February is the month when I begin to look once again with longing at the garden below the house and wonder what kind of horticultural nonsense I’m going to get up to this year. I seem to have a short memory. Every year I conveniently forget how fed up I became with the whole business the year before, and I entertain visions of well-endowed tomato plants, perfectly-groomed herb beds, and a cornucopia of vegetables that will keep my family nourished for months.
This is all a pipe dream, of course. About the only plant I’ve managed to grow well consistently is garlic, which requires practically no tending and seems immune to my two arch-enemies: deer and slugs.
I have grown many other things well, but inconsistently. Tomatoes comes to mind as one example. A few years ago I had so many tomatoes I was just throwing them into the compost, because the freezer and the fridge were utterly full. Sometimes, when the deer grew especially bold, I threw the tomatoes at them. But last year my plants produced only one or two fruits per branch, and the year before that, it appeared that the blossoms weren’t even pollinated until the end of the summer, which is far too late. I was at a loss to explain this, because there were bees around. I guess they were on strike. It was a sad year.
I have my doubts about growing tomatoes in Nova Scotia anyway. I’m told that in the tropics and sub-tropics, tomato plants live all year round, which seems miraculous. When I was a kid growing up in Erie, PA, I remember tomatoes ripening in July, but in my little micro-climateÃ¢â‚¬â€-a south-facing hillside with a steady ocean breezeÃ¢â‚¬â€-everything happens a few weeks later than in Erie. My tomatoes usually aren’t ready until September, at which point the sunlight hours in the day are dwindling and the fruits are less juicy than they should be. I might throw a few early-ripening varieties in the ground this year, but I won’t be starting them from seed. I’ve had my heart broken too many times by mold, fungus, and damping off.
This is also the time of year when seed catalogues begin to arrive in the mail. The people who put these catalogues out long ago identified me as an easy mark. It seems I can’t help myself. I will order seeds I’ll never have space for, just because they exist.
My favorite catalogue by far is the one from Annapolis Seeds, a small Nova Scotia company in its fifth year of existence. Founded by Owen Bridge, who is of an age to be referred to colloquially as a “youngfella” (he was just 19 or 20 when he started), Annapolis Seeds specializes in propagating hard-to-find heirloom seeds from all over the world. Owen saves seed from nearly ninety different types of tomatoes alone, with names like Mennonite Orange, 10 Fingers of Naples, Alexander Peacock, Black Zebra, and Depp’s Pink Firefly. You will never, ever find anything like them in a supermarket; you won’t even find them in most seed catalogues. With so many varietals at risk from genetic manipulation and homogenization, it warms me to think that people like Owen are out there safeguarding genetic diversity. I like to think of him as tending a living museum up there on his farm in the Annapolis Valley.
From Owen I will likely order a few varieties of salad greens, as well as some peas. Both these crops do well here and are satisfying for gardeners with children, who demand fast results. My oldest daughter, age 9, is excited about growing the ‘Three Sisters’: corn, beans, and squash. I promised her she could have a whole plot to herself this year. Few parent-child activities are more satisfying than gardening. It provides an excuse to launch into lectures on all kinds of related subjects, such as evaporation, reproduction, birth-life-death, the importance of decay, and how to garden in balance with nature, rather than in opposition to it.
This last subject is one with which I’ve become fascinated in the last five or six years. Another word for it is permaculture: that is, the practice of growing food in imitation of nature, in polycultural systems (such as corn, beans and squash living together) rather than monocultural ones (like a field of nothing but corn). Permaculture also means avoiding all chemical inputs; harvesting, weeding, and composting in such a way that every crop enriches the soil, rather than depletes it; and harvesting and storing as much rainwater as possible through the use of swales, barrels, and hugelkultur. Permaculturists aim to grow food sustainably, which is precisely the opposite of the way our current industrial agricultural system works. I will have plenty more to say about permaculture in future posts.
A word about my garden: I carved it out of this rocky hillside by hand, bit by bit, over the last decade, and of all the things I’ve accomplished in this life I think it is probably going to last the longest, provided the little glacial dolmen we live atop isn’t underwater in the next few decades. The soil here is poor: acidic, clayey, and rocky. But nature provides an abundance of seaweed, which is even better than animal manure for enriching soil. There are several beaches within a short drive of our house, and I can fill several large containers or garbage bags in ten minutes, for free, for use as mulch or compost. Many people worry that seaweed is too salty for use in a garden, but in my opinion this fear is entirely unfounded. The salty taste of seawater really comes from a combination of minerals that have found their way into the oceans over the last bazillion years and concentrated there, so it’s not quite the same salt you keep on your kitchen table, or the salt that the ancient Romans reportedly used to sterilize the fields of their enemies. Seaweed helps repel slugs (of which I had about ten times as many as normal last year) and other pests, too. How many kinds of manure can you say that about?