New Year’s garden goals already at risk
By Michael Leach
This year I resolve to give up vegetable gardening.
Too often I’ve been victimized by foolish, optimistic voices (usually the loudest and most persistent is in my head). But no more.
This chorus promises that growing your own food is rewarding. You can: try varieties unavailable at the supermarket, harvest at peak flavor, save money, share with friends, take pride in doing it yourself, and preserve the surplus to savor summer in bleak January.
While I have had success in one and sometimes all these areas, it’s only because the plants grew to harvest stage. Hardly a given.
Misconceptions about the ease of productivity are fueled in part by our quest to become more proficient gardeners. We turn to books, fact sheets, websites and articles. As with other how-to manuals and user guides, the ideal world of the information rarely matches the messy reality of withering foliage and moldy spots. “What caused this?” we cry, but to no avail.
That’s because gardening sources usually divide various aspects of our delightful addiction into specific sections: Water, Light, Temperature, Weeds, Pests, Pruning, and so forth. Such broad topics are further divided into specific issues, topped with bold-type subheads: Prune for More Bloom, Fertilizing Containers, … . Peppered throughout are bits of jargon such as bones, texture and evenly moist.
We learn about a host of insect, animal, bacterial, fungicidal and even alien pests in tidy, bulleted lists under subheads in smaller bold type.
It’s as if all these things are independent agents acting alone.
Nature behaves differently. Nature conspires against us with diverse enemies acting in concert, not neatly defined issues treated rationally in a book or article. How else to explain those withering leaves and moldy spots when you followed the bulleted how-to list to a T?
I have ignored this conspiracy theory for the last time.
On August 20, 2019, I tallied a range of woes and a couple successes:
No leaves on the sweet potatoes; tomatoes eaten off, one plant pushed over; fresh sowings of basil, kale, cosmos failed to sprout due to heat and drought.
Garlic, a runaway success, unlike 2018 when monsoons rains dissolved most heads, leaving barely enough “seed” for a new crop.
Brussels sprouts have lacy foliage due to countless generations of cabbage worms.
The asparagus died out.
Turnip greens riddled with flea beetle holes and leathery due to scorching weather.
The last straw — the groundhog ate off the zinnias, leaving nearly leafless stumps.
Unlike Scarlett O’Hara, who confronted a similar scene of dismal ruin, I headed to the farmers market for fresh, local produce and hoped for better things to come.
That’s because Ohio gardening sources say cooler and moister weather usually returns in September. It didn’t turn cooler and moister for weeks. The parched brussels sprouts became bonsais, complete with miniature cabbage heads.
Remarkably leaves emerged for the second (or third?) time on the sweet potatoes, sufficient to produce a few fist-sized tubers. Some were pocked by a combo of subhead issues concerning pests and soil.
Two of the scraggly tomato plants (worthy of Charlie Brown’s garden) were imbued with survival instincts rivaling cockroaches. These managed to produce a handful of cherry tomatoes before frost. Scant inspiration for planting toms again.
Cooler-moister arrived just in time to induce planting of the choicest garlic cloves for harvest next summer, and jump-start the turnips into lush, spot-free top growth. By then frost had forced the flea beetles to scurry for winter digs.
Come mid-February, when days grow longer, the leaves should resume growth, assuming my paltry efforts to protect with floating row cover shields them from harsh winds and rapid temperature swings. (I don’t think rollercoaster temperatures are found under any chapter subheads, but it’s a fact of Midwest gardening life.)
Some will argue that turnip greens and garlic make me a vegetable gardener in 2020, thus breaking my resolution. Technically though, these were planted in 2019, well ahead of the resolution-making season.
OK! I’m waffling as usual. Tomatoes have been grown by my family for generations. Can I halt such a tradition for a silly snit on a blazing August afternoon?
No. You cannot halt that tradition. It is forbidden that you give up. Here’s why: Every single aspect and problem that you described has one or more solutions that you have not been enlightened with yet, that is all. Nearly every single problem you just described, I had this year… And the last, and the year before that. But I did not give up. A few years ago, I un-buried a long-forgotten passion in me (Mycology) that is teaching me immense gardening benefits. I garden with fungi (as mycorrhizae). 90% of the plants on this planet are in a symbiotic relationship with one or more fungal species underground in the mycorrhizosphere and beyond, even in xeric environments (think cacti!). When I started to consider these fungi, and studied them more and more, and how to work with them, and what benefits they impart, I started realizing more and more of those benefits myself.
There are organic, preemptive and pro-active solutions to what you are dealing with!
Thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring response to the post. I’m waffling even more.
Your suggestion about soil-based fungi is worth looking into, even though this means another set of bullet points to follow.
What resources are available for those of us who know about these beneficial fungi but lack your passion and background for them. In other words a “Soil Fungi 101” approach. Thanks again for your response! — Michael
The very first book that comes to mind is: “Teaming with Fungi” by Jeff Lowenfels. That’s a great starting point. Also: “Mycorrhizal Planet” by Michael Phillips. Both of these Authors get a little “preachy” sometimes in the books, but still are great reads. More advanced, and definitely more expensive is: “Mycorrhizal Symbiosis” by Smith & Read. For that book, it would be heavily encouraged to have read a basic Mycology textbook or two first, like “Fundamentals of the Fungi” by Moore-Landecker, or “Introductory Mycology” by Alexopoulos et.al.
Websites: https://mycorrhizas.info/ (Awesome site), https://mycorrhizae.com/how-it-works/ (They sell products) , https://www.anbg.gov.au/fungi/mycorrhiza.html (Australia-centric, but very informative with great references cited).
Hope this helps! Enjoy your journey! Darin
Darin — Thanks for your quick response and the suggestions for books and sites. I plan to track down the book by Jeff Lowenfels as I know about him through GardenComm, a professional organization we’re part of. The journey is about to begin.
Micheal Leach…you are a Treasure!