Like most people this pandemic, I’ve been trapped inside with only my partner, my thoughts and an Internet connection to keep me together over a long nearly-two years. In some ways, this has been a blessing. Well, not really. But the bottlenecking of life for everyone, instead of just me, has resulted in some fresh opportunities to try out new hobbies and really give them a shot — instead of my normal ADHD-fueled day or two of enjoyment before I forget it ever existed.
So, I finally decided to try out gardening.
I’ve done some gardening before. But when I say it’s not much, I really mean not much. I can’t tell a hosta from a marigold, and worms give me the willies. Still, someone who cooks as much as I do can’t pass up on the opportunity, and when the farm who does my community-shared agriculture program (Roots Down) offered seedlings, I decided to go for it. I acquired a cherry tomato plant, basil, jalapeno, stevia, cilantro and mint from them. Later on in the summer, Just Food held a free seedlings program, and my partner and I added lavender, sage, cucumber, celery, sweet bell pepper and cauliflower to our little pot garden on our front porch.
Keep in mind: I have never gardened on my own before. All my experience is with my grandmother, mother or father. Picking strawberries for fun during the summer does not amount to anything useful. So, here’s some stuff I learned. In a few cases, the hard way.
1. Cucumbers Are Little Bitches.
You heard me. You heard me! Cucumbers are little jerks of plants who get sick and die at the slightest breeze, can’t handle being wet any more than they can handle being dry, and manage to have leaves that are just as thorny as their vines. Prior to the cucumber, our only loss was the cilantro (which I’d at least already known was finicky) and some celery and onion to ravenous squirrels. But the cucumber plant is the only one of my plants to just give up the ghost on me.
The culprit: leaf fungus. I’d love to claim I was being organic, but the truth is, I just haven’t had the money for anything industrial, so I’ve been trying to use household products. But after several weeks of standing outside shaking cinnamon and baking soda onto the leaves, only to watch the plant eventually shrivel and die anyway, I am officially declaring cucumbers the enemy. (It’s a shame I like eating them so much.) I’ll try again, maybe next year; but I will be fueled by spite.
2. You Can Stick A Surprising Amount Of It In Your Mouth
There’s a twofold lesson when growing plants you’re intending to eat. One, they always make less than you think they will. (Potted pepper plants yield peppers the size of your thumb, for example, although they are yummy.) And two… A lot more of them is edible than you think. For one, I thought stevia would only be edible through the complex process of drying and grinding the leaves. And I’m doing that too; but you can also make extract from the fresh leaves.
And, genuinely: You can just chew on the leaves. Really. Once you chew through the leaf exterior, all the sweet sap ends up on your tongue and it is surprisingly delicious, once you get past all of the leaf taste. Then there’s the fact that cauliflower leaves are edible, which I only ended up googling after nearly hitting November with no sign of the actual cauliflower head. (So that’s why they’re so expensive…) And not only that. Pepper plants may not yield huge amounts of peppers each… but the leaves are edible too. And while lavender in general is not an edible plant, you can use the leaves for most of what you’d use the flowers for. Please don’t stick lavender in your mouth, though.
This goes double for my propagation experiments: celery and onion. The celery seedling I got never quite managed to sprout stalks before the whole thing went mysteriously missing (… I suspect the local raccoons.) but I got plenty of celery leaves out of it, and oh man, they taste just like celery with less crunch. Onions are even better. I had one onion start sprouting, and so I stuck it in one of my extra pots outside, gave it some water and just… waited. Result: the equivalent of delicious green onion stalks, that kept growing back.
3. Harvest with Care
There’s a lot of herbalist guides to how much bark, leaves or otherwise you should take from any wild plant in order to make sure you’re not hurting it, and the same is true of potted plants. The onion I was talking about grew wonderfully… as long as I only took some of the green stalks at a time. One time, I took them all, and they never grew back the same way. The same is true of my stevia; while I still have plenty, I made the mistake of severing an entire stalk in such a way that the amputated stump was visible right up until harvest.
This is tricky, too. I didn’t harvest my basil enough; and once it started flowering, the leaves (which are the tasty part) started getting all patchy and wilted. I think this is called ‘bolting’; either way, it was a bit disappointing, although the flowers are gorgeous and smell lovely. And my tomato plant needs to be cut back, otherwise the tomatoes themselves never ripen and the plant collapses under its own weight. Not only that, but if the tomatoes or peppers get too big on the plant, they start to split, or invite beetles to feast on them.
All in all, part of the benefit of having plants around has been that I’m forced to go outside every day; and I’m also forced to use my spoils asap or otherwise prep them (drying, pickling, freezing, whatever), otherwise that’s not just a day wasted; it’s weeks of growth. It’s a pretty quick way to appreciate the value of food, and get a LOT better about not throwing food away if I can help it!
