Apples help tomatoes ripen

I’ve never formally defined myself as a gardener, but I’ve cultivated some sort of garden nearly every year since I was 25 years old. In the beginning it usually consisted of a few tomato plants, maybe following in my father’s footsteps. He often raised a small crop, which turned up in salads, BLT sandwiches, and straight up, with mayonnaise. That was his favorite.

Once you’ve tasted a home-grown tomato, you never want to go back to those lumps of pink plastic that pass for tomatoes on your local grocery store’s shelves. Maybe the best variety I’ve ever found is the heirloom Black Krim, which ripens through green to a purplish red with greenish shoulders and delivers flavor beyond imagination.

Squash patch May 4

Squash patch June 29

As the safety concerns with industrially-raised food increase, and rumblings grow that we might eventually face food shortages or extreme expense, I’ve gradually expanded my gardening activities. This year I fenced in another 200 square feet of lawn, covered it in black plastic, and started six squash plants in holes cut in the plastic. I learned this technique during a visit Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead   on Orcas Island. It saves you from having to dig up all that sod, once you’ve killed off the lawn, obviates the necessity for weeding, warms the ground, and helps retain soil moisture. The squash plants have gone crazy, even expanding beyond the fence, where they get crudely pruned by the deer who circulate through our yard on a daily basis.

Previous year harvest (3 plants)

 The earlier area of garden, reclaimed from a weedy flower bed adjacent to the aforementioned squash patch, has been planted in potatoes for the last several years. I actually didn’t do much of the planting. The previous crops seeded themselves because it seems impossible to dig out all the potatoes once you’ve got a batch going. Every spring volunteers pop up, eventually crowing out the new plants due to the fact of having gotten a head start. I advocate potatoes, tomatoes, and squash, because they yield the most food for the least amount of work.

This year I bought four huge plastic pots and experimented with growing Anaheim and Poblano peppers, along with cucumbers, in a $200 plastic greenhouse. We’ve been getting as many cucumbers as we can eat, and enough peppers are maturing on the three plants to supply us with several meals-worth of chilis rellenos.

If the idea of growing even a few tomatoes or other vegetables appeals to you, it doesn’t take much to get started. A sunny south or southwest- facing area on a deck, the edge of a porch or along the foundation of a building where you can situate a few large growing containers is desirable. Big plastic flower pots, ceramic pots, or even wooden containers work. I’ve heard of people punching a few drain holes in the bottom of a bag of potting soil, then planting seed potatoes in it. No reason why that wouldn’t work with tomatoes, cucumbers or squash. You can buy tomato and other starts in the spring at a local garden or nursery. Here in Bellingham starts are available at Joe’s Gardens or the Food Coop, as well as a number of other outlets.

I bring up gardening in the context of Mindport because I’ve come to recognize it as one more example of integrating aesthetic and spiritual pleasures with science. You don’t even need much science for a beginning garden. Your successes or failures will send you on a quest for more knowledge, of course: how to deal with various pests, what plants prefer acidic or alkaline soil, etc. There’s the art and science or composting to explore, and various sorts of fertilizer. My own garden navigation has been seat-of-the-pants. I’ve bought any number of gardening books, but hardly look at them. If a problem crops up, I usually find myself searching on the Internet for a solution. Even that hasn’t happened very often. Given a little fertilizer, sunlight, and water, the stuff I plant usually grows fine. Usually my garden area gets very weedy, but it still produces.

After weathering a couple extended spells of gloom over the last couple years, mostly brought on by too much exposure to news of environmental degradation, collapsing economy, and the general disaster being foisted upon us by our dysfunctional industrial system, I discovered that digging in the dirt was one of the few activities that, if it didn’t immediately raise my spirits, distinctly buoyed them over time. Growing things is emotionally therapeutic. Gardening is an activity that calls on your nurturing instincts, and returns them in kind. When I dig a colander-full of potatoes, accompany them to the kitchen with a couple of fresh tomatoes collected from richly fragrant tomato vines (evoking nostalgic childhood memories), I’m warmed by a sense of pleasure, wonder, and gratitude toward these plants that feed us and have fed our ancestors for generations. It’s partially this deep connection to the past that reassures me in the face of doubt and disaster that life does go on, and that we’re a part of it, no matter what madness at the moment happens to afflict the outside world.

Kevin Jones