reminder.  I’ve also found that it saves me work on the other end – no need to write in the garden records “started broccoli” on a particular date – I can just flip back to the calendar and see when broccoli was on the list.  If there’s no arrow, I actually started broccoli – yay!

One additional trick I’ve learned is that after I’m done organizing the calendar, I make shoeboxes – now this might be overkill for those of you with small gardens, but for me, it is a great help.  Each box is labelled with a week (made ‘em a while back), and if you were a different kind of person than me, you might cover them with pretty cloth or paint – mine still look like shoe boxes.  But for each week, there is a box of seeds – thus, I don’t have to go hunting for the Hokkaido Blue Squash seeds when I’m ready to plant them out.  I divide the box into “direct seed” and “start indoors” sections for each week.  For someone with a smaller garden, one shoe box with a set of dividers for each week might be sufficient.

Now if this sounds like an enormous amount of work, the other good thing is that you only have to do it once.  You see, next year, you can take last year’s calendar, and with a few amendments (ie, you remember that you should have started the kale earlier and the container tomatoes later), you can just copy it all over to next year’s calendar.  I save them, too, because I enjoy seeing them and comparing notes from previous years.

For me personally, the “hanging on the wall in front of your nose” method of showing what has to be done and what has been done is the only one that works.  I offer it up to the similarly organizationally challenged!


I Can Bring Home the Cornbread, Bake It in a Pan, and Never… Um….Why You Can't Have It All In the Garden

Sharon February 10th, 2009

I’m mulling over what corn to grow this year.  I want it to be open pollinated, and in the green stage, sweet, probably as sweet as a moderate hybrid.  I’d like it to have good cold soil emergence, a quick maturity date, but a good extended harvest in the green stage.  I want something with a good bit of genetic diversity and an interesting color – green, red, or multicolored.  In the dry stage, I’d like it to parch superbly, grind into delicious cornmeal and also pop into delicate, light popcorn.  It should be easy to shell, but have a good, tight husk to keep out earworms, tolerate wet, cold, dry, hot and variable conditions, and produce a heavy crop, with five or six ears to a plant in dense plantings. 

Just in case you don’t realize it, that list is, well, insane.  That is, no one will ever breed a corn with all of those qualities – it isn’t possible.  The hard coating that makes a popcorn great means that in the green stage, it is never as tender as sweet corn.  On the other hand most corns as sugary as present day hybrids would never make good flour – they would mold instead of drying.  There are corns adapted to hot, cold, variable, wet and dry conditions – but not all at once.  There are some that can tolerate quite a range of conditions, because they’ve been selected for that quality – but that means that other qualities probably weren’t as high a priority.

And yet, if you read garden catalog copy, you might get the impression that the perfect corn or tomato or bean is out there, without compromise. It isn’t totally my fault that on some level I’m still looking for the perfect corn, rather than one whose compromises I can live with – just listen to the catalogs trumpeting “Most exciting introduction in human history!  Better than the domestication of the potato!  This melon stores for seven months at room temperature, perfumes a room and is delicious even after being on the compost pile for 3 weeks – the molds growing upon it are a traditional delicacy!”  Ok, maybe I exaggerate just a little – but not much.

If it were just seed varieties that had this problem we could all shrug our shoulders, but in gardening and farming, the “I want it all” disease tends to permeate our lives.  We want our gardens to be full of a huge variety of annual and perennial crops and have no weeds at all.  We want to emphasize calorie crops in a survival garden and also emphasize high value fruits and vegetables to save money.  We want to raise every animal imaginable – a couple of llamas, goats, a cow, five sheep, ducks, of course, chickens, bunnies, oh, and bees and maybe some pigs….

And all those ambitions are doable – I even know people who do them all.  But most of us, with limitations of space and time are probably going to find that we have to compromise.  For example, a lot of us want to be able to live off our gardens if times get tough – that means growing dense calorie crops – dried beans, nuts, root crops and some small grains.  The thing is, these crops take up space in our garden – and right now, most of us can buy these items pretty cheaply.  On the other hand, lettuce, basil, tomatoes, raspberries, peaches…these are not so cheap per pound.  So do we emphasize high value crops, or do we emphasize calorie crops?  Or do we compromise?  If you’ve got all the space and time in the world, you probably can grow all your potatoes, beans, corn and sweet potatoes, and also all the raspberries and lettuce you want.  But what about those of us on smaller plots, with less physical ability or time?