4. Nothing Holds A Candle To Fresh Sage
To be clear, the sage I’ve been growing is just normal garden sage, not white sage, which is endangered. But it is the sage found in things like stuffing, and I did not truly appreciate until now that it is the food of the gods. Sure, basil is good, mint is good, but sage is everything. Dried sage cannot truly compare. So I have been putting sage on EVERYTHING. Sage in butter. Sage on corn. Sage on squash. Sage in stews. Sage in gumbo. Sage on ham.
It’s also the least needy of my plants, by far. My stevia liked to fall over; my basil, as described above, bolted; my pepper plants actually did fall over more than once because the peppers made them top heavy; the mint had to be moved into its own pot before it cannibalized the others like the greedyguts it is. Sage? Sage has just been chillin’ the whole time. Sage is easy.
5. Squirrels Are The Devil
If you don’t live somewhere with squirrels… well, actually, I’m curious where you do live, first of all. But most places have some sort of rodent or otherwise that loves vegetables. Here in Ottawa, we have squirrels, skunks and raccoons. They love our garbage, they love bird feeders…
…and to my eternal woe, they apparently love green onions and celery. I mean, it’s kind of cute. I can only imagine them yanking up entire green onion stalks and running off with them in their mouths like dogs with giant sticks and bouncy tails. “I have found,” they declare, “the tastiest, most sulfur-y acorn in the universe.” But it shouldn’t be easier for me to grow the blasted things indoors. Four different times this year, I’ve propagated green onions or scallions from roots in cups of water with only the sunlight from a dirty window, and they’ve worked great, and then I’ve put them into actual soil outside, and three days later, the little bastards have run off with their new meal.
I know, I know. There’s ways to deal with squirrels. One of the standbys is cayenne powder, but after I found out that it actually temporarily blinds them and hurts them like crazy, I couldn’t do it. I felt too bad. Putting them near my mint plant helped a little bit, but apparently the onion smell is too much of a temptation. For next year, I have chicken wire, but that’ll require using the actual ground, which involves chatting with my neighbours (and their dog, which is a different story. Dear puppy: please do not wreck my garden. Or pee on it.)
So it’s not so much that they’re the devil. It’s just that if you’re planting things that are straight up vegetables like celery, onion, etc. then you have to be prepared for the fact that you’ve got a very hungry outdoor population who will probably beat you to them. For some people, that might be the goal. For me, I’m not holding it too much against them — but they had damn well better stay away from the cauliflower. It’s November, squirrels. Go to sleep. Shh. My cauliflower. Mine.
6. Don’t Touch Strange Pretty Things (Bonus!)
Not gonna lie, this one could actually have gone a lot worse for me. I was poking at my front lawn to see if any of our plants could go into the ground, and the field next to us is an empty lot right now, filled with this gorgeous plant that looks a bit like bamboo and rhubarb crossed together, about waist-high. “Surely,” I thought, “that must be something nice?”
Yeah, I just heard all the Plant People inhale at once. I’m afraid it’s true. There was one in my front yard as well; Japanese knotweed, otherwise known as one of the most tenacious and bullshit invasive plants in North America. Knotweed isn’t bad to touch or otherwise toxic to humans (although its pollen is a pretty severe allergen) – in fact, it’s edible, although I’m too spiteful to try it — but it’s one of those plants that can regenerate and propagate itself from the tiniest scrap left behind, and creates a gigantic root system underneath it. In between caring for my potted (and remaining potted!) plants, then, I’ve been hacking away at the one in my front yard, trying to make it die and stay dead, without access to any industrial weedkiller.
The other plant on my front lawn is actually on my porch. See, I keep my bike on the porch, and this vine growing up and around the porch is very fast-growing. Fast enough that I keep having to peel it out of my bike wheels, which is slightly terrifying. After my experience with the knotweed, I decided to take care of the vine for once and for all — and pulled a nearly six-foot-long root out of the side of the stairs.
Also, I didn’t wear gloves. Every time I’d yanked it away from my bike, I hadn’t thought much of the tingling in my hands. I have allergies, I get itchy at random; it happens! Whoops. Turns out that gorgeous vine is Virginia Creeper. Very poisonous, and exudes a skin irritant. (No permanent harm done, but good thing I washed my hands each time, right?) So lesson learned, twice over! Always identify the plant. First. And invasive species are no joke. Virginia Creeper isn’t invasive, thankfully, just itchy and a nuisance, but knotweed is evil.
If you’re an experienced gardener, or even just a medium one, you’re probably laughing at me. I’m okay with that. I’m learning, and while Google is my friend, a lot of this you don’t really process until you see it in action. But I’m looking forward to next year. While I don’t have the equipment to overwinter any of my plants, I’ve been keeping seeds where I can, and next year, I want to plant peppers and tomatoes again, sage, basil, and then also try some spinach, cilantro, string beans and maybe some eggplant. So wish me luck — and I’ll keep you updated!