Kentucky Wonder pole beans climb the teepees that had been bare in early spring, and tomatoes can be seen in cages behind the beans.
Last year one of my daughters and I moved into an intentional community where land was set aside for a community garden that is now in its third year. Gardening with others is the perfect arrangement for an older gardener. My partners value my knowledge and I value their strength. I’m writing this article in early July, when we recently dug our Irish potato harvest.
The harvest was so abundant that garden members now have the problem of how to store the tubers in our small, basement-less homes. Ideally potatoes need darkness at 40 degrees F., and in summer in central North Carolina that air temperature is not possible. I’ve had some success keeping them for a few months at 70 degrees by wrapping them individually in newspaper, so we’ve stacked them 3-high in boxes in our laundry closet. Next harvest we hope to have a root cellar.
With so many potatoes to eat before they shrivel, we enjoy them almost every day. It’s lucky we’re Irish.
We eat meat a few times each week; ours comes from pastured animals—usually ground pork, lamb, beef, goat, or turkey served as patties. In the photos you can see other midsummer produce: fried eggplant, brined sliced cucumbers, and green beans. As often as potatoes, we also have cooked greens. Now we’re alternating kale, Swiss chard, and turnip greens, and earlier we had Florida Broadleaf mustard.
The turnip greens we plant are Seven Top, a variety that produces amazing greens—not turnip roots—from April to August in our region. It is a nutritious crop that thrives in drought, spring cold, and summer heat. To those of you who aren’t from the US South, these are cooked greens; women transported from Africa to be slaves brought similar plants here as seeds, perhaps woven into their braids as suggested by Leah Penniman, and taught their white owners how to season them with hog fat and serve them with cornmeal bread.
We’re now in the heart of cucumber season, so these we eat fresh every day, too, usually soaked in a brine of water, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Almost every day also we “put up” some cucumbers for winter months. We plant generously and take turns utilizing the harvest in order to have enough for each gardening household to ferment several quarts or half-gallon jars of deli dills or bread-and-butter pickles. With cucumbers there’s a pretty brief window before beetles infect the plants. If we’re really determined, though, this is a crop we can replant in a new spot in August.
The early Japanese varieties of eggplant are coming in now, and these skinny fruits lend themselves to being breaded and fried in butter—sauteed if you’re shy about frying. When the larger Rosa Bianca gets ripe, we may try eggplant Parmesan or lasagna, although summer heat makes heavy dishes heavier.
What else is in season? We recently harvested the yellow storage onions that have been in the ground since November. Bulbing onions are an important crop but must be classed as moderately difficult, due to the timing considerations and growth requirements.
We’ve found garlic a lot more tolerant of our Piedmont clay. This year the cloves of both hardneck and softneck varieties grew to an amazing size in a hard clay bed whose virtue is that it was constructed hügelkultur style. Hugelkultur beds are built on buried dry tree limbs, which hold moisture for months after a good soaking. We planted last November, and harvested nearly eight months later, giving the crop no attention in the meantime except to weed.
The core work group meets at 8 am in the garden almost every day to water, weed, harvest, and conduct critter patrol. Last year we put up our deer fence after you-know-who made a meal of the sweet potato beds, and this year a rabbit scythed our new bean plants before we tracked down his entryway under the chicken wire. We spent a day or two on our knees as we re-secured the wire to the ground around the whole perimeter. With potato bugs and Japanese beetles we tap them into jars of detergent water. In July the stink bugs that are the menace of tomato growers now on most of the East Coast are just starting to appear. They exchange juices with the tomatoes, leaving fruits that look perfect when picked, but show bruises in a day or two and soon rot.
The insects that are the most troubling to us, though, are the ones that prey upon the gardeners—ticks, mosquitos, midges, spiders, and the worst in my mind, fire ants. In this neighborhood we built our homes and put in our garden beds on land they had been working, and their belligerent nature makes co-existence hard. Where my daughter and I have planted sweet corn and watermelons at the foot of our hill, the fire ants are so prevalent we can’t stand long in one place, and wouldn’t dare sit or kneel on the ground, as I’ve been accustomed to doing while I weeded. I think all of the garden partners carry a dozen or more bites at any one time from one insect or another.
But who would give up sweet corn and watermelons—or potatoes, beans, strawberries, or garlic—for fear of ant bites? If only the health benefits of raising food are factored in, the good far outweighs the bad of the itches and stings, and I’m not referring to the daily exercise, an indisputable gain. If only nutrition is considered, the organic home gardener has the advantage over not just the grocery store but also over large-scale organic growers. We can create permanent beds, raised or not, without disrupting nature’s soil-building techniques, upon which no one can improve for lack of full understanding. In our case we let the rich though compacted red clay of the Piedmont serve as the bed floor, to which we add brought-in topsoil, cow manure, leaves, or hay, as well as the cardboard or newspaper we utilize as mulch for weed control. When we harvest a crop we leave roots in the ground unless we’re going to eat them. The organisms which play such an important role in fertility take all these inputs and of them make that miracle substance, humus.
I feel fortunate that I’ve had five decades in which to learn how to serve the plants who produce food for humans to eat. These skills rise in importance as more and more studies predict food shortages caused by our changing climate. I’m living now in a part of the world that is not likely to face either extreme drought or rising seas; short-term threats to the US Southeast are expected to be more drastic versions of what we have now: summer thunderstorms, insects, and hot, muggy weather. I’d feel insecure if I didn’t have a sunny site with a dependable source of water—in our case a river—and knowledge about how to nourish soil to counter as much as possible the plant nutrient loss being caused by higher levels of CO2.
The rising emissions, the habitat destruction, the biological disruption, and the warming feedbacks all indicate to me that political and economic instability are also in our future, and possibly not far away. I’m hoping to encourage readers to consider the benefits of starting now to grow more of their own food. At this point my life passion is beginning to look quite sensible. It might appear that I made logical decisions as I chose my primary life practice. Instead I only followed my heart, and as the wise ones know, that is often the safest path.