During the past five years I’ve radically altered the way I go about growing food in a garden. It’s not that I’ve adopted some busy and intense new scheme. Nope. It’s simply that I don’t want to do any work in the garden anymore. At least no more work than is inescapably necessary to ensure that there’s stuff to eat there when I show up to harvest. In fact, ideally that’s all I want to do…just show up to pick whatever crops are ready. I want to be a harvester, not a gardener. (There’s a whole new crowd of lazy gardeners out there, by the way, who are trying to figure out if ideas like permaculture can get them off the work hook).
My relationship with weeds, for example, has changed completely. Bring em on! As long as they don’t pester my food plants. They pull in a lot of carbon from the air which becomes valuable biomass in the compost pile, and the ones with deep roots pump nutrients up from the subsoil.
I’ve given up sport weeding. It’s thankless work and it makes the garden look naked. I like a messy looking garden full of a wild variety of plants that I’m not responsible for. And more than that, I’ve become quite shy of pulling any weedy interloper because I worry about pulling some welcome volunteer that I may not have recognized as a seedling.
Volunteers mock the hubris of the control freak gardener. “Look!” they say. “I grew and you didn’t have anything to do with it.” Volunteers teach the gardener humility with their unexpected and unassisted appearance. They tell us about our soils, about which varieties of crops are robust and suited to the local conditions. Volunteers, in fact, are the tiny steps of agricultural evolution in action. You think our ancestors 20,000 years ago bought their seed from Monsanto?
I’ve been growing an old variety of turnip called the Eastham for four or five years. I got the seed originally from Bob Wells, a Cape Cod farmer I met through the biochar crowd. Bob seems to be pretty much responsible for bringing this old turnip back from oblivion, and those of us who grow it are deeply thankful for that.
The Eastham is a large, sweet turnip which, when it’s happy, will grow to the size of an orange, or a grapefruit, or maybe even bigger if you make it very happy. Bob Wells is making his turnips happy by adding biochar to his sandy Cape soils. An Eastham the size of a bowling ball would mean you’ve got a very, very, very happy turnip indeed. (Is that a turnip in your pocket or are you just happy to feed me?).
Anyway, the deal about turnips is that pretty much the only people who eat them voluntarily, and profess to enjoy the ordeal, are the people who grow them. The turnip may have earned its low place in the lists of delectable veggies both through its history as a vegetable of last resort (slaves in the South ate the greens as a subsistence food) and as a smallish, hottish, frequently woody and often slightly off-tasting root.
The first patch of Easthams I grew turned out to be delicious–sweet, mild tasting, great mashed with roasted garlic and chunks of other veggies folded in, crisp and tender raw in salads or in long sticks, and then there was the day I discovered that, sliced thin and deep fried, the Eastham chip tasted better than the potato. And the smaller leaves are rich and meaty tasting, an appetizing green that, like collards, can serve as the main part of a simple meal.
Over the years of growing them I have learned a lot about what they like. I’ve discovered they overwinter well in plastic tunnels and offer up the first greens of spring.
But I have also found that they hate to be crowded, and need as much as a foot of their own space before they’ll consent to grow a lovely round turnip above the ground, their overwhelming preference. If things aren’t right for them, they lay down on the ground and grow long stems without ever swelling into the turnip, or they’ll make a half hearted attempt and produce a more or less cylindrical, slightly woody turnip and leave it at that. If they are planted in the fall and overwintered, you’ll have fine greens in early spring, and if you can carefully transplant them some will make turnips, others only stems, for no reason I can figure.
I’ve been saving seed…these plants produce an astonishing amount of seed, and every year I’ve had volunteers popping up around the garden. But for the most part those volunteer Easthams don’t do particularly well.
I pay close attention to the volunteers which grow in my garden because not only do they confirm which varieties of veggies I am growing are the most robust, and best suited to the conditions of the garden, but they also tell me what the plant likes most.
So the fact that I get volunteer turnips which sprout, grow into decent small plants but never really produce good turnips has put me on notice, suggesting that in fact there’s something missing in my garden that these turnips want.
Last summer in early July I was back in New Hampshire for a week or so, and decided to clean up the garden prep bench in my garage so that Lou and Martha, who were using the garden that summer, wouldn’t have to fight my clutter.
I found a large plastic crate of turnip seed heads I’d collected but never stripped. So I pulled a couple of cups of seed out of them, and tossed the residue out in front of the garage.
A month later, late August, I came back for a visit and discovered a volunteer Eastham turnip growing in the hard-pan car-tire-compacted oil-soaked grass in front of the garage. The guy who had mowed the grass in our absence had spared the young sprout, perhaps because it looked so certain of itself, so sure that it knew what it was doing. It had the presence to stand its ground in front of the mower.
During September and October it grew and grew. It had no water but a few spare drops of rain, no compost, no fertilizer, no nothin’ but what it could forage for itself through its leaves and roots. And in late October when I finally decided to show up and harvest it, it had become one of the best Eastham turnips I’ve ever grown. Uh…I mean that has ever grown near my garden. Am I going to try planting some of these turnips in the lawn next spring? Do I look like a fool?
But there’s one other thing. That turnip grew in front of the garage where Peter Hirst made a batch of demo biochar several years ago (see the film).
Hmmmm. This isn’t science, but this is how science (and agriculture) begins: observe something, have a hunch, make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis with an experiment, observe the experiment, have a hunch, etc. Hmmmmm…biochar?
Is that a turnip in your lawn, or just another volunteer gently mocking my gardener’s hubris.