Spring is ramping up into summer now. The days are long, the evenings warm and I’m thinking I’ll need to take a hat on my walk to work from now on. With the return of the sun the garden has roused itself and the food growing has begun in earnest.
I’m spending more and more time out there, planting out seedlings, picking things to put on my plate and aiming to keep the mulch in the garden beds and the grass in the lawn. My resident blackbird family disagree with my philosophy of mulching the veggies, preferring instead to spread the stuff over the pavers and lawn, uprooting the occasional seedling in the process. Still, they’ve developed a taste for snails and for that I am grateful: as much as I’d prefer a few native blue-tongue lizards to do the job I’m in the middle of suburbia and can’t provide good lizard habitat.
The garden here is the biggest one I’ve ever taken on, and I’ve surprised myself by already filling up all the existing garden beds and the new one I dug at the bottom of the yard. I’ve planted potatoes and oca, and they take up quite a bit of space! Also in are peas and beans (the peas self-sowed, as did one type of bean, so I’m not sure what I’ve got yet), beetroot (doing well), carrots (doing badly), lettuce (another self-sower) rocket, rainbow chard and the first lot of tomatoes.
Meanwhile, the late seedlings (mostly replacements for what the snails ate the first time) are sitting in an old fish tank on my dining table, waiting to be planted out this weekend. There’s a load more tomatoes, sprouting broccoli, dill, parsley, sunflowers and my coddled tiny eggplants that will go into pots in the greenhouse though I doubt I’ll manage to get fruit of them. Since I’m all out of garden space already I guess I’m going to be digging up more lawn. Luckily my landlord doesn’t seem to mind and lets me do my garden thing (at least so far).
Some things do incredibly well here. Red winter kale continues to come up everywhere, as do borage and calendula. The spuds are thriving and the beans are shooting up quickly. Other things aren’t doing so well, like the strawberries that put out lots of leaf growth but aren’t quite getting enough sun to flower well. The lack of sun has also set some plants back a little: my pea plants are tall and strong but are only now really getting going on flowering, while friends are already harvesting theirs.
Still, it’s beginning looking like a real garden out there. The neighbour’s house might shade it more than I’d like, the soil is still lacking in organic matter and the blackbirds may frustrate my efforts at keeping everything neat and tidy, but it feeds me, both literally and metaphorically. Time in the garden helps to ground me, and the physical work with obvious results is a powerful antidote to the day job, spent sitting behind a computer for far too many hours. Tending the earth has helped to keep me sane while a nasty knee injury has preventing me from hiking and motivated me to get outside and active through stressful times. It’s a very good thing I’m enjoying it, as there’s plenty more work to be done.
Spring has been beautiful in my garden, and now the summer has begun.
What’s growing in my garden this summer? Plants marked * are self-sown or were here when I got here:
- Beans (mix of fresh eating & drying varieties)
- Bok Choi
- Broccoli, sprouting* (also seedlings I’ve grown myself)
- Carrots (barely!)
- Chard, rainbow
- Eggplant, casper
- Kale, curly*
- Kale, red winter*
- Lettuce* (read & green oak & two other mystery non-heading varieties)
- Peas* (mystery varieties)
- Potatoes (blue sapphire, pink fir apple, cranberry red & banana that I put in, plus a white variety* that self-sowed)
- Raspberries* (one here, one I’ve planted)
- Salad burnett
- Wide assortment of herbs (mixed origins)
Tell me, what have you got growing?
I’d pretty much given up on my spring veg seeds sprouting. Well, except for the rocket and beans – they’re unkillable.
Instead of buying seedlings this year I’d decided to do my bit for crop diversity and source some rare and heirloom variety seeds: tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant and sunflowers, along with last season’s self-saved seed. I got all eco-experimental and planted most of my seeds in egg cartons, which it turns out don’t drain well and do dry out very easily. I was nervous about my prospects for success. Then the spring gales came and ripped my flimsy plastic greenhouse asunder and I came home last week to find all my seedling pots dust-dry and the few little shoots that had sprouted, withered and died.
Dispirited, I brought all the dirt-filled egg cartons and little pots inside, gave them a thorough soaking and ensconced them on the dining table under my lovely north-facing windows. Then I waited. I waited, I waited and I waited. Nothing.
So when I dropped by the hardware store to buy tape for greenhouse repairs (avoiding throwing the damn thing out like the disposable item it’s designed to be) I picked up a few tomato seedlings, determined to taste a home-grown summer again this year. And just this morning – as I checked again but found no signs of life – I thought I’d be throwing my egg carton experiments out as just so much expensive dust.
But this afternoon when I came home, there they were: pale green things.
Purple sprouting broccoli, Italian parsley, Caspar eggplant, chillies and all three types of tomato.
