Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mid-spring farm report







Last night we were having dinner and Stew remarked that it felt so good to eat food that had come mostly from our own land. We had beets, which were really good and about the size of tennis balls, a salad and a strip steak, the latter from Costco. We're not about to start our own herd of cattle.

The garden is going through an intermission. The bumper crops of leaf vegetables--various kinds of lettuce, chard, kale and mustard greens--have gradually expired under the heat, while other crops--zucchini, basil, corn, broccoli and beans--are still revving up. Some exceptions are the romaine lettuce, radishes, arugula and a couple of other odd salad plants including mizuna, a type of Asian green with a slightly bitter kick like arugula, that just keep coming up even as the weather warms.

Under the category of "I'll believe it when I eat it" are white onions (our last batch of onions grew up to about one and one-half inches in diameter and not a sixteenth of an inch more); leeks (locally grown, mutant-looking leeks grow to almost the diameter of a baseball bat, ours are barely the width of a pencil) and pickling cucumbers, which if they actually plan to produce certainly are taking their time.

Then there's the fuggedaboutit group of vegetables, most surprisingly the chiles. We planted serranos, jalapeños, habaneros and two other varieties whose name I don't remember and it really doesn't matter since none of them grew. The only thing resembling a chile is one pimento plant that's about eight inches high.

The chile failure is a mystery. We're in Mexico and I figured we'd have enough chiles to loosen our dental fillings and those of our friends. The serranos and habaneros peeked about an inch above the ground and then vanished. The others didn't even make a showing. Félix seemed particularly frustrated, as if his being Mexican made the failure a personal affront.

His patience and affection toward other beings--his two-year-old daughter Alondra, animals and plants--is a wonder to watch. He brings the little girl to work occasionally and carries her across the ranch in the wheelbarrow along with a pile of dirt, with much giggling by the two, or lets her grab the garden hose though she gets more water on herself than the plants.



Félix also seems to have a special connection with animals. When he shows up in the morning with his two dogs, our three run up to the gate to give him a thunderous welcome that turns into a dust cloud moving up the driveway. Stew and I suspect our dogs, including the latest arrival Desi, probably pay more attention to Félix than to us.

His good karma extends to plants. Planting seeds or transplanting seedlings is not a mechanical exercise but a very personal one that has him hunched over the raised beds, his nose a foot away from the ground, almost as if he were whispering to the seeds.

If there's a down side to Félix's intimacy with plants is that he refuses to give up, even when there's no place to put them or they are clearly dead. In the back of the house he's set up what amounts to an intensive care unit of pots with wretched-looking twigs he's trying to revive. Quite often he succeeds, which only encourages him.

That lack of selectivity, on his part and mine, is one problem with our gardening efforts. We planted way too much mustard greens, kale and chard. Stew dug up recipes for all three, frying them in bacon and onions and various other concoctions, some of them good. We even tried serving them to guests most of whom politely pushed them aside with their forks. In the end we had so much of the damn stuff we could have started a soul food restaurant.

Other vegetables we planted simply because someone gave us plantlets or a packet of seeds winked at me while going through the check-out line somewhere.

So we have broccoli coming up. They seem to be very large plants, about three feet across with a head of the edible stuff developing in the middle. No doubt they'll be delicious and laden with vitamins, minerals and other life-enhancing nutrients. But the reality is that we live in a part of Mexico that from the air must look like a wall-to-wall carpet of broccoli. Huge trucks full of broccoli ride up and down the highways, most of them headed for the U.S. We don't need any more broccoli around here.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment so far has been our inability to grow big, fat, luscious American-style tomatoes, the kind that every gardener in the U.S. almost takes for granted. So far we have some cherries and also Mexican yellow tomatoes, which are tasty but not enough. We want beefsteaks and Russian blacks and other heirlooms.

Tomato deprivation is reaching desperation. The only tomatoes available at the grocery stores are Italian plum and a variety the size of softballs, both of them insipid. Chiles we can do without: You can survive on one habanero a week but tomatoes can be eaten three times a day.

Costco, about an hour's drive, has many perfect vegetables and fruits in neat plastic packages but most of them have a nightmarish carbon footprint. Some strawberries, for example, apparently are grown in Mexico and then sent to California to be placed in their pretty plastic containers with English-language labeling and then shipped back to Mexico. Environmentally speaking eating those strawberries is a sin comparable to driving a two-cylinder East German car.

Looking toward the second half of our growing season, there are some skills Félix and I need to hone. One of them is greater appreciation for the laws of supply and demand: Just because you can grow five bushels of broccoli and kale doesn't mean that you should.

Upon hearing that our peach, apricot and cherry trees are doing well a friend suggested we should start an orchard, which sounds good until you consider what are we going to do with a truckload of fruits? Spend countless hours canning, freezing and making jams? I'll mention it to Stew.

The second is to pay more attention to the weather. The season for frisee and bib lettuce is past and now we should concentrate on romaine lettuce, which is growing beautifully and like weeds. One idea is to plant herbs where the bib lettuce used to thrive.

Two final traits I need, and which I had mentioned in previous blogs, are humility and acceptance. Maybe the reasons cantaloupes don't grow here are soil chemistry or the lack of humidity, which are difficult to control. If you hanker for Texas watermelons, or Georgia onions, you are going to have to get on the car--if you don't mind burning all that fuel.

But I will not give up on the tomatoes. Life is too short to live on those tasteless Mexican imitations. Time to send for more seeds from the States.

3 comments:

  1. Mr. Lanier, Regretfully I'm still unable to comment on your blog. Today I enjoyed your entry on your gardening efforts. As a resident of both east and west Texas for most of my life I have to comment on your failure with cantaloupes. The creme de la creme of cantaloupes, in my opinion, is the Pecos cantaloupe. Since we moved to east Texas almost 30 years ago we haven't seen one in the grocery. Last summer, en route to Ruidoso, NM, we overnighted in Lamesa, Texas and found them in the grocery there. They were as delicious and juicy as I remembered. They must have too short a shelf life to make it as far east as Tyler, TX. You won't find a more arid climate than Pecos, TX. However, I'm sure they take a LOT of water. Good luck with tomatoes and keep posting. I enjoy it so much. Regards, Dinah Ragsdale

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  2. More from Dinah:
    Al, after sending you an email about the famous Pecos cantaloupes I did a little internet research on them. The consensus is that there is nothing special about the cantaloupe... it's the soil, very alkyline and high in potassium, that makes them special. I don't know if this describes your soil or not but it appears to me that the agri-climate might be similar to yours. Around Pecos it's very dry with only 10 to 15 inches a year of rainfall, most falling in the summer in short bursts in July. The natural vegetation is cactus and mesquite trees. The cantaloupes are probably irrigated as they start coming in July to about Labor Day. The few farmers that raise them stagger the plantings about every week. When they're ready they must be immediately harvested due to the short shelf life. Very labor intensive. In recent years many farmers are planting fewer acres. If there is little rain the crop can be ruined by critters, usually wild hogs, who tear into the melons for their water. It's fairly high altitude near Pecos..about 4500 feet. One of the growers was quoted as saying "when they're delivered to the grocery stores they stink up the whole store." I wouldn't call it "stink" but you certainly don't have to sniff the stem to know when the melon is ripe. You just follow your nose to the produce dept.

    Dinah Ragsdale

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  3. If you guys ever want REAL lemons, as big as baseballs, call me. I have zillions on the tree in the garden......truly.

    Barbara
    152-8375

    LOVE your writing!

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