Well, you might need to cut your produce bill right now more than you need to prepare for TEOTWAWKI.  Or you might feel like you enjoy growing beans, corn and sweet potatoes enough that you are content with that priority.  Or maybe you have just one bed devoted to those crops, just so you know how to grow them if times get tough, while you mostly grow tomatoes and lettuce.

You want an enormous subsistence garden with no weeds, right?  Well, there are things you can definitely do to resist weed pressure – sheet mulching, not disturbing the soil.  But unless you’ve got nothing to do but hoe, the bigger the garden, the more likely it is that you’ll have weeds – while the lambsquarters can’t sneak past you in a 4×6 raised bed, you’ll find that your 1/4 acre garden has quite a few sneaky places for crabgrass to grow.  And it might be possible that you do want to do something besides hoe.  So guess what – welcome to weedland.  I remember visiting Old Sturbridge Village and being told by a gardener that they are constantly criticized for letting the weeds go in their gardens, and are often told that this couldn’t have been a common practice, because, after all, people relied on their gardens.  But in fact, the gardeners there observed that it was quite the contrary – weediness was normal, and as long as the weed pressure didn’t undermine the harvest too much, it wasn’t worried much about. 

Want a forest garden?  Great, that’s a terrific project.  Just remember, though, you’ve now decided to emphasize perennial plantings, which means that even if you scatter in annuals, you’ll probably have to wait a while before major production.  That’s not the end of the world – time passes faster than you think.  But it is worth remembering that your harvests won’t get large for a while in many cases, and that most perennial crops are fruits, nuts and greens  – you probably won’t be getting most of your primary calorie crops from that garden unless you eat a lot of Jerusalem artichokes.  Nothing wrong with that – just worth remembering that there are tradeoffs everywhere.

What about animals?  Well, again, if you live on a farm, love animals and want to, you can have a lot of them.  I know someone living on 5 acres in quite a dense suburb who has more animals on her lot than I do.  But you have to want that – and it has to be a priority.  And the time, energy and feed has to come from somewhere.  Then you have to find a market for the animal – or arrange to butcher it.  Or accept that you have 143 pet rabbits ;-) .

It isn’t that I’m trying to discourage anyone from practicing polyculture, or from diversifying – quite the contrary, what I absolutely don’t want to see is everyone specializing in just one item and growing it over and over again.  We live in a society with far too much specialization.  The fact we’re generalists is, I think a virtue.  But even generalists often find that they have to pick and choose.  And anyone who tells you that their strategy doesn’t have any prices is selling something.

Maybe you can do it all – you are young, healthy, have a strong back and a lot of energy.  Great – enjoy it.  But even that’s a choice – you’ll be devoting your life to growing food. Now I can’t think of a better project for some people – but other people have other callings, and they need to to find ways to grow food that don’t take so much time and energy.  The world needs more people who grow food, especially full time – but it also needs teachers and musicians and nurses and carpenters who grow food on the side.  Someone with less time who wants to grow all their own food may need to change their diet to emphasize easily produced crops, or they may be able to say “ok, I’m content to produce half my meat and all my vegetables – and that’s enough.”  Knowing when to say “enough” is important too.  Now what is enough today may not be tomorrow – so being prepared to shift gears is important.  But we have to live with one foot in the future, but the other still in our present. 

The first project of garden design is dreaming, but the second is shaping your dreams to fit your life.  Most of us will have to choose between the perfect garden for the future and the perfect one for today, between animals and resources, between crops and varieties.  And every time we choose we give something up – and get something back.  The trick is to figure out what you really care about, and make sure you give up mostly things that don’t matter much to you, and that you get back the things that matter most – most of the time.

I think I’ve found my ideal corn – black aztec.  It is a corn that is sweet in the milk stage – not as sweet as most of the hybrids, or quite as tender, but tasty.  You’ve got to move fast to get it then, but we can do that.  It handles our cool, wet climate well, and as I save seed, it gets better adapted to my garden.  At the meal stage, it is sweet – not quite as sweet as my favorite dry corn “northstine dent”, but better than that as a green corn.  It is beautiful and tasty, and makes lovely cornmeal.  And for popcorn, well, I grow a second variety just for popcorn.  And when the corn passes the milk stage, I go down the road and buy sweet corn at my local farmstand.  It is almost perfect – although I’m still probably going to try another variety this year, simply because I can’t resist the temptation of finding something even better.  But even if I do, I won’t fool myself that I have it all.   Just enough for me and my needs.