Thursday, January 13, 2011

Winter gardening

Well, it's mid-January, and a young man's thoughts turn to gardening. This may seem a little cheeky, since Mother Nature has barely gotten started on her annual winter ass-kicking. Doubly cheeky since I'm referring to myself, and I'm no spring chicken. It may seem too early to most people to engage in such vernal flights of fancy, but I have some kinds of chile that need to get started soon if I want any peppers out of them, and it's also seed catalogue season, so planning and seed ordering go together like, well, planning and ordering.

My dad was big on gardening and was famous in the neighbourhood for growing these MASSIVE hubbard squashes which my brother and I thoroughly despised since we had to eat them all winter. We were also pretty bummed out at missing Saturday morning cartoons for the sake of pulling and washing carrots, digging up spuds, and the annual moving of 5 yards of manure from the driveway to the backyard. (Although I did earn my first swig of Molson Export via this toil, so there were clearly some benefits.) So, as you can imagine, I stayed far away from soil and seeds until fate landed me a job, and I got paid to do it. This job was at Bellevue House National Historic Site, and I worked there as a "period gardener" in the summers of 1991 and 1994 (during the intervening years I was off in Africa letting snails devour my bean plants -- but that's another story).

At Bellevue House, I worked with a charming fellow named Colin, who was the head gardener (he's in the first picture on the link above). The first day at work, he told me how much Spanish onions made him fart, and we got along famously from then on. The job consisted of planting and tending the historically representative garden and apple orchard, taking people on tours, and spending hours and hours scything the grass (funnily enough I just discovered that I'm cutting the grass in the second picture in that link -- I'm the one in the blue shirt in the back doing it right). That job was Paradise.

Needless to say, I learned a whole bunch about gardening and about heirloom varieties of herbs and vegetables, got a good tan, and gained some interesting perspectives from tourists from all over the world. (Colin's famous way of dealing with the occasional very opinionated visitor was to listen attentively, nod, and say "You may be right!" A tool I still find to be very effective, and which I have passed on to my girls.)

ANYWAY, all that to say I like gardening now, and I have a particular fondness for old varieties of plants that have a bit of a tale to tell. My gardening philosophy is to grow stuff that:

a) I can't buy (epazote, chervil, tarragon, Mexican oregano, cavalo nero kale)
b) that I can buy, but sucks if it comes from a store (bay laurel, most herbs, lettuce, arugula)
c) is rare and/or neato (crimson flowered fava beans, trout beans, Egyptian onions, Aji chiles)
d) I have been keeping going since I worked at Bellevue House (costmary, lovage, sweet cicely)
e) is just plain fun or cool (ginkgo trees, horseradish, spuds, garlic, Painted Lady runner beans)
f) is nice to be able to just go out and grab for cooking or eating out of hand (thyme, tomatoes, radishes)
g) will keep me from dying, ever (sage)

To be honest, I didn't realise I had such a detailed philosophy. Note that this is different from my daily philosophy that comes from "'Cause I'm a blonde" and which goes like this: I know lots of people are smarter than me, but I have this philosophy, "So what?". I also now realise why I can never manage to fit everything into my two eight foot by eight foot garden beds.

So here's my plan for this year. I grew out my funky favas and stupendous spuds last year, so will give some space over to the sqash family (in particular some red kuri squash that I sought-out after reading a recipe that called for it -- this may in fact be the longest recipe I have ever made: "Step one: eight months before you make this soup, go order some red kuri squash seeds.") Herbs cover the edges of the garden beds, but some may need a little taming (if you need some tarragon, horseradish, Egyptian onions, or costmary let me know!). I am also planning to avoid the tragedy of slugs I suffered last summer by getting more plants started indoors so they have enough of a head start to get ahead of the little slimy bastards (bless their souls). We'll see! And I plan to divulge my pepper seed starting secrets very soon, so stay tuned!

So that's the plan. I won't stick too it, mind you, and the garden will be in total chaos before you can say "There were a bunch of plants on sale at Home Depot!" but it's fun to imagine it in the depths of winter anyway. If you're interested in some cool places to look for plants or seeds, I can recommend Richters for herbs, and for vegetables the Seed Saver's Exchange and Seeds of Change. And if you're super keen, be sure to check out Seeds of Diversity for a Seedy Saturday near you!

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