As You Sow, So Shall You ReapMar 01, 2021 10:00AM ● By Dave Milano
Sunny warmth—that primal, indispensable life-giver to the soil and all that live in it and on it—is nothing but the gardener’s best friend, and in New York’s southern and Pennsylvania’s northern tiers, it can be in alarmingly short supply. Vegetable gardeners here cannot help but feel the pinch. They are positively under pressure to squeeze every last ounce of sun from their stingy, rather cursory warm season. They must be clever. They must devise work-arounds, plan diligently, remain attentive to weather forecasts, maybe even gamble now and then. I speak from experience. Having gardened for twenty-five years on a rocky, windswept, Endless Mountain hilltop, I’ve learned that, without doubt, long winters are our principal challenge. This is not entirely a north/south affair. From our somewhat marginal gardening climate, I drive ninety miles northward to the snug confines of the Finger Lakes (those lovely and vast tempering masses of water) and there note that the growing season—that priceless interval between deadly plant-killing, blossom-shriveling frosts—is 170 days, a full month longer than my own meager 135. Nature’s odd justice!
So what does one do with a 135-day growing season? First, recognize that 135 is but an average, and a low one at that. It’s not uncommon for frost to hit the Twin Tiers as late as June 4, or as early as September 16, potentially shortening the official “safe” growing season to an astonishing 111 days. No choice for anyone here wanting to grow those wonderful heirloom tomatoes (approximately 136 days from seed to maturity) except to retreat and regroup, generally to cold frames, greenhouses, and indoor grow lights, and even then the savvy gardener will be ready for at least one or two evening scrambles to hastily cover plants with tarps, bed sheets, and sheer hope against unexpected frost.
There’s no time to waste, so let’s rub our hands briskly together and get to work. First on the agenda is buying seeds. If you haven’t done that by now, you’re late. Very late. And if 2021 shapes up like 2020, even early ordering may not have helped you much. While gardeners aren’t the type to engage in Air Jordan aisle fights, whatever their efforts to obtain seeds, some disappointment is inevitable. Last year, as lockdowns interrupted supply chains and the desire for self-sufficiency increased, experienced gardeners doubled down and many new gardeners entered the market. Seeds were suddenly in short supply. This year demand is also beyond supply. Seed companies have been warning patrons for months of shortages and delivery delays, not just of seeds, but also of supplies, like grow lights.
If you’ve missed the seed wagon, don’t despair, just buy started plants as you find them, and don’t be picky about varieties. Get the plants into the ground as early as your courage allows. Be profligate with compost. Optimize outcomes by making special provisions to keep out the deer and the rabbits and the voles. Surround your cruciferous vegetables with strongly perfumed herbs like lavender (or cover them with filmy barrier fabrics) to ward off cabbage moths. Sneak in two plantings of cold-hardy crops like peas. Mulch, weed, and water diligently.
It’s work, no doubt, and admittedly not always enjoyable (weeding is rarely listed as a favored way to spend Saturday afternoons) but efficiencies can be found. Maintaining a healthy compost pile made of autumn leaves, grass clippings, and non-meat kitchen scraps is very useful, especially in our often difficult soil, and requires little more work than your regular chores. Organic mulch—straw is my go-to—benefits in the short run by keeping down weeds and reducing watering, and in the long run by gradually decomposing and fortifying the soil.
One of my favorite efficiencies is to shift as is possible from annuals to edible perennials. Plant a perennial once and harvest for years after. Asparagus and rhubarb are probably the most common garden perennials, along with berries like blueberries and currants. Lesser known perennials are cold-hardy kiwis (several varieties are perfectly happy in Twin Tiers’ winters) and the edible tubers of Jerusalem artichokes. My most recent perennial plant experiment has been with tree collards. (There’s a Google rabbit trail waiting for you.) This is actually a tree with edible, collard-like leaves. While they will not survive our winters, they can be grown indoors in pots and taken outdoors in the warmer months. Keep trimmed to a manageable size and you have a uniquely beautiful and uniquely useful houseplant. I started several purple tree collards from seed in our greenhouse (they seem to take forever to develop) and now enjoy collards year ’round with very little work. Arrowhead is another often-overlooked perennial. A pond plant prized by foragers, it can be easily cultivated in a small body of water (they will thrive in six inches of water with little to no current) and produce copious quantities of tubers with a nutty flavor that can be cooked like potatoes.
Speaking of foraging, edible wild plants are everywhere, free for the picking (dandelions come immediately to mind), and, miracle of miracles, Mother Nature does all the prep work, leaving you only with search and harvest duties. While the learning curve can be steep, and the ratio of product volume to time spent foraging is low, foraging is nevertheless wholesome, entertaining, and invigorating (and totally free of winter hardiness worries). I forage in three seasons and am never disappointed, whether returning home empty-handed or with a bagful of chanterelle mushrooms. Still, whatever its charms and utility, foraging will never substitute for a solid garden harvest.
Vegetable gardens beget good food, good exercise, and a sense of accomplishment, not to mention multiple degrees of separation from the myriad crises screaming at us daily from screens and radios. Less dependence, more satisfaction; less hullabaloo, more harmony...as refreshing as a warm, sunny day.
(Editor’s note: Canning supplies were hard to find last year, so if you’re planning to preserve your garden harvest via pressure canning or water bath, start stocking up now on jars and lids. Some people purchased lids online and were disappointed with the quality, so stick to the brand name products like Ball that you can buy locally.)