Gardening is Like Gambling: Cut Your Losses

brussel sproutsI pulled out the last of the Brussels sprouts without brussels. I’d been watching them, waiting. I asked the farmer when I saw them getting cabbage worms.

“Should I spray?” I didn’t want to spray. I wanted to be organic. Spraying would make me no better than the chemical companies I was trying to avoid.

“Listen, if you see worms, it’s too late. You have to do it ahead of time. We don’t want to spray, but if we didn’t you’d be hungry.”

Proactive. Not reactive. It’s a philosophy that works well in life, not just on Brassica. Epic fail in failing to thinking ahead and being too holier than thou to spray.

Still, the things grew and grew. Bean stalks perhaps? I left them. No brussels appeared.

“Google, when should these brussel?” I searched.  Nobody told me what to do when my Brussels sprouts didn’t brussel. There was no support group, no help. I asked my friend the garden guru.

“Pull them out,” she said. I obeyed. It was a sad moment. I’d invested a lot of time, space, and love into these barren stalks.

Pulling them out wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do. There wasn’t one sprout I could eat as a consolation prize. If you haven’t seen Brussels sprout plants, they’re huge. Quite an investment in garden space. It’s probably why I let them go so long.

When investing in something that’s going sour, the temptation is to let it go another day to see what happens. It’s no different from being a gambling addict…everyone’s always hanging on to win the jackpot…the casino knows most people will play one more game tomorrow. I was playing with Brussels sprouts, but the endorphins are the same. Spinning the roulette wheel one more time. I came up short and the table cleared. No return forthcoming.

I ripped up the Brussels sprouts and took out the browning cornstalks for good measure. They’d produced two-inch twisted baby corn, then met their maker. I bundled them up and converted them into a “decoration,” next to a pot of unbloomed mums. They looked sad. The mums turned completely away, protesting, refusing to open until deformed corn was removed.

corn“Those are the sorriest excuses for corn stalks I’ve ever seen,” said my husband. “They look dumb. Mums are nice, though.” The stalks bowed over, sad and ashamed. They knew I’d given them an awful lot of space and they didn’t deliver.  I’d waited “just one more day” for them,  too.  One more spin of the roulette wheel. Nothing

Lesson learned. Sometimes things don’t produce. Things that don’t produce have to go.

The moral of my stories is generally the opposite. I discuss education. I talk about student success…flowers blossoming in their own time… Not today. Sometimes it’s best to realize things aren’t going to come to fruition. A policy won’t change, a student won’t be interested in graduation despite my very best efforts, or a collaboration won’t work out.

At some point, it’s time to change direction. Waiting for things that won’t happen is not useful. I could have done something far more productive with garden resources. Nature doesn’t force a bloom. Nature also corrects for things that don’t work out. It’s not a bad thing–everything ends up doing what it’s supposed to in its own time. But that doesn’t mean I should sit around and wait.

I pulled the eggplant with no blossoms, and took out the dried beans.

“Even Jesus wiped out a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit,” I thought.

The sprouts and corn are gone. Finally. Should’ve done that months ago. I could have been eating a great fall crop of broccoli or lettuce right about rather than waiting for stuff that I sensed would never come to pass.

Could this be a life lesson? Something useful for the classroom, too?

Maybe I should let students make their own path without judgment or not go crazy at work trying to solve all the problems of the universe. Who knows. Today, I’m just ripping out the veggies.

I’ll let skilled philosophers figure out the rest.

Have the Frankenapple if You Must

B Grade Produce--looks good, doesn't it?

B Grade Produce–looks good, doesn’t it?

Yesterday we went to the farm and got B Grade produce. B Grade produce is the best kept secret on the planet. Some, like peaches and tomatoes, are overripe, needing to be eaten or canned immediately. Others, like eggplants and apples just don’t look good on supermarket shelves.  They have blemishes, marks, the occasional bruise or two–they have fallen, been knocked around, and once in a while have a bit of a hole in one side. They’re not perfect. Sort of like me. I have an affinity for them. My frugal side loves them, too, because they’re nearly free pound for pound.

Is there anything wrong with this? I think not.

Is there anything wrong with this? I think not.

The problem is this–we’ve been trained to look for uniform apples on supermarket shelves for so long that we pass by the things in nature that are slightly off or unique. Wabi-sabi. Apples must be perfectly sized and colored, stacked in rows higher than the average shopper so we’ll buy them. The fact that they lost half of their taste on the way across the globe and the other half of was bred out of them is inconsequential.

Unless you are six.

“Mom! I don’t WANT the apple with the mark on it!” He picked one with a slight bruise. I switched it for one that was huge, but slightly misshapen. “That one’s not round.” 

“Apples aren’t round in nature. Only in science fiction and supermarkets. Let’s go look at our apple tree.” Our apples aren’t early season, so we can’t quite eat them. They’re growing nicely, but they won’t be perfectly round. One or two have a bite out of them from our friendly neighborhood chipmunk who will have a bite out of him from our friendly neighborhood dog when he finally gets caught.

If I were this giant apple, I'd retaliate. I'd applesauce this kid. Squash.

