Gardening Guide

The answer, put most simply, is no. Almost none of the garden plants we grow are native to this area. In fact, almost none of them are native to the North American continent. As GOOD DAY SUNCHOKES explains, just four commonly cultivated world crops come from North America: sunflower, cranberry, blueberry, and sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). (More recent information reveals that a few varieties of squash also originate in eastern North America.) The rest come from elsewhere and market my market.

Ironically, the crops we call “American” crops—including beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers—are among the least suited to our climate, since (except for a few varieties of squash) they originate in the subtropics of Central and South America. They are killed by frost, and require warmth to grow well. Other warm- and hot-weather crops originating in subtropical regions include cucumber, basil, eggplant, okra, and melons; the last three, in particular, tend to be even more marginal in our area. Season-extension methods (starting the seeds in greenhouses in late winter or early spring) are required to induce tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and okra to produce significant amounts of mature fruit here. Beans, corn, squash, cucumber, basil, and melons are usually sown after the danger of frost has passed, and, like the others, are killed by the first frost in the fall (or in the late summer, when it sometimes arrives). (See I’VE JUST SEEN A FROST.)

Crops originating in temperate regions of Europe and Asia—sometimes referred to as “Mediterranean” crops—are actually much more compatible with our climate than are the “American” crops. Most are at least somewhat frost-hardy, and many can live through our mild winters outside without suffering any cold damage. Even more can survive our winters in a greenhouse. For some of these crops, summer is actually the most stressful time—cabbage family members (celebrated in GREENS THAT ARE MUSTARDS) and many salad greens actually prefer cooler temperatures, as do peas, favas, garlic and other onion family members, and similar crops. Wild crops are also seasonal, with fruit ripening throughout the warm periods of the year but fungi (see I’M A SHROOMER) thriving in the damp of fall and spring.

Garden activities are also affected heavily by the cycle of the seasons. Some are determined by crop cycles. For example, seed collecting (see ALL YOUR SEEDS ARE LOVE and YOU WON’T SEED ME) obviously needs to happen when seeds are ready to collect. Pruning of fruit trees and other fruit-bearing crops either within the garden or in separate orchards can be done at different times depending on the desired effect—stimulating fruit production or influencing vegetative growth (see MISTER PRUNE-RIGHT). Other activities are determined simply by weather conditions. High soil moisture levels during the rainy season often prevent cultivation of garden beds; working wet clay soils can destroy soil structure and create lasting compaction (see SHE DUG YOU). In summer, moisture levels can be controlled through irrigation decisions, allowing much greater flexibility. This flexibility is available year-round in protected greenhouses and cloches, except when soil saturation is so great that it waterlogs even covered garden beds.

Many sources offer information about appropriate sowing dates for various crops. Here are some general guidelines for our area, with additional notes reflecting our experiences here at Lost Valley. These guidelines will be elaborated further elsewhere in this guide:

January-March: Sow leeks, onions in flats in greenhouse (we often wait until March, but they can be started earlier).

January-continuous throughout year: Sow lettuce, other salad crops in flats in greenhouse (midwinter germination and growth can be slow or nonexistent depending on temperature, so in reality we usually skip the coldest midwinter months).

February-May: Sow peas directly in the ground—in greenhouse beds, if early, and/or in outside beds.

February-March: Sow parsley, celery (we usually wait until March for reasons of temperature; early sowing is essential, because germination takes three weeks and growth is slow).

March-August: Sow root crops directly in ground, in greenhouse or outside (check suggestions for individual root crops; radishes can be sown even later).

March-September: Sow brassicas and other cooking greens in flats (in greenhouse, early, or outside if later) and in ground.

March-July: Sow flowers (depending on variety).

March-April: Sow tomatoes, peppers in flats in greenhouse (early sowing is recommended).

April-June: Plant potatoes in ground (allow three months to mature; vegetation is frozen back by frost, but will resprout if growing conditions are still favorable).

mid-May-mid-June: Sow squash, melons, cucumbers in pots or directly in ground; sow basil in flats; sow corn directly in ground.

mid-May-June: Sow beans directly in ground, sunflowers in flats or in ground, buckwheat (throughout summer) directly in ground.

June-August: Sow fall and winter brassicas and other greens in flats or directly in ground.

August-November: Sow winter cover crops (such as clovers, field peas, vetch, rye) directly in ground.

September-October: Plant garlic directly in the ground.

October: Plant favas directly in the ground.

October-November: Sow peas directly in the ground.

In summary, our temperate climate offers the opportunity for great diversity and abundance from our gardens. While we can’t grow any crop imaginable (see OH! BARLEY), we can grow a healthy variety of fresh produce all year round, which can be supplemented by stored and preserved seasonal produce to create a well-rounded, tasty bioregional diet (see SALT AND PEPPER’S ONLY FOR WHEN VEGETABLES ARE BLAND). Our mild winters and summers mean that a motivated gardener can almost always stay busy with outdoor and garden-related activities if desired, reducing the seduction of the “old 9 to 5” even further (see WORKDAY).

Other Beetless tunes not mentioned above that deal with topics at least tangentially related to this chapter are referenced in the “Beetless’ Bootleg” APPENDIX—their lyrics have been lost, but the notations do offer some information. These include A DAY IN THE LEAF (which celebrates photosynthesis), FOR NO SUN (which considers various possible culprits for the death of a plant, including unfavorable weather and lack of sun), HAPPINESS IS THE WARM SUN (especially for “American” crops), HEY BULLFROG (luckily, these nonnative invaders need year-round bodies of water to survive and reproduce, and our pond dries up), HOE SNAP PEAS, HOE FAVAS (more on some cool-weather crops), MELON SAYS PICK ME (a rare late-summer delight here), SAVOY CABBAGE (much more compatible with our climate), and SLOPE DOWN (which deals with the process of garden siting, in which it is essential to consider sun angle and other factors which change throughout the year).

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