Midseason agricultural report

After three months of hot, dusty and dry summer days, with noon temperatures often in the low 90s, sometime in June we glided into spring, with cool temperatures, down into the 50s at night, and fairly regular rains. So this year we’ve gone from a clammy, unusually rainy winter, right into summer and now back to spring.

That confusing seasonal cycle has been but one of the problems–but not the main one–that has afflicted my first attempts at vegetable gardening in San Miguel. The bigger problems have been man-made, with some whoppers that have amused more experienced gardening friends. “You did whaaat?” someone howled last night over dinner, when I told him the problems I’d had with my so-called harvest of sweet corn.

Still, we’ve had quite a few successes. Various types of lettuce (“Burpee’s Mesclun Classic Mix,” and “Gourmet Blend”; and Martha Stewart’s “Limestone Bibb”) have done terrifically and I suspect that with cool weather prevailing until next summer–sometime in February–we could keep a lettuce crop going year-round, perhaps with some overnight protection from occasional frosts in December and January. Missing in action is an iceberg lettuce (“Great Lakes 118) packaged in Mexico that never even poked out of the ground.

(Martha Stewart Patrol: In case anyone is wondering, yes, Martha now sells “100 percent certified organic seeds.” We bought ours at a Home Depot in Chicago, but the other day at a local supermarket we also found the Spanish-language Mexican edition of her “Everyday Food” magazine. Not even jalapeños and tortillas are safe from Martha’s reach. Keep your eyes open now for the Martha Stewart edition of Caterpillar bulldozers, turbo-charged to clear away anything that gets in their way.)

Spinach has done very well, including the appropriately named “Monstrueux de Viroflay” variety, with 10-inch long leaves, which caterpillars recently discovered, and the daintier “Tetona F1 Hybrid” from Thompson & Morgan seeds. And so have a variety of herbs–cilantro, oregano, two kinds of parsley (frilly and plain-leaf)–in addition to thai and purple basil. The most productive basil though, has been a variety we bought locally and is cryptically described on the packet as just “Grande Verde” or “Big and Green.” Look for it at your garden store.

A small, well behaved zucchini (Thompson & Morgan’s “Courgette Defender F1 Hybrid”) was also delicious and plentiful though now it’s yellowing and shriveling, as if saying “hasta la vista baby.” A larger variety of summer squash, which should be sold with a complimentary machete, grew beyond anyone’s expectations, pushing and shoving in all directions. Now it’s covered with mildew, but still flowering away and getting ready to give us more fruit.

Two canteloupe plants (Burpee’s “Honey Bun Hybrid”) have produced three perfectly formed fruits which are softball-sized and refusing to grow any larger. In the stunted category I should also include carrots (T&M “Sytan F1 Hybrid”) which despite their luxuriant green plumage look like stumpy orange plugs, and radishes (T&M “Rudi”) that should have grown to the size of golf balls but never got half that big.

My tomato crop–which I expected to dazzle visitors with its cornucopia of unique shapes, colors and flavors–has instead turned into a nondescript, small jungle. At first I worried that no fruits were forming despite the flurry of flowers. Now we have about a dozen tomatoes of various types that have yet to ripen. So there’s hope, though I’d like to make it official: This year’s Stew & Al’s Tomato Tasting Gala has been cancelled.

On the fruit category, the three olive trees (two “arbiquín” and one “Mission”) have produced exactly one olive apiece (one pictured above). A friend this weekend asked me if had recipes for brining and canning olives. Eh, I think that’s a little premature, no?

By far the biggest catastrophe, and disappointment, has been the sweet corn. The Burpee “Illini Xtra Sweet” first was attacked by batallions of earwigs, which lodged themselves inside the young ears and prevented them from setting kernels. Félix, our ever-patient and resolutely organic gardener, doused the ears with a hose to flush out the invaders, which he drowned in water, one by one. He then applied an organic pesticide I obtained at a new garden store in town. But the damage was done. In addition, some ears developed a grotesque grey fungus. A week ago Félix finally took all the plants to the compost pile.

Undaunted, Stew boiled three fungus-free ears which were about eight inches long, with a smattering of about two or three dozen kernels each. They were actually delicious, sweet and juicy. “If we only had more of these,” he observed dryly.

The other patch of corn (Burpee “Peaches and Cream”) is still standing on the other raised bed, though looking stunted. I’ve picked a few ears and they appear to have a fuller line-up of kernels and could still yield some sweet corn.

Despite all the zig-zags and missteps of my gardening efforts, we’re generally happy with the results. I’ve never liked vegetables and refused to eat them when I was little, with the tacit support of my meat-and-potatoes dad. I also used to roll my eyes when I heard gardeners rhapsodize about the wonders of eating fresh vegetables. However, after this initial exposure to fresh produce–two minutes from the ground to the kitchen–Stew and I may be converts to the cause, a couple of late-blooming Bugs Bunnies.

My agricultural techniques need quite a bit of refining, though.

The timing for sprouting seeds here is much earlier than in the U.S. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and other greens could be started indoors under lights–or perhaps in the raised beds themselves if I cover them with plastic to create temporary greenhouses–as early as January. They could then be hardened in early February and planted out in March to take advantage of San Miguel’s early summertime heat.

No offense to Mel Bartholomew and his “Square Foot Gardening” strategy, but planting that many things so close together led to chaos and waste rather than efficiency in my garden. Radishes gasped for sunlight under the unwelcome shade of the monster spinach growing in the next square-foot square. Perhaps because too much watering, the carrot seeds got washed away and mixed up with the chives. Right now beets and bibb lettuce are nudging each other for extra elbow room. Next year these guys will get room to roam; no more sibling rivalries.

And talking about room, next year the corn, zucchini, beans, cucumbers and other ground hogs will be relocated to a ten-by-ten-foot patch we just dug in a far corner of the ranch, where they can flex their roots, tendrils and leaves without bumping into one another. I will not suffer any more ridicule by people asking me, “You did whaaat?” when I tell them that I planted corn in a raised bed, the plants barely six inches apart from each other–and then scratched my head because they didn’t pollinate or grow properly.

How many zucchini fritters can a human being eat? Or green peppers? Pasta pesto for dinner, again? These are existential questions that have tormented home gardeners ever since toiling in a garden somehow became an enjoyable pastime. There are no final answers but I know for sure that 12 green pepper plants are way too many and just one cucumber bush is enough to satisfy our needs.

But for now, on to the next planting of Mesclun lettuce.

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