The anticipation is killing me. April 15 is our average last date of frost. I can't wait.
If all goes according to plan, we will be swimming in bushels of tomatoes by this July. I've already started the seedlings inside, beneath a grow lamp. We've planted Better Boys (my standby hybrid), and a few heirlooms, including Black Krims, Aunt Ruby's German Greens, Gold Medals, Brandywines, and a whole slew of dwarf tomatoes, including the Sweet Scarlet Dwarfs, which are supposed to taste even better than Black Krims, except they can be grown in a container.
We've also started about a dozen Swiss Chard plants (Fordhook Giant). Have you ever eaten Swiss Chard? It's the sweetest, most tender green; so much better tasting than kale and a lot easier to cook than collards. Unfortunately, I've always found Swiss Chard to be prohibitively expensive at the grocery store, but that's no problem because it grows beautifully in the garden as long as you put up a fence to keep the rabbits and turtles out. They're crazy for the baby greens.
Once we're past risk of frost, we'll transplant all the seedlings outside. Then we'll plant a few other things directly into the ground, like cowpeas (black eyed peas), herbs, leeks, potatoes, a few lettuces, and cucumbers.
Our peas are already in the ground and sprouted (they're cold tolerant so you can plant them before the last frost warning). They'll probably be climbing the trellis by this weekend. We've had the most amazing 70+ degree weather in North Carolina lately and it's really been helping those peas along. Not sure how the heat will affect their taste, but what are you going do.
Pictured above is an artichoke seedling of the Imperial Star variety. Fingers crossed. If I get one artichoke from my garden this year, I'm going to call it a raging success.
Do you garden?
Hope my American friends had a good Labor Day! I had a really nice long weekend that I mostly spent working in my garden. I meant to write more, but the ground was calling me. It felt like the right thing to do. Every hour or so as I weeded or mulched, I’d say to myself, “I really should go work on other things,” but then another voice would say, “Just another hour. I really want to finish this.”
Big thanks to T for helping me dig out a raised bed that a previous tenant had converted to a sandbox (don’t even get me started). It was a small enough box that I decided to use the new space for a compost pile, which got me on the topic of soil, which got me into reading this book, Weedless Gardening, which got me into a nice chat with my horticulturist landlord about manure and where to get it from the horse farm on the hill. If ever there was a moment of “Do What You Love,” then this was one of those weekends that made me question my current career track.
I've been really struggling lately with an urge to go back to school. I can't help it. I wouldn't have stuck around in academia for this long if I weren't a perpetual student at heart, but I have to remind myself that school is not necessarily the answer to every problem.
I foresaw that I would have this issue way back in high school when I read The Bell Jar. I don't know what everyone else got out of that book, but I identified with the narrator's anxiety of being just a talented student with no more promise then that. She struggles to see the next step or her value beyond school, a despair that compounded with mental illness propels her on a path towards suicide (which to be clear, I don’t identify with the suicidal part). The scene I always remember is when she compares herself to the Russian translator; I could so understand that sense of inadequacy. Some people have real skills! And what do I have, an ability to get A's?
I’m having a low phase at work (frustrated with some projects), and it makes me want to start over. Go back to school. Go back to where I seem to belong.
It doesn't help that I've gotten more interested in gardening and horticulture at the same time. I'm from a gardening family and this year is the first time I've been in charge of my own full sized garden (I've always had little gardens whenever I've had some space). I keep catching myself reading up on the subject at work and listening to these awesome gardening podcasts. I daydream in the car about what I'll plant next year. How I'll do it better. And of course I've been spending as much time as I can caring for my plants (trying to nurse my bumper crop of tomatoes past a mystery illness right now).
It doesn't help that NC State, one of the three universities near where we live, has a well-respected Horticulture department that I keep hearing about again and again in my podcasts. Now I have this vague itch to get a Ph.D. in Horticulture, or at least a Masters - which is insane. One Ph.D. in Chemistry should be enough; a Ph.D that I am not entirely sure what to do with. I don't want to work in industry. I don't want to be a professor. I'd like to do lab research for the rest of my life, which suggests maybe I should work at one of the national labs, but I've got a two-body problem that gets in the way of that and frankly, no one gets to work in the lab forever anyway. They move up to middle-management and hate it.
So why would a Ph.D. in Horticulture help me any better? Surely there are even fewer jobs?
Because my brain isn't thinking about what would be good me. It's thinking about what I'd enjoy. I'd like to learn more about gardening and farming, and my instinct is to go back to school to do this because I know I would enjoy it - just like I loved going to back to school for Chemistry. I really do enjoy research, and doing research on plants sounds amazing.
