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Flash in the Pan

Growing roots



New Mexico is the sixth state in which I've gardened. Gardening is about setting roots, and to garden in so many places seems contradictory. But it isn't. Each new garden teaches me about a new place. I get to learn different soils, new hardware stores, new patterns of sun, rain and frost. I meet the insects, sometimes rudely, and the animals, some of which will eat my chickens, and the plants, some of which I'll decide are weeds.

A garden is a conversation with a place, and helps you become native to it. Such conversations also happen between landscape and hunters, foragers and fishers. When your diet is predicated on your interactions with the earth, you quickly learn the language of that place.

In New Mexico, we carved two garden spots amid the scrub and cactus; one spot looked like it was a garden years before. We built fence, buried chicken wire to foil the rabbits and fertilized the sandy soil with manure from wild horses.

Wild horses often poop in large mounds, called "stud piles," which greatly streamline the gathering process. Stud piles can exceed 200 pounds, and we carried several back from the surrounding canyons in 40-pound increments.

The old garden spot was plagued with bindweed, a tenacious plant with a 30-foot taproot. Bindweed strangles crops and returns aggressively when you pull it, forming green mats that hide rattlesnakes.

After a tough struggle with bindweed last summer, we decided to turn the tables this spring by covering the old garden spot with a layer of black plastic. Deprived of light and water and scorched by sun-heated black plastic, we knew that if we waited long enough the bindweed was toast.

Before we laid the plastic, we dug up a patch of small lettuce plants. These had sprouted by a red romaine lettuce last fall, after it went to seed. As winter approached I covered the baby lettuce patch with a blanket. They were still alive in spring, and I didn't want to cover them with plastic, so we dug them.

With the old garden under wraps, we turned to the other garden for spring planting. But this was complicated by the fact that the new garden was fully planted in garlic.

Garlic grows straight up, like corn, and is harvested in early summer. We decided to plant our spring crops among garlic, thinking that when the garlic was harvested the new plants would have the patch to themselves.

In New Mexico, many farmers irrigate by flooding between the rows of crops. At first glance this appears to use a lot of water, but if done correctly it can be efficient, bringing water only to where it's needed.

"When in New Mexico, do like they do," I figured, and began digging a system of branching canals between the garlic plants to direct the flow through the entire patch. It was a meditative, satisfying process that brought me back to my research as a young lad, when like most young boys I was an amateur hydrologist. Once the canals were dug, we began planting our garden in the garlic patch.

We planted those overwintered lettuce plants from the old garden spot. Seeds were sown, some directly into the canals, so the water could spread them.

We calculated the cilantro, spinach and lettuce would be shaded enough by the garlic to forestall their going to seed, and the Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cabbage would grow patiently in the shadows until garlic harvest, and then spring into center stage. The peas would shoot up quickly, climbing the garlic plants. Carrots have thick foliage that would shade between the garlic plants, and the roots wouldn't crowd the garlic bulbs.

Occasionally I'd peek under the black plastic in the old garden spot. The soil was completely barren except for the disturbing sight of bindweed shoots, yellow from lack of sunlight, pressing against the plastic from below.

After a harvest of spinach and lettuce from the garlic patch garden, those plants started bolting. Plants bolt (read: go to seed) when conditions become too hot, too dry or otherwise too stressful, causing the plant to switch from growth to seed production, like a kid hitting puberty. Spinach and lettuce leaves become bitter.

There are clues when a plant is about to bolt. Lettuce starts to get tall, and spinach leaves turn arrowhead-shaped. When I saw these signs I harvested the plants ASAP. Most gardeners would have pulled their entire crop at that point, but I left the plants that hadn't started bolting. I wanted to save seed from the plants that lasted the longest before bolting, so next year's lettuce and spinach will be slower to bolt.

When we pulled the plastic off the old garden, the ground was soft, thanks to the worms, pill bugs and other decomposers. We pulled the ghoulish yellow bindweed and planted alongside newly dug canals, following the same high-density polyculture approach as in the garlic patch. Planting a diverse assortment of plants in close quarters shades the ground, prevents evaporation and crowds out the weeds.

The bindweed still pops up regularly, but it pulls easily from the newly softened earth. Since it doesn't re-root, we lay the pulled bindweed plants as mulch between the crops, which keeps the soil shaded and cool as it breaks down and fertilizes the soil. The bindweed pulls so easily out of the flooded rows, and is so useful, that now I look at each appearance of bindweed as a gift of nutrients from 30 feet down.

In our attempts to fit a garden into our surrounding environment, we've created our own little ecosystem, complete with light-lovers shading the shade-lovers, as climbing plants like peas and cucumbers climb the corn and sunflowers, taking our garden ecosystem firmly into the third dimension. Mint is spreading along some of the canals. Butterflies and hummingbirds come visit.

A garden is a reflection of the gardener, and of the world the gardener wants to see. I like a little chaos in the garden, and I love watching all of the interactions in our diverse polyculture. How much food I get barely matters. It's the active conversation with the earth that keeps me interested, keeps me relevant as a resident, and helps me become a native transplant.

Ask Ari: Seedy business

Q: Dear Ari,

After too many weeks of putting it off, I finally got my garden planted. Well, my spinach and lettuce and broccoli hardly started growing before they bolted. What should I do with all these tall, spindly plants? Can I reverse the bolting process? What are my options?

—Gone to Seed

A: Your plants want to make as many seeds as they can. Under ideal conditions the plants will grow as much as possible before going into seed-production mode.

But if the plant gets a sketchy vibe from its environment—too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, too long in a tiny pot before transplanting—then it hits a panic button of sorts, sounding a systemic alarm that says, "Now or never boys, let's go!"

Unfortunately for you, once its mind is made up, that plant's determination to spill its seed rivals the average teenager's, and there's nothing you can do to change its mind. Alas, that is one of the dangers of planting too late—your plants develop seed heads before they can build up a head of steam.

But don't stress out, Gone to Seed. You have options. While you were late on the draw at spring planting, you're actually ahead of the game in terms of a getting a late summer or fall garden in the ground. Broccoli and lettuce can be planted again—the lettuce for a late summer's harvest, while the broccoli will be ready in fall. You can plant more spinach in August for a fall harvest. And if you mulch that spinach during the winter it will come back and give you a big harvest the following spring.

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