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In the Garden

Of tomatoes, snow peas and giving



Every year about this time I start hauling seedlings down from the attic, where they've been living under grow lights. I set them around the garden where I intend to plant them and consult my notes about where, for instance, the tomatoes or squash were planted last year. The idea is that I'll prevent the buildup of diseases in the soil by following a sensible crop rotation plan in which I won't grow the same type of plant in any one place two years in a row.

Inevitably, though, I find that I've grown too many plants to allow for the rotation of crops. This year I started 20 tomato plants for 24 vegetable beds. I consulted my notes and realized that last year I also had 20, all of which were struck with late blight before I could make much of a harvest. It may well be that there are no good places in my garden for tomatoes, between the late blight and the chilly wind that seems to blow year-round, but I set them out anyway. On the way upstairs for the last of the vegetables, I announced to my husband that there would be no need to visit the farmers' market this summer.

"I'm growing everything we need," I told him. "Garlic, onions, tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers, peas, lettuce -- we're practically self-sufficient from now to Thanksgiving."

"Great!" Scott said. He'd heard this speech before. "What's for dinner tonight?"

I looked out the window at the young tomato plants already getting whipped around by the wind. "Uh well, we've got some fennel, and uh I think those borage flowers are edible."

"Fennel and borage flowers!" he said brightly. "I was thinking we'd go out for Chinese, but that sounds good too."

The fact is, I've never been able to grow all the vegetables for our table, but each spring I begin again, full of brave illusions and wild hopes. Although some of my failures can be blamed on the typical scapegoats -- poor soil, bad weather, pest invasions -- the fact is that I'm just not organized enough to keep a kitchen garden productive. There's no reason, in our cool climate, for me to ever buy lettuce, and I hang my head in shame every time I find myself in line at the Co-op with a bag of spring mix in my hand.

All it requires is a scant sowing of lettuce seeds every two weeks -- it would take less time than a trip to the Co-op -- but somehow I just can't manage it. The same could be said of potatoes, garlic, beets and a host of other crops. I could grow enough to feed us all year, and I always plan to, but somehow I fall short.

Occasionally, though, a crop will perform beyond my wildest expectations. Last year it was peas: We ate more snow peas last July than we'd eaten in our entire lives. We cellared enough onions to get us through winter. But when kale and arugula started making an appearance at breakfast, lunch and dinner, Scott began to wonder aloud if there was anyone in the community with whom we could share our bounty. That's when I started volunteering at Food for People.

Bringing in produce from the garden is not my primary job at Food for People -- if it was, they'd only see me a few times a year. But the fact that I'm there every week does make it easier to deliver extra vegetables when I've got them. I also get the satisfaction of knowing how much they're appreciated: When I brought in a few bags of chard and kale recently, they were whisked off the distribution table by the first group of clients arriving to pick up their monthly box of groceries.

Food for People serves about 900 families per month through this distribution program. When I'm there, it is my job to meet with each person picking up food to make sure there is nothing in the box that they can't eat or can't cook for lack of kitchen facilities. Some people can't eat fish, others can't eat dairy, but in all the time I've been there, I've never seen anyone turn down fresh fruit and vegetables.

Now Food for People is participating in Plant a Row for the Hungry, a nationwide campaign that encourages gardeners to plant an additional row in their garden to donate to a food bank. Over 1.8 million pounds of food have been donated to food banks across the country since the program began in 1995.

If you've got a surplus in your garden this summer, Food for People will get it to Humboldt County residents who need it the most. Consider planting an extra row or even a good-sized container, filled with crops that store well, like squash, potatoes, onions, cabbage and cauliflower.

And if you'd like to donate produce from your fruit trees, large garden or farm, but can't get everything harvested in time, Food for People has volunteers through the Crop Gleaning program who can do the harvesting for you. Call Michelle at 445-3166 for more information, or simply bring donations to the food bank at 307 W. 14th St. in Eureka on weekdays from 9-5.

And don't forget about Food for People's Plant and Pottery Sale on Saturday, June 8, from 9-2 at the Adorni Center (foot of L Street in Eureka). This is the agency's biggest fund-raiser of the year. In addition to a wide variety of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs, they'll offer locally made pottery, a silent auction and a series of workshops on topics such as orchids, bonsai and medicinal herb gardens.

Of course, the folks at Food for People can't pass up an opportunity to feed their guests: Brunch will be served from 9 a.m. to noon and will cost $7 for adults and $3 for children. I'll see you there.


E-mail garden-related announcements, gossip, rumors and innuendo to Amy Stewart.


 June Checklist

  • Water summer vegetables regularly. To help build deep, strong root systems, water deeply once or twice a week and keep the soil covered with a thick layer of mulch.
  • Harvest cut flowers liberally: catmint, butterfly bush, penstemon, coreopsis and a host of other flowering perennials will reward you by blooming longer.
  • Set the blade of your mower high to conserve water. Bermuda grass can be mowed at one inch, and two-and-a-half inches works well for bluegrass and similar types.
  • Plant summer vegetables like tomatoes, squash, eggplant and peppers.
  • Sow more sunflower seeds for fall bloom.
  • Has your wisteria finished blooming? Keep an eye on the vines; they have a way of climbing onto rooftops or creeping into nearby trees. Cut back rampant growth and keep the vine pruned to a shape that suits you.


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