The Deliberate Edible Garden

From "Wisdom of the Plain Folk" comes the following Amish Hymn:

      Gardener's Hymn

      Bid the refreshing north wind wake
      Say to the south wind blow
      Let ev'ry plant the pow'r partake
      And all the garden grow.

Growing vegetables in a home garden is a deliberate act. It just doesn't happen by accident. Some of the motivation might be to bring some relief to the family's weekly grocery bills. A greater motivation, however, increasingly seems to be to obtain fresh food that is wholesome, pesticide free, and in keeping with what's often only available at local farmers markets. More about this in a bit. Still another motivation is to reestablish one's connection with the earth and the bounty it offers up simply from the soil, the sunshine and the rainfall. This satisfies the soul.

Lots of consideration should go into this process. It's a food garden, after all. One might choose to grow whatever one thinks might be fun, challenging, tasty, nutritious and welcome by the rest of the clan.

For the deliberate gardener, there are favorites to choose from and then there are new introductions to either resist or embrace. Food plants should be chosen according to the family's needs, desires, and the gardener's degree of diligence.

Thoughtful choices will usually include fewer insect and disease problems. I wonder how many know that certain plants are naturally less attractive to insects: carrots, lettuces, butternut squash and Swiss chard are good examples. On the other hand, corn, cabbage, beans and some squash are like magnets to insect pests.

Part of the thought process starts with picking the best site for the garden. It should be close to the home structure, on a slope below the hill or higher ground, so tops of plants are lower than the crest of the hill. This reduces the chance of wind injury and drying out.

Water drainage, air drainage, soil pH and fertility, weeds, sun exposure, and vulnerability to deer damage are some of the bigger issues to consider. Setting aside an idle plot for crop rotation into new soil can mitigate insect, disease and weed troubles in the future. This should be planned for in advance.

Perennial vegetables represent a one-time planting that offers a reward of enjoying the fruits of that labor year after year. Jerusalem artichoke, Egyptian onion, potato onion, asparagus, rhubarb, chives, and horseradish are the usual food garden perennials. They stay in the same place and don't require lots of input aside from weeding and usual maintenance.

By stretching the definition of food garden to include perennial greens, edible and culinary herbs and flowers, berries, and fruit and nuts from trees we expand our harvest basket considerably. It might now include such diverse crops as daylily buds and blossoms, strawberries, fiddleheads (ostrich fern), Good King Henry (wild spinach), sorrel, salad burnet, radicchio, watercress, ramps, cherries, apples, blueberries, arugula... you get the idea. If you are pinched for outdoor space, many herbs and food plants can be grown in containers.

Over 200 types of plants have been categorized as vegetables around the world, with 75 being grown throughout the United States. There has, on occasion, been a question about the difference between a vegetable and a fruit. In May of 1893, the Supreme Court was asked to clarify the difference for purposes of taxation of imports. The Court overturned an early definition in the Tariff Act of 1883 and officially classified the tomato a vegetable, in spite of the fact that it, along with many other plant parts containing the seeds (fruits), were not so classified. Its use in the home and on the table led to the redefining, and it was no longer exempt as a fruit. The back-taxes sought were recouped.

Not every homeowner, or, for that matter, resident has the ability to grow their own food. This is one of the reasons there is a growing demand for farmers' markets. The opportunity to personally talk with and get to know the grower is heart warming and reassuring. The fact that the produce is less traveled and much fresher than what's available at stores is a real plus.

The farmers market offers a personal community experience. Look what might be offered in a single visit: music, demonstrations, baked goods, food sample tastings, candles, honey, maple syrup, plants, herbs, oils, flowers, salsas, and hundreds of varieties of vegetables depending on where you live. You might find garlic scapes, oriental vegetables, chili, hot peppers, pickled ramps, duck eggs, smoked fish, and organic beef. It's a lot different from the commercial stores.

Back to the personal food garden. You may long for, as I do, fresh, sun ripened tomatoes, sweet corn, and strawberries for starters. For the home garden, few vegetables are easier to grow than radishes, salad greens, onions, peppers, bush zucchini, basil, peppers, potatoes, and green beans. That being said, there are always challenges from nature. A friend has been bringing me bunches of fresh salad greens. As plentiful as his gifts to me are, he tells me the slugs are getting as much as he is! Don't forget the deer and their love of salad bars, too.

I've long ago opted to purchase all the sweet corn I can from farmers markets or local farm stands. I chose not to grow it. Chives, however, are completely care-free, productive, and reliable.

Let your ambition not too far exceed your ability. On the other hand, if you aim for the stars you might at least get to the moon.

Carl Sandburg wrote "Life is like an onion: you peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep."


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on June 27, 2007

© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.