If I were this giant apple, I’d retaliate. I’d applesauce this kid. Squash.

“I don’t want to look at apples,” he said. “I want the round one.” Luckily, I still had a few that had traveled halfway around the globe, leaving their taste behind.

“Okay, have the Frankenapple.” He took it. He gave me his lopsided apple, happy as a clam.

“Frankenstein?” he said, “It’s almost Halloween.” Halloween is his favorite holiday. Except for Christmas, thank you consumerism. It’s not almost Halloween, even if the stuff is out in the store so we can buy more, sooner, and out of season–no different than buying traveling apples, I guess.

“Halloween was built around harvest, too.” I think. Just like this tasty, imperfect-looking apple I scored in the trade.

The Zucchini Phantom

crazygardenMy garden is out of control. I disobeyed seed recommendations in all regards. I planted too early, spaced insufficiently, and failed to thin. My peas look like an invasive species about to strangle the town. I lost ten pounds eating only vegetables from the garden so I could fit down the crowded rows to pick the vegetables. They are hiding monsters waiting to attack.

Vegetables grew from the compost. Tomatoes, pumpkins, I think, a squash. I let many stay. “Poop veggies.” They are from the compost. Someone told me once when life gives you crap you’ve got to turn it into something good. This is proof that I can. I wonder how tomatoes that have traveled through the digestive track exiting through the rectal cavity of an animal will taste when compared to the ones that came from Al’s Greenhouse or the seed packets.

Oh…do you want some tomatoes? They’re almost ready.

I brought some kale to a friend across town. I gave a box of salad greens to my mom, but before long, this garden will be barfing so much produce a small vegetarian nation won’t be able to keep up. That’s exactly what I want. It’s my little corner of obsessiveness.

Some of the reason for this obsession is because I really like to eat well. A small part is because I’m insane. Clinically. No one can eat this much stuff. The garden’s huge.  I didn’t even think I’d be able to fill up this garden, but it’s full and I need more space. Next year, I’ll bust it out another ten feet while no one’s looking. Don’t tell my husband. This place will be a farm before he knows it. He might be suspicious if he sees a goat mowing his lawn in something other than the perfect rows he prefers.

“No, those aren’t goats and chickens. That’s wildlife from the reservoir. I can’t remove them because they’re endangered.”

Actually, I don’t think I want goats and chickens. I want to be the zucchini phantom–the person who leaves extra produce on your doorstep or on the front seat of your car and says, “Hey, want some (insert seasonal veggie taking over the world here).” That’s my goal. I want to be my own CSA. I want to make you eat so many vegetables you hate the entire food group for life. I might even put some recipes together for you.

I’ve been eating greens for a solid month now. Curried, brazed, creamed, fresh…a million ways. Sadly, the spinach is about gone–I’ll have to curry something else. There’s still plenty of kale and Swiss chard–the greens that send children running for the hills. I see the tomatoes and peppers coming out of hiding, and my zucchini is peeking out of the blossoms. The ten or so rows of corn aren’t ready yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be eating more beets than a Russian hiding from Stalin at the dacha. And yet again, I’m not sure why I planted radishes, because I don’t eat them. They’ve gone to seed. I think I plant them because they come up first. Sometimes the fastest isn’t the most useful, just like in life. Yet we still gravitate toward them anyway…Just because we hate to see empty space and we assume that things that get done quickly must have something to offer.

This garden is getting ready to bust at the seams.  If you’re not a food-freak veggie loving left-wing weirdo, now would be a great time to hide from me.

I’m getting the produce baskets ready, and there just might be one…for you.


Can Too Many Veggies Kill You?

Garden partyI stop. I look around my garden, which just six weeks ago was a 44×33 section of lawn. Odd dimensions, I admit. Rusty bought a tiller for my birthday and turned over the soil. Best birthday present ever! Since moving to the sticks, every gift-giving occasion, we get a new Swamp Yankee Thing. I got him a tow bar for his birthday. He got me the tiller, I got him a trailer for the lawn tractor so he can Indy 500 around with loads of wood and leaves and stuff. He bought himself a chainsaw. My chainsaw is wimpy. We split the Jeep trailer. Now we can forage wood. By “we” I mean “he,” but I can stack it up nice and run the wood stove. I’m learning my rustic skills. I’d like to be off the grid someday. Just a bit.

Rusty is better qualified for this. His first teen job was felling trees and taking care of horses. Mine was working at a real estate agency finding house listings and spell checking ads before Google and spell check were invented. Mostly, I learned to drink coffee and call WHCN to win concert tickets back when radio stations were local and had fans. I’m not sure that prepared me for getting off the grid. 

