Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Postmortem on a Poor Harvest

If I kept an organized garden notebook, instead of the usual jumble of notes and reminders tossed into a manila folder, I would have an accurate record of which vegetables I planted, how many plants of each variety, and maybe some other useful information (added fertilizer? when? how often watered?). And I could now record how well each variety had produced. What a bummer that would be.
A season-long string of disasters. For months I blamed my veggie garden’s problems on the weather’s unaccustomed failure of solar energy in the crucial months of June and July. But there’s another reason: the human factor.
I tried to pack too much in. The crucial mistake was letting the wild pumpkins loose in the squash patch. The whole larger half of the garden quickly became the “squash patch,” or actually the uninvited pumpkin patch, to the detriment of everything else. The invader squash seedlings began appearing shortly after I mixed some compost from the compost bin into the soil of the oversized sandbox in which I play with the idea of growing edibles vegetables when I want a break from the perennials. I had decided to grow cucumbers and zucchini this year for my squash plantings, reminding myself that limiting the mounds to a couple of plants would reduce the mildew fungus this family of plants is prone to in my vegetable plot. Too much dampness, perhaps, not quite enough sun. And yet, as I have told myself in prior years, the tomatoes do fine.
But then the wild, unmannerly squashes began popping up, two or three here and there, and I greeted them like free food, or gifts of the gods, or simply a benevolent byproduct of composting (our first year of that). Then the twos and threes became half dozens and dozens. I had visions of an unholy abundance of “free” produce. I kept transplanting the seedlings, moving them around, “finding space” for them. Such are the wages of self-deception. I was taking space from other plants. Sticking everything too close together.
It turned out to be a bad year to try to tease too much production out of the earth. Given a cool, cloudy first half of summer, after I pinched off the sucker vines on the tomato plants, very few little in the way of tomato action took place on the branches which remained. Few flowers and fewer tomatoes resulted, the tomatoes staying green, waiting for the sun to shine. The green pepper plants looked in August just as they had in June. Is suspended animation possible in green plants? My “classic purple” eggplant plants are still waiting for summer.
The squash vines did, possibly, worse. Competing for space, sunlight, nutrients, whatever, with all those semi-wild cousins from the compost bin, the zucchini plants made two, count’em two, zucchinis and called it a season. The cucumbers delivered one small cuke and one delicately formed two-toned miniature, suitable for the knickknack shelf.
Basically, everything which grew miniaturized.
But, as I say, it wasn’t just the weather. The perennial flower and shrub plants took a look at the succession of cool rainy weeks and said “hey, this must be England,” and went about their business with their usual panache. I spent the season pulling weeds and trying to keep the overly enthusiastic perennials out of each other’s way, the groundcovers from overrunning the paths.
But in the vegetable garden, I had said yes to life too often. Sometimes life needs to hear no.
The invader plants turned out to be pumpkins. I wasn’t completely sure of that even as they leaved and flowered – pumpkins had been a strong contender from the start, but so were zuccs and winter squashes, all of which had contributed seeds to the bin. These anonymous squash plants grew big leaves and vines. They produced bright yellow flowers in abundance. And did those flowers turn into fruit? No, in almost all cases, they did not.
One certifiably small pumpkin formed amid a row of the tomato plants it had embraced and tangled with its vines, grew a thick green skin and matured into authentic orange. A few other mini-pumpkins formed, suitable for display as non-conformist gourds.
The lesson? Be less greedy next year and try to do a few things well.