I had two days off this week – two rainy days. Since I’ve started a little vegetable garden, I am actually appreciating the rainy days. Why? Well, the sunny windowsill in my apartment is getting a little overcrowded with seedlings now and the bigger ones just need to get outdoors. Overcast, slightly rainy days are actually the perfect condition (or so I’ve read) to start hardening off, or getting seedlings accustomed to being outside. A dry, sunny day can fry tender little seedlings, and temperatures too close to freezing are obviously no good either. I’ve never really had a very green thumb so I’ve been taking lessons from Rose Marie Nichols-McGee and Maggie Stuckey in the form of their book, The Bountiful Container.
I do however, have a singular childhood memory of picking cherry tomatoes in the summer, from the small garden that my mother used to have. Even though I didn’t like eating tomatoes as a child, I loved picking them – the smell of the vines, the light dusting of pollen on the fruit, and just being outside in the sun with my hands in the dirt. Like I said, I wasn’t crazy about tomatoes, but the homegrown variety were certainly far less offensive than the disgusting, mealy beefsteak tomatoes that were the grocery store standard at the time. Now, with the presence of supermarkets like Whole Foods in the suburbs, and a wider choice of ethnic markets, and farmer’s markets around the city we no longer have to settle for one mealy type of tomatoes. Almost any kind of produce is available to the average consumer. So why bother growing my own? Freshness for one. Sure, tomatoes, avacados and citrus fruits might be available year round at any local grocery, but they are being shipped thousands of miles from Mexico, Peru, and sunnier parts of the country like Florida and California. How fresh can they possibly be?
So, every Spring I fall prey to a longing to move to someplace like California. Anyone who had been to the farmer’s market at San Francisco’s Ferry Building can attest to the gorgeous and delicious array of fresh edibles available year round. Still, I’ve known people who have grown up in the Northeast and moved to milder climates, only to return. One of the most surprising reasons is that they miss the change of the seasons. Deep down, I think I would miss the cycle of toughing out snowy blustery Winters that clear the way for the hopeful new blossoms of Spring; and the lushness of lazy Summers that always seem to be cut too short by the onset of Autumn. The seasons change the way that we live, the way that we feel – both emotionally as well as physically – and the way that we eat. So reason number two for growing my own vegetables is to find out first hand what eating seasonally and locally means by actually bringing my food from seed to table.
(Oh, and do I need to mention all the food scares in the media? Salmonella in pistachios and peanut butter? Melamine in baby formula? At least I’ll know where my vegetables came from.)
Well, you can’t get more local, fresh, and seasonal than your own backyard. For my first vegetable garden, I figured I’d keep it small and grow a few things from containers on the small balcony of my apartment. The Bountiful Container does warn small space gardeners like me against going seed crazy – and wisely so. Catalogs and online suppliers offer seeds for a dizzying array of vegetables and I could see how it might be easy to get over-ambitious. As advised I made a plan, first limiting my purchases to heritage and organic seeds, then choosing produce we consume regularly, such as tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini, and herbs such as cilantro, oregano, and dill. I also chose a few items that we were unlikely to find at the grocery, such as lemon chiles, lemon cucumbers, greek basil, and edible flowers. Even with my plan, I think I may have gotten a little over-zealous myself.
Still, not a bad start. I planted my first set of seedlings at the end of March using Jiffy peat pellets and a little plastic greenhouse tray. I’ve had to re-pot the tomato plants once already and they are also outgrowing the deli-containers that I’ve been using as makeshift cloches to protect them from our cats. This first set of seedlings are going outside this week to make room on the windowsill for the second set that I planted yesterday.
So with Spring comes hope – hope that my thumb gets a little greener, hope that my little seedlings will thrive outdoors, and hope that with some organization and a little help from mother nature, we will be able to enjoy the fruits of my labor from late May through September.