I’m going to take this one as a lesson to not give up on things so soon. To not be in such a rush to throw out and move on, but give fragile things a little bit more time to see if they can grow.
There will be sunflowers this year.
Over the weekend I spent a bit of time in the garden, weeding, composting and mulching. I’m preparing beds for the month ahead, keeping myself motivated through the hard graft (the gardens here are seriously neglected) by daydreaming about the harvests to come. As well as thinking about what will do well in my garden and what I like to eat I’ve been giving a bit of thought to biological and genetic diversity and wondering how my plantings might help to keep rare species and varieties alive.
So what’s the problem with food crop diversity? The limited types of plants we grow, and the few varieties (genetic strains) of those plants we do sow.
Modern agriculture promotes the growing of only a small sub-sample of possible food plants. The plants grown have been selected over the years for various reasons, including high yields, easy harvesting, long shelf-life, market familiarity and easy processing. As western industrial systems of agriculture have expanded across the world, western crops have moved with them, replacing traditional food plants. We’ve lost awareness of many alternative food plants along with the knowledge of how best to grow them, and along the way we’ve lost access to many of the food plants best suited to growing conditions in many parts of the world, and to the conditions predicted in a climate-change impacted future.
As farming has industrialised we’ve also become reliant on a small handful of the known varieties of the plants that have become our dominant crops. Where a century ago there were 400 known varieties of peas in cultivation, now there’s only 25 that are commonly grown and most of the original 400 have gone extinct. Although it might not seem important – after all we still have peas – this loss of genetic diversity is really quite worrying: genetic diversity is the thing that lets us adapt crops to changing conditions, environments and diseases.[1, 2] If we lose the genes, we lose the means to adapt our food plants to new growing conditions. This is a huge concern for food security, putting our agricultural systems at risk of collapse due to drought, climate change, plant diseases and even global politics – agribusiness is big business.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields – that’s how big the problem is. Some governments and science organisations are so concerned that they’ve established a secure seed bank to preserve rare seeds as best as possible, behind steel doors in a vault built into a mountain beneath the permafrost in the Arctic circle.[1, 3, 4]
Although it’s not only the lost biodiversity that’s the problem – there’s related issues about fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use , as well as lost potential medicinal and biotechnological properties, farming knowledge and cultural traditions – it’s the part that I can do a little something about in my own back yard*. I can plant unusual crops and rare varieties of veggies in my little patch, preserving diversity when I collect seed for the next year and expanding my culinary world at the same time. I’ve taken my day-dreams of fresh greens and home-grown spuds and checked them against growing guides and seed catalogues, getting an idea of what plants and varieties will do well on my fine, claggy soil (I could spend hours looking through seed catalogues, dreaming of gardens that will never be…). I’m choosing for suitability, flavour and biodiversity, tracking down suppliers of unusual, heirloom and organic seeds. There’s a world of weird veg out there that I can’t wait to explore!
Backyard-friendly unusual veggies that I’m contemplating growing include salsify, skirret, salad burnet, oca, mizuna and elephant garlic. I’m also planning to plant unusual varieties of more familiar crops:
- blue sapphire potatoes - seriously, purple spuds that are tasty too – What’s not to love?
- Chioggia beetroot - it’s stripey!
- purple sprouting broccoli - I grew this last year and am hooked
- “Caspar” white eggplants – early harvesting, so hopefully I’ll have better luck than I did last summer.
…and whatever else I come across that’s just a little different.
I’ll find out what works, save seed from the successes and grow them again next season, slowly selecting the genes that do best right here, creating a garden with a genetic profile that’s all it’s own.
What usual food plants or rare varieties are your favourites? What’s the weirdest edible you’ve ever grown? Know any good sources for heirloom seeds or kooky seedlings? Let us know what makes your garden a little more biodiverse!
Sources for seeds or unusual seedlings (Australia):
In Tasmania and interested in food security? Public lecture: Food Security and Nutrition – The GM Question
- Who? former Chief Scientist of Australia and CSIRO Fellow, Dr Jim Peacock AC
- Where? Stanley Burbury Theatre, University Centre, Sandy Bay campus
- When? 10th July 2012, 6.00 – 7.30 pm
- How? RSVP by email to UTAS.Events@utas.edu.au
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2010) Crop biodiversity: use it or lose it.
 Longyearbyen (2012) Banking against Doomsday; The Economist, March 10th, 2012.
 Altieri MA (1999) The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems; Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 74, Pp 19–31; Elsevier.
 Altieri MA & Merrick LC (1986) Agroecology and in situ conservation of native crop diversity in the third world; Chapter 41 in Wilson EO (1986) Biodiversity, Part 3; National Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Institution, USA.
* I can also do something about it through my grocery shopping, steering clear of the supermarkets for my produce, buying meat from rare-breed livestock and selecting unusual veg from the farmer’s market and local grocer.