Thursday, February 12, 2009

It IS Worth It!

I had a brief conversation with the teller at the bank last week.  It wasn't about banking.  It was about gardening.  She explained to me why it just wasn't worth it.  She explained that the tomatoes in her garden ripened at the same time that tomatoes became very inexpensive at the local Safeway.  So, to her, it just wasn't worth the time and effort to grow her own.
I suppose a lot of people feel that way.  I wanted to explain to her that by starting tomato plants early and late, by planting different varieties, she could have tomatoes from July well into November.  I wanted to describe the difference in flavor between a chilled Roma that has been shipped from the Central Valley and/or gassed in King City to a lovely, plump San Marzano picked in her own garden minutes before slicing. I wanted to wax poetic about the variety of sizes and shapes, tastes and textures, the delicate skins on tomatoes available in the home garden.  I wondered if she had ever stood by a trellised cherry tomato plant and popped succulent little sweeties into her mouth right off the vine.
A book came out a year or so ago called The $63 Tomato.  The writer kept close tabs on the cost of putting in a garden and he ended up evaluating the cost of his tomatoes at the rate of $64.  the tomatoes I grow cost far less than that.  But them, I have a garden with good soil.  It is fenced to keep out dogs and geese,, it is wired to keep out gophers, and the soil has been enriched over the years with the addition of various composts, manures and cover crops.  We do not yet pay for our water because we have a private well.  The time we spend in the garden is not considered work, so we don't assign an hourly wage to ourselves.  The cost of seed is small and, because of the line of work we are in, we have an ample supply of free transplants.  So, in many ways, our tomatoes are free.
I am always amazed at how much food we can grow in our little 30 X 15 foot garden. We supplement it with barrels of cucumbers on the deck, a bean trellis out by the well, and large containers of lettuce by the back door.  Perennial herbs are grown in the landscape and the delicate ones are picked fresh from the greenhouse when needed.
I know that to start a garden from scratch is a time consuming and expensive endeavor.  But you should only have to do that once.  After that, it's all free.
Native Americans planted corn, beans and squash (the 'three sisters') in the spring and then left it to grow on its own.  They returned from time to time to do a bit of weeding perhaps, but it was a low intensity project that provided a considerable amount of food. Gardening can be extremely time consuming or kind of laid back, depending on your nature.  Plant, weed, water and reap the rewards.  It IS worth it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Basil Rant

If I had a dollar for every time someone asks me when we will have basil, I would have enough dollars to up another greenhouse (my fondest wish!). Alas, basil is a warm weather plant that thrives in sunny days and balmy nights.  It seems to know when the days are too short for it to flourish, so resists wintertime tricks in heated rooms on sunny windowsills.  It just seems to know.
I actually started two trays of basil yesterday - a sweet summertime Genovese and a hardier Siam Queen.  They will both germinate nicely on the heated shelves and will thrive under grow lights that stay on 14 hours each day.  When we transplant them, they will take up space on heated tables in the greenhouse for a couple of weeks.  Then we will bring them to the farmers' markets and admonish our customers not to buy them. They will be hideously expensive and probably will not thrive.  But people will buy them anyway and some will have very goo luck with them - especially if they are potted up into larger containers and put into another greenhouse or solarium.  I think it is better to wait til May when the soil is nice and warm to put it in the ground, but we will have it on our market table much sooner than that.
There are many kinds of basil and some tolerate cooler temperatures better than others.  The favorite sweet basils, like the Italian Genovese, are the most tender.  But the spicier Thai and Cinnamon basils do better in early spring and late fall.  Two varieties that are not considered culinary - African Blue Basil and Holy Basil (Tulsi) - are perennial in our climate, though they will not survive a hard freeze.  Both can be grown in large pots and brought inside during the coldest part of the winter.  The African Blue Basil is a sterile hybrid that flowers continually but does not set seed.  Bees and hummingbirds love it and it has a terrific sweet basil scent.  Some people do use it in cooking, though its flavor is a little too sharp for eating fresh.
An anecdote:  A couple of years ago I got a couple trays of basil ready for the farmers' market early in March.  I left the house a bit before sun up with my basil and the first, ultra early tomato seedlings and a load of spring peas, greens, artichoke plants and other things and headed up the road. As the morning light appeared, I noticed it was very white out and when I got within five miles of the Aptos market at Cabrillo College I realized it was snowing.  And I had basil and tomato seedlings.  I made $87 dollars that day, and I will never forget it!