But I must resist! I can't even stomach the idea of going back to a grad student's salary. And I know my husband wouldn't be on board with that either. Plus, there's the fact that what I'd really like to do is publish fiction! But there'll always be a part of me that doubts that I'll ever really be able to support myself, thus the need for day-job decisions.
I hear conflicting advice these days about doing what you love vs. doing what you can tolerate and keeping what you love as a hobby. There seems to be backlash right now against doing what you love (this article makes great, great points), but it’s one thing to espouse practical jobs in theory, it’s another thing entirely to live that life day in and day out. I’m sure many (most?) of you can identify with that.
There's no perfect job, I know that. And school isn't always the best solution. I can learn by doing and reading. But it doesn't change the fact that my funding runs out in one year anyway, so no matter what I need to find another job.
So do I find another one in Chemistry? Do the safe path? But how safe is it really when I can’t even figure out how to transition from a postdoctoral position to something more permanent?
Or do I branch out and see if I can find something really different? Maybe I should talk to my landlord about job options if I’m interested in gardening and horticulture. Or I could take one year to do nothing but write and really push myself to publication, edit science publications on the side for money.
I wish it weren’t so terrifying to choose a path and stick with it.
Do you do what you love?
I mentioned recently that I was struggling to finish Ubik and really wanted to move on to my next book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Maybe this sounded like a strange reading transition to you?
Several factors went into this admittedly oddball reading choice. First, I know two professional plant breeders: an old family friend and my landlord, so it's not a totally foreign idea to me. Even back when I was at Maryland, our neighboring USDA scientists would bring us the literal fruits of their labors; leaving trucks in our parking garage filled with GMO green peppers or corn-on-the-cob. Word of mouth would spread the good news and us poor grad students run to the lot with shopping bags ready to be filled with free produce.
Then when we were vacationing in Italy, the proprietor of the Hotel Villa Rita recommended a wine to us made from what he described as an ancient breed of grape that’s rarely used today (it was a fantastic wine, by the way). I'd never really thought about it until then, but there are plant breeds that we've just stopped using and if someone doesn't maintain those seed lines - maybe we'll lose them forever, like a dead language.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast about how the Honeycrisp apple was bred, way back when the vile Red Delicious was the king of the supermarket. It was a great story.
All of these influences, combined with my gardening this summer, made me think, “Hey…maybe I could breed plants too?”
I love to garden. I’m still learning a lot, but I generally know how to keep a garden alive and producing. I figured, why not learn a little more about different plant varieties and how they came about. So I bought Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties a few weeks ago, having read that it’s one of the standard resources for amateur plant breeding. I dove in as soon as I finished Ubik.
And it is incredible. I’m not finished with the book yet, I’ll take my time with this one, but I’m learning so much about how horticulturalists select plants for certain traits; how they cross them by hand-pollination; how they keep records and monitor the next generation of plants for interesting new traits. It’s just fascinating and a cool way to mix the application of the scientific method with something fun like gardening.
I went into the book with the vague idea that I wanted to grow better tomatoes.* I usually grow “Better Boys,” a hybrid variety with a sweet-tangy flavor and meaty texture that makes one of the best sandwiches ever (quick recipe: pick the tomato but don’t put it in the fridge. It should still be warm from the garden. Toast some bread, mayo on both sides, cut your tomato slices about a quarter of an inch thick, layer them on the bread. Add some salt, pepper, and maybe swiss cheese. Boom, world’s best tomato sandwich).
But, as you can see in the image below, the Better Boy suffers quite a bit from “wilt,” a fungal infection that travels up the root system, killing the plants from the ground up.
I got a lot of tomatoes from this plant during July, but now the wilt seems to be weakening the plant’s immune system so it’s also more susceptible to other pests like the hornworm, which are decimating my tomato yield. I haven’t had a tomato sandwich in weeks! (note: I'm now treating the tomatoes with BT, a natural bacterial method to counteract some pests).
It’s incredibly frustrating to watch your plants die while you dutifully weed and water them. The soil itself is infested with the fungi, so short of planting somewhere different, there’s almost nothing that can be done. That’s just part of gardening. You can’t fix every problem.
But some tomato breeds are more resistant to wilt, though they may not have as good a flavor as the Better Boy. Amateur plant breeders (i.e. farmers) have addressed problems like these since the beginning of agriculture. One plant variety has one trait that you like, but is lacking in other ways. So through careful crosses, selective breeding for the traits you want to pass on to the next generation, and then allowing self-pollination to occur in order to stabilize the traits, you can in just a few years develop a new plant variety that has more of the attributes you desire.
Deppe’s writing is thoughtful, clear, and easy to understand. She has a degree in plant genetics, but she’s also a natural storyteller. I mean, she can make the history of a watermelon breed exciting to read.
