Thursday, January 10, 2013

Happy New Delusions

The new year, every new year, brings out the delusional in us. We resolve to meditate each morning at sunrise, perfect our tree pose in yoga or become devout vegetarians. Resolutions, delusions.

My own and rather grand delusion, triggered every December by the arrival of seed and plant catalogs, is to plant a garden in which everything grows with a symphonic sense of timing and order. The tomato seeds sprout just in time for them to become sturdy little plants eager to take hold in my loamy, compost-enriched soil and produce perfect fruit, along with the various varieties of chiles, pickling cucumbers, butternut squash and other imaginary bounties thriving in my raised beds.

The surviving garden: Kale, arugula, lettuce and a leek.

That never happens, of course, particularly here in San Miguel with its slightly out-of-sync seasons and unforgiving soil. But that's what delusions are: Projects so far-fetched they have little or no chance of becoming reality except in our imagination.

In the case of my raised beds, which I've partitioned and redesigned endlessly on paper and with strings and stakes planted in the ground, the result instead is likely to be another cacophony of weeds, leaf vegetables, shapeless tomato plants bearing cracked and bug-nibbled fruit, plus a couple of rogue zucchinis that I will insist taste better than anything at the supermarket. Indeed, last year's zucchini vines kept veering off over the edge as if they were trying to escape the tumult in the raised beds.

Still we had some successes, significant enough to rekindle my gardening hopes. Delicious and fresh greens still keep coming and salads can't get any fresher than this: The ingredients travel only about fifty feet from the beds to our plates.

Unfortunately the labeling sticks gradually disappeared over the growing season and we don't know which varieties of what thrived or perished. By now the arugula is cavorting with the mesclun, the spinach elbowing the Swiss chard and who-knows-what. It would be nice, if for nothing else but my self-esteem as a gardener, to have the plants in neatly labeled rows, just like in the Johnny's Seed catalog that arrived a month ago.

Tomatoes were the biggest surprise: They produced fruit right into mid-December, a phenomenon experienced by other local gardeners. Again, a labeling failure prevented us from determining which tomato varieties survived so late in the season. As we approached Christmas an avalanche of tomatoes of different colors and sizes, ever more wrinkled and misshapen, accumulated on our kitchen window sill. Still, all of them--whatever they were--tasted great.

Chiles con Flowers: Jalapeño growing in a pot,
to the right of the arrow. 
The compost pile secretly nurtured a bumper crop of volunteers that popped up in the oddest places: Jalapeños in a pot of flowers, Mexican yellow tomatoes practically everywhere, and leeks that we originally grew from seeds that blog reader Bill Barnes had given me, emerged in two or three different places. Green beans appeared at random, I presume the progeny of last year's plants or leftovers that went into the compost.

Surprises are always fun but I keep hoping for a more orderly, sightly garden.

But on to this year's delusions.

We have ordered several designer greens, including a variety of dandelions (aka "chicory")--can't wait happens with that--plus watercress and mizuna, which is a sharp-tasting green reminiscent of arugula, plus nasturtiums for decoration in the beds and on the salads. We also have planted mesclun, frisee and romaine lettuces that seemed to prosper last year.

Back for another season will be the Brandywine and Black Krim tomatoes, which to everyone's astonishment actually grew and set fruit, plus the Mexican yellow tomatoes that grow rampantly. In addition, we're taking a stab at cauliflowers; Valley Girl tomatoes; a "watermelon" radish which is red inside (we tasted some last year and they are delicious); Claremont and Coastal Star lettuces and stumpy variety of carrots, supposedly bred to grow in recalcitrant soils like ours.

Here comes the whatever. 
It all sounds like a fairly well organized operation except already there are some signs of chaos. In our seeding trays, in which we mixed in some compost with the soil and vermiculite, tiny leaves are popping up everywhere: Are those the seeds we planted in each clearly-labeled cell? Or the ubiquitous Mexican yellow tomatoes, leeks, jalapeños and other riff-raff that came along with the compost?

Félix says it's too early to panic. When the seedlings grow their true leaves we might be able to differentiate between the good, the bad and the vegetables. But judging from our record last year I wouldn't bet on it.


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