The vegetable plate as status symbol

I couldn’t cook much at twenty-one, but I knew how to stir-fry. I stopped on the way home for a pork chop, washed my bounty in the sink, and began seeding and slicing. A shame, really, to disembowl such beauty, but poor hungry students can afford to admire their dinner only but so long. Oil in the wok, some rice on the back burner, and into the pan they went. The sizzle! The aroma! The burning in my eyes from the vein-smoke of what I learned only much later was a habañero! Oh, and a glorious meal it was, too, even if it took a fortnight before the nerves in the soft of my cheeks healed. Gorgeous even in death, those peppers, a feast both exotic and rooting.

A diversity of gardeners

An article in last month’s National Geographic examines the loss of genetic diversity in the world’s crops, and this infographic, in particular, has been making the rounds of the Internet, at least in the corners where foodies and activists lurk. It shows the decline in diversity of common American garden vegetables between 1903 and 1983: more than 90 pecent of the varieties in existence at the turn of the twentieth century are now long gone. That loss of diversity has consequences beyond our inability to sample the flavor of a long-lost apple: with so little genetic stock available, changes in climate or a new disease might easily wipe out an entire crop, such as wheat, and we’d have no way to rebuild it.

It’s a lovely graphic, well designed and (if you aren’t already familiar with the issue) appropriately shocking. Like too many such graphics, though, this one doesn’t inspire much beyond despair. What can I, or anybody, do about it? The accompanying article gives the answer: I don’t have to do anything, because there are institutional “seed banks” working to preserve the genetic stock still remaining on the world’s farms. I’ve been shocked and then duly comforted; no need to get out of my reading chair. Let the experts handle it.

Except that this isn’t the right answer, or at least isn’t enough of one. Seed banks, valuable and worthwhile as they are, can only preserve the remaining — let’s say, as a round number — ten percent of the genetic diversity that once existed. But that ten percent is dangerously little. And institutions and experts can’t rebuild the remaining ninety percent, because they didn’t build it in the first place.

What you could grow (and when) in 1800

Thomas Jefferson was a man of many interests, and being President of the United States doesn’t seem to have deterred him from pursuing them. If from the White House he couldn’t putter in his beloved garden at Monticello, he still managed to keep up with the business. During his eight years in Washington, he kept track in his journal of the produce available month by month at the city market and drew up a chart showing each item’s earliest and latest availability during his residence — a fascinating, if a bit foggy and bubbly, window into early American gardening and vegetable consumption.

Because I’ll not be out-geeked by a two-centuries-dead president, I’ve made an HTML version of Jefferson’s chart. His handwritten original was quite clever (you can see it at low resolution on the Monticello website) and I’ve preserved the basic design while adding a bit of interactivity: for now just the ability to mouse over headings to highlight rows and columns, but eventually also to view definitions and commentary on various items of produce.

Old news

On Monday I sheet-composted a rocky and shallow part of the garden, laid down newspapers to kill the weeds and spread old bedding from the duck pen on top. There is something deeply satisfying about heaping shit onto last week’s (now last year’s) news. A new dictator in North Korea? Shit on him. Elizabeth Dole endorses Mitt Romney? Shit on them both. Unemployment, debt, foreclosures, indefinite detentions? Pile it on! It’s old news. Most days the newspaper isn’t good for much, but it makes good drop cloths and weed barriers, and if politicians’ faces can crumble into next spring’s carrots, then they’re good for something too. Twenty-eleven is old news now as well, a year that seemed for me to brim over with crap, but amazingly fertile crap, as it all is, or ought to be. Old truths and new ideas spring from disillusionment. A finished book grows from the compost of a lost job. Bury last year deep, sheet compost the old bastard and baptize the new with mud. And a happy new year to us all.

On growing potatoes

Originally published in the Northern Agrarian.

When I write about gardening I sometimes, without meaning to, give the impression that I wake every morning to survey a vast domain of neatly tilled beds and a refrigerator bursting with home-grown produce. In fact we have very little space. We own an acre and a quarter, but nearly all of it is wooded; very little gets enough sun to support a garden — and most of that is in the backyard, which has the twin disadvantage of being underlaid by a septic field and being overrun by basset hounds. The former means we can’t dig, while the later means that anything we do plant will be dug up.

Beet greens

Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, May 2008.

When I was young my parents tended a small garden: Peas, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, zucchini, beets. All this in the small backyard of a small house in a medium-sized northern town, sheltered from a major highway by a cinder-block laundromat. My mother pickled beets, canned apple butter and pear preserve, baked wheat bread twice a week. A cry of rebellion against the confines of urban life, I might say, but my parents are not the cry-of-rebellion type. When I was seven we moved to the country, to a bigger house with a vast backyard in one of the most fertile patches of land on the planet. That first summer they planted a big garden, maybe too big. I grew a dozen ears of corn. Zucchini swelled. Groundhogs descended. The following year they never got around to the tilling, and they never gardened again.