Rusty made the mega-garden mostly to “keep (me) the hell out of the front yard.” He said I should not even think about planting a horseradish or spring onion border in his flower beds. I totally would. I don’t plant much I can’t eat. Veggies are beautiful. I’d line the sidewalks with rainbow chard and use mint as the groundcover near the road. You can’t eat portulaca. It’s not very useful. Weeds are beautiful, too. They have flowers. I’d get rid of the grass if possible. Plant the whole thing with food, with English-garden pathways. In my mind’s eye, the front yard is simply a canvas for food. In fact, many lawn weeds are edible if you just let them grow. Though the lawn’s stunning, I’m a bit sad each time Rusty outflanks weeds with chemicals, defeating the chickweed, dandelion greens, and plantain leaves that are just trying to say, “Hey, here I am, tomorrow’s salad. Celebrate me!” 

“Thanks for growing, guys, but you have been sprayed with RoundUp. I think I might grow another hand if I eat you.” I think twice. The prospect of growing another hand is actually pretty attractive to me–I’m super busy. I could take multitasking to a new level, but since the Roundup label has too many big side-effect words, like a Viagra commercial, I give up contemplating eating weeds, and go back to my birthday garden, which has way too many veggies anyway. 

I empathize with Rusty. I understand the strict warnings. Every time he turned his head in our former urban paradise, I planted something new; constructed a new raised bed. I didn’t do this to annoy him, I just saw places where vegetable plants should be. You might call that obsessive. I think it’s a metaphor for life. You see an opportunity for growth; you plant something. Plant enough seeds, and you’re guaranteed a decent harvest. He does this all the time in business and entrepreneurship, but when I do it by planting, say, seven  hundred beet seeds and carrots in cracks in the sidewalk, it’s somehow not as cool.

My friend called my garden “big ass and ugly.”  He’s forgiven. It’s either jealousy or he’s glad he doesn’t have to put up with my carrots in the sidewalk. Indeed I am going overboard. I will to eat from this garden from now to late fall. It’s already begun. Eight days of kale and spinach. Priceless.

I’ve been told document the money spent on the garden to calculate the real cost of food. That reminds me of a great book, “The $64 Tomato.” I’m sure I’d be shocked. I tell everyone I just want to enjoy the beauty of life popping up where no life had been. It’s an excuse–I’m terrified that the bottom line will officially prove I’m insane. 
Besides, I don’t want to measure everything. It would remind me of work. I feel like I exist to measure stuff. Test, assessment, goal, target, graph, pie chart…I don’t want that to be the spirit of my garden. It’s my soul.
“How will you know what you did so you can be successful next year?”  Good question. Oh, I will take notes and information. I’ll remember that my cucumbers died and I swore.  I’ll remember that my farmer told me I planted the carrots too early and I need to reseed. No need to measure. My only goal–to weed, eat, and share the deliciousness with some aphids, and maybe some of you. 

Sunday Garden Lessons: Be Like Mint. Indestructible.

garden mess I grew up in the 80’s when the entire world watched nuclear disaster movies and made lists of the things that would survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Most people said cockroaches would survive. I know something even more indestructible.


Mint can survive anything. You can dig it up. It returns. Light it on fire with a blowtorch. It’s back. Prune it, it grows through the window and says “Whazzzuppp!” by the next morning.

I hate pruning plants. I always feel bad that I’m killing potential flowers or lessening the food supply. Like somehow that bud will lose its chance to survive because I shaped and cut. Maybe that’s true, but mint makes me think differently.

afterFirst, it makes me think of resilience. Survival. Marching forward and making the best of the worst of circumstances. Mint cannot be defeated–it refuses to surrender. It thrives anywhere with any plant. It grows in cracks of sidewalks and peeks up yards away from where it was originally planted. It’s a horticultural Criss Angel.

But after a while, it always chokes things out. Last week, I was clipping it to add to salads and ice tea. This week, it’s crowding out the entire two acres. As someone who wants nothing more than to be able to go out to the yard and pick my entire dinner for the whole season, I sit in glee and think of all the tabouleh salad, iced tea, mint ice cream, and pestos I can make, but truth is, there’s only so much of a good thing that is useful. And so it’s time to pull some out.

Sometimes it’s good to prune. To take out excess. To shape the garden. Even if it means you have to toss some stuff aside.

No different from life, I think. Keeping the relationships that improve us, letting the ones go that served us in another time, and simplifying, cutting out the things that can easily claim our best time and energy.  Learning that less really is more, and that productivity increases when we can see around all the flowers, when our garden takes shape–it becomes more resilient.  When we keep what matters and toss the rest, the rest thrives.

Japanese philosophy says this well.

Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s 1716 work, says “Among one’s affairs there should not be more than two or three matters of what one could call great concern.” Written three years before his death, Hagakure serves as a guide to samurai both in battle and in life. By the time this was written, Yamamoto Tsunetomo was well off the battlefield and into the monastery. Like so many great warriors, he transferred the lessons of the battlefield to the lessons of life. Tactics, science, and philosophy are one in the same, for all intents and purposes. They work universally–anywhere you take the time to notice and apply them.

Japanese philosophy from three hundred years ago is no different from psychology today.  I find it amazing that the lessons Yamamoto Tsunetomo shared several hundred years ago can be found in my plants, and subsequently applie to my life, but if I stop, get rid of all but those important two or three things, and “prune some mint,” it all begins to take shape, leaving the rest of the day to be amazed at the simplicity and drink some mint tea.