I’ll have the whole fall and winter to research seed catalogs and exchanges in order to start my own plant-breeding program next spring. Instead of tomatoes, I may actually start with a plant that’s a little different and underutilized. Part me wants to make a new variety of root or bean that has an artichoke heart-like flavor. Wouldn't that be delicious? It should be pest resistant and fast-growing. That's the dream anyway.
Do you like to garden? Ever had any interest in starting? You really only need a sunny spot of land and a few simple tools. I usually only use a hoe, sometimes a hand-hoe, a trowel when I'm planting, and always my knee-pads. If you want to play the piano, you have to practice; and if you want to garden, you have to weed (at least once a week, sometimes twice if it’s rainy and lush). Those knee-pads make a huge difference as you work in the garden.You can move around much more comfortably as you weed on your hands and knees. Or you can get one of the stools, it doesn’t really matter. You just need to find a way to make weeding less of a painful chore. I don’t even mind it now; it's almost meditative to me. Maybe all those years of my parents forcing me to weed their garden turned out to be worth something after all; a sort of childhood immunization plan (much like my religious upbringing).
Anyway, can’t wait to learn more about different plant breeds. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing more pictures of seed catalogues coming from me in the future. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.
Do you have a hobby that's bordering on the esoteric? Why is it worth it to you?
*When people say they don’t like tomatoes, I often assume it’s because they’ve never had a real tomato out of the garden. Maybe they've only eaten one of these store bought monstrosities that have been bred for size, color, and durability for harvest and transport. What you get under those selection rules are tough, tasteless, mealy tomatoes, which are disgusting! Restaurants aren't immune to this either since they almost always buy their tomatoes from similar suppliers. So don’t write off tomatoes. Go to the farmers markets and ask if you can taste different varieties. There are some heirloom breeds that will blow your socks off.
The mulch isn't just for aesthetics, though it does look good. It actually helps quite a bit with the weeds. Before, I was spending a lot of my time just weeding the paths to prevent the vines and creepers from growing up and over the short sides of the boxes.When it was raining a lot, the weeds were thriving so that a lot of my weekends were spent in a rescue weeding operation to keep my vegetable plants from being taken over. I lost my cucumbers that way after getting back from a business trip and finding that my husband had not been quite so vigilant while I was gone. That's ok, it happens.
Why do I bother with all this sweaty, bug-bitey work? For this, dear readers: the most delicious tomato sandwiches you could possibly imagine. If you don't like tomatoes, well, you've just never had a Better Boy still warm from the sunshine on a piece of toast with mayonnaise and cheese. This is a summer highlight for me. We planted so many tomatoes this year that I've practically been eating these sandwiches for dinner every night since the end of June.
I've encountered this turtle before. He was actually trying to squeeze through my garden fence to get inside. I just let him in. I figured why not. The other day I found him again, chomping away at one of the tomatoes that had rotted and fallen off the plant onto the ground. He looked like he was in heaven.
Can anyone help me identify what species he is? I guess native to North Carolina. I've only ever seen box and snapping turtles around here. The spotted pattern on his head, legs, and shell look new to me. I guess I could google it, but where's the fun in that?
I hope everyone gets to do whatever their version of gardening is this weekend. Maybe you like to go for a long run? Play a good video game? Watch a good movie? What's the thing you do that makes you the happiest? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Talk to you soon.
I also just like seeing things grow and thrive because of the care I've put into them. After I weed the garden each week and harvest the produce, I feel good. It makes me happy in that indelible way. And I get to hang out with critters like this guy:
Rarely do I get to Friday and think, "Man, I just owned that week! I was totally awesome!"
In fact, I'm more prone to getting the Friday blues. What am I doing with my life? Is this the direction I want to be going? Am I even getting anywhere? It's the sort of existential introspection that I find benefits me in no way. Mondays are their own trials, but at least they hold the promise of a new week, full of potential. Fridays, in my mind anyway, lend themselves to unsatisfactory review of the previous days. I've talked this over with some of my friends and we've decided that women are more prone to this pattern than men.
Anyway, I can usually pretend I don't have any of these worries from 4 p.m. Friday to 4 p.m. Sunday, and I am just one hour away from that golden threshold. I'm not even sure what we're going to do this weekend. Maybe get a drink at Mystery Brewing like I've been promising myself. Or try out the new ramen noodle restaurant, Dashi, in Durham. I may try and finish this book of short stories if I'm feeling ambitious. There will undoubtedly be some gardening involved as well.
For the last few weeks, entirely while my husband was out of town, I've been fixing up our garden to prevent the paths between our raised beds from becoming overwhelmed with weeds. This has meant hours of cutting and pinning landscaping fabric, followed by more bags of mulch than I care to admit. But I think the results have been worth it. Check out the before and after.
Writer, editor, scientist.