Green Deditos: Year 2!
Last year Kahlo and I started growing a few things on our deck. We were total novices but were successful with growing a couple herbs, tomatoes and strawberries, among other things. This year our weather patterns in New England made planting and growing a bit challenging. We had a very wet and cold spring, a very hot and sunny summer, and now our fall has already brought our first frost earlier than usual. Even so, we expanded what we planted to give an honest attempt at tending to living things that we could eat and share with others. Some were hugely successful while others were not. The beauty in it all was learning each plant and its needs. Like any relationship, sometimes it takes time to decipher the signals.
This post is a reflection and not instructional. I will talk a bit about what seemed to go well and what didn't. It's also to remind myself and others that sometimes good and well-meaning intent can yield much more than success at doing something. It can help you expand yourself, your knowledge and your spirit, in the process.
I'm currently sitting on my deck, where our garden lives, and sipping a mug of tea I just made from my own dried peppermint and pineapple sage leaves. I share this not because I want to impress you but to acknowledge the fact that WE GREW THINGS AND THEY DID NOT DIE. This is new for me. For years I have been a terrible steward of our plant relatives. I underwatered, overwatered, neglected, gave too much sun, or too little sun. I had told myself I should just stop. But last year, I realized I felt some kind of way about not knowing how to commune with plants, with the earth. I felt that somehow the embodied knowledge that my ancestors held had not been passed down to me. I had not sought out this knowledge before. While my hands are good at a great many things, tending to nature and my surroundings was not one of them. I was lacking something connecting me to the external, to my surroundings, to the greater Spirit. And this began my longing to learn how to grow things. It really was that simple. I had neglected this learning, this education, for far too long. I certainly did not want to pass this neglect on to my daughter. I decided to bring Kahlo along with me on the journey so we could learn together. I am absolutely way more into this than she is (at the moment!) yet I know the lessons have not gone unnoticed as she remarks about things at the most random moments. I can see it is changing her too.
Also, the tea is absolutely delicious, by the way!
This year, we were not able to put our plants outside for the season until the first week of June as it was simply too cold before that. We planted some things from seed and some from seedlings as well as tended to our perennials that had survived being indoors all year: strawberries (baby plant), 2 varieties of tomatoes (baby plant), basil (baby plant), oregano (baby, dying plant), green beans (seed), lettuce (seed), 2 varieties of chili peppers (baby and seed), pineapple sage (baby), dwarf squash (baby), 2 varieties of potatoes (seed), culantro/recao (seed), avocado (seed, and just for the leaves), and sunflowers (seed). Also, due to no guidance from me, the mint and peppermint I had snagged from the ground last year (from my father's place and the farm where I get my CSA) began coming back up in the pots that I had left outside ALL YEAR. All by themselves. We also found some hard-to-find other Peruvian herbs and peppers that have yet to be well-established and will stay inside through the cold season to be placed back outside next spring: huacatay and 2 varieties of chili peppers (all seeds).
Here are some of the lessons we learned this year:
Finding the right plants for your space: We chose our plants this year based on the ability to grow things in pots as well as plants that can handle full sun for an extended period of time. We do not have land to utilize but we do have a nice sized deck that is east facing so it gets a good 6-8 hours of sun. Also, one half the deck only gets about 6 hours of sun, so certain herbs that do not require so much sun did very well when placed on that side.
Paying attention: Each plant needs differing amounts of water and if you pay attention you can tell when you are overwatering or under watering. This took a little practice but a couple weeks in we found the right balances. Also, using friends and YouTube were super helpful when my plants seemed unhappy and I couldn't figure out why.
Patience is your friend: There are some plants that simply take a long time to grow into their best selves. We are still waiting for our culantro/recao! Also, our dwarf squash plant is still trying to do some things but mostly only gave us lots of blossoms to eat and only one teeny tiny squash!
Two years ago a friend gave me some baby Thai chili plants. I had grown them indoors to start, brought them outside last year without having seen any flowers. I brought them back indoors for the cold season and then, with a little prayer, placed it back outside in early summer. This year we repotted the Thai chili plants in a very large pot . As a result, they were finally able to grow larger and and we finally saw some flowers and peppers this year! So worth the wait! Last year we planted habanero peppers from seed and this year, as well, we saw flowers and peppers for the first time. Below are a few photos of Kahlo with those plants early in the season. We also planted strawberries (we're still getting them!) and green beans again. We were gifted a dwarf squash plant, planted sunflower seeds, and planted our saved potatoes seeds from baby potatoes that had begun to sprout in the pantry (all pictured below).
We were gifted a number of plants this year as well and to honor being entrusted with them, we decided to keep them and see if we might give them the space to grow. We have been enjoying our pineapple sage, dwarf squash (so little!) and oregano a lot this summer. The sage we have used for tea and for seasoning (after drying), the squash is still developing, and the oregano and basil we've used quite a lot in accompanying the many summer squash dishes we made or to make pesto.
Early on in the season all of our plants were big and green and lush. I was a little proud of myself. Kahlo was beyond excited by our success. We began getting yummy strawberries early on and our tomato plants sprouted all these little flowers quickly. A couple of them even grew to be 5' high. We patiently awaited the little green buds to turn into little red jewels of deliciousness. It took WEEKS, however, for those tomatoes to ripen. Then our potato plants leaves started turning brown and shriveling up. The dwarf squash plant gave us many flowers but only one tiny little squash. The green beans plants gave use 4, yes only 4, beans the whole season. The strawberry plant, while it took over a second container with all of its growth, has only grown a handful of berries at a time, making for excellent snacks but not much more. We originally planted some sunflowers in the ground around our house but chipmunks got at all of them but one. We managed to pot the sole sprout left behind and also try a couple more from seed in smaller containers. I'm glad to say they did successfully grow but were smaller than had they been plated in the ground.
Tending to plants is exciting and it is humbling. Because of our initial success I thought I had developed a green thumb of sorts, only to find that I had maybe become a little too sure of myself. I had stopped listening to the plants and gotten in a routine of watering without paying attention to how the plants responded to WHEN I was watering, to HOW MUCH I was watering, to HOW much sun the plant seemed to need or not need. I made some adjustments, moved some plants around the deck, and consulted friends with more experience. As a result, none of our plants died but not all of them flourished. It's a learning process!
The plants that have yielded the most, and seemed to do the best, were the tomatoes, chilis, the avocado, and the herbs. We also got a couple handfuls of baby potatoes even though the plants did not stay too healthy despite our best efforts. The strawberries are still coming too. The potatoes, while small, had tremendous flavor. All I did was boil them up (just a little salt) and they tasted like they had butter on them! I couldn't believe the intensity. Kahlo, who insists she only likes mashed potatoes and french fries (the horror) actually ate 3 of them in a row, WITH THE SKIN. She devoured them. This is the biggest win of all!
So, as I sit here on my deck, with our last bit of heat in fall that I grew up calling Indian Summer, I am appreciating the last of my perennial plants as they begin to brown and say goodbye. I am excited by the big green leaves of the forever spreading strawberry plant. I am still picking all those Thai and habanero peppers that seem endless. I am also still awaiting my culantro, also referred to as recao in Puerto Rico, to mature so I can make a delicious sofrito or recaito (a blend of herbs and vegetables used as a base in cooking).
Most of all, I am excited about this transition time. I am not sure how I will find space in my apartment for ALL of the perennial plants I now have on my deck but I know I will love having all this green around me inside. Next year, I think we'll stick to what we have and MAYBE add some climbing beans to the bunch. For now, we get to enjoy the last of our harvests and get out plants ready for the cold season. Happy Fall, amig@s!