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Last year was my first year gardening, though unlike many who took it up, it wasn't out of fear of food shortages. I've long loved spicy food and I'm one of those people who puts hot sauce on everything, even toast. I enjoy sampling as many different flavors as I can find but I longed to try something beyond the basic three options of banana, jalapeño, and habanero. So I planned out a pepper garden and settled on six different varieties plus some cherry tomatoes for good measure. I ordered the seeds, built a raised bed out of scrap lumber I had in the garage, and planted them all in mid-June.
Truth be told, I wasn't all that confident in my ability to keep things alive. The joke I always told was that I had enough difficulty keeping myself alive that I didn't trust myself with the life of anything else. Beyond which I was quite certain that I would have middling results at best after watching my brother's unsuccessful attempts at growing vegetables years ago. If not for the steady, patient support of Admin I wouldn't have even tried.
To my surprise, my garden did extremely well, growing far beyond my expectations. I quickly learned that plants are surprisingly hardy if you give them a little attention and even thrive when gently abused. Since I planted them late, most of my peppers weren't ready for harvest until late September, perilously close to the frost date for such a sensitive plant. But in the end I harvested a few gallons of peppers and another gallon and a half or so of tomatoes. The majority ended up pickled though I also made sun-dried tomatoes (delicious), ristras (rotted), and fermented hot sauce (unappetizing).
To Everything There Is A Season
The most surprising thing, though, was how much I enjoyed the gardening itself. I found myself going out to my garden over and over, often just to sit and look at the plants or watch the life around me carrying on. I could spend half an hour watching the bees visiting each of the flowers or a spider building its web.
Gardening anchored me to time in a way I hadn't been before. Watching the plants sprout, flower, fruit, and die made me a part of the flow of the seasons and gave me a greater appreciation of the cycles of life and death. I became more aware of the movement of the sun as it rose to its peak in June and sank ever lower as the growing season faded. It's not as though I was ignorant of these things but watching how they affected the life around me made much more tangible.
But more than that, I found that gardening had a surprising impact on my depression and anxiety. In previous years I would usually go nocturnal in summer as a way to avoid the heat, the light, and other people. But having a garden somewhat precluded that. For one, it was an impetus to get me outside every day, if only into my own yard, a greater accomplishment than it might sound. Nurturing my plants made me feel like part of the world rather than a detached observer and I took pride in my work. I even found myself talking to the neighbors and getting comfortable being seen. My sleep schedule became more regular and with all the work I found myself eating two, even three meals a day instead of my typical one. And with the pandemic slowing the world down to a comfortable pace for this introvert, 2020 was probably the best year I've had in the last decade (which probably deserves a node of its own someday).
Anyway, after the success last year I gained a lot of confidence and felt like trying something more ambitious. I planned out a new garden bed, twice the size of my first (standard 4'x10' raised bed), and built it with some scrap lumber from my neighbor's old fence.
I was somewhat disappointed with many of the pepper varieties I grew last year so I'm trying a few different ones for this year. I kept the banana peppers and pepperoncini/frigitello even though they're pretty standard and easy to find in stores. But they produced quite well for me last year and the gallon or so that I pickled lasted me a good six months. The habanadas (heatless habaneros) were a delicious treat and I'm eagerly growing a half dozen. I have a crazy idea of dipping them in chocolate come harvest time. Alongside those, I'm adding several new varieties including the striped Fish Pepper, sweet-yet-hot Sugar Rush, and color-changing NuMex Twilight and Buena Mulata. Though some are bred more for their appearance than taste, all are edible and moderately hot, between a jalapeño and habanero and about the same as a cayenne pepper. And if some turn out to be inedible from the heat or otherwise, they'll at least make attractive decorations.
The seed company I used last year was quite terrible in almost every way (Reimer Seeds, never buy from them) and among other issues sent me mislabeled seeds. Mixed in with the heatless habanadas, they also sent me mispackaged seeds of an extremely hot variety I've named Red Death. From all appearances and taste, it is some kind of ghost pepper and completely inedible to me. I enjoy heat as long as it's coupled with flavor--habaneros are the perfect example of that combination. Eating something simply to experience pain and demonstrate ones fortitude simply doesn't appeal to me. However they work as an excellent pest repellent when ground up and dusted or sprayed on vulnerable plants, so I'm regrowing the one I overwintered for that reason alone.
My new garden bed is devoted primarily to tomatoes with smaller plants underneath to cover the bare soil and get the most out of my space. I've planted a mix of four varieties: two kinds of cherry tomatoes (Husky Red, a dwarf variety, and Super Sweet 100, a...not dwarf), Amish Paste which is something like a giant Roma, and one called White Tomesol that ripens ivory-pink. In the middle of the bed I'm growing sweet basil, purple basil, lemon basil, ginger, and cilantro/coriander while the space around the edges is filled with black turtle beans and marigolds.
And finally in a forest of containers and wherever else I can fit them in I'm growing horseradish, peas, dill, oregano, rosemary, chives, okra, lettuce, radishes, and two beds of sunflowers outside the fence. I'm also growing a couple oak seedlings, pineapples, and even a cold hardy prickly pear just for fun.
When I built the new bed I intended on using mostly the native soil in my yard. It's hard-packed clay without a lot of nutrients, but I figured mixing in a few bags of manure would be an effective stopgap while I built up the soil. It wasn't.
So I spent the weekend carefully unearthing all my plants, excavating and spreading the contaminated soil on low spots in the lawn, and replacing it with fresh dirt. RedBro was kind enough to help on most of the digging. We have a mutual arrangement to help each other on projects given that his wife has the constitution and skill set of a prison snitch, which is to say scrawny and limited to gossip. Anyway, he helps me with digging and setting up my garden fence, I help him with refinishing his deck and removing a fence.
Because I was paranoid about the problem recurring, I completely washed the soil off the tomato roots which left them looking very wilted and unhappy when I replanted them. It doesn't help that we're going through some not-so-anomalous hot weather which is causing even the healthy plants to wilt. But every morning they're a bit more upright so they seem to be recovering slowly. The worst-affected plants I replaced outright with spares I'd kept around just in case something went wrong. After all that, I'm cautiously optimistic I'll still get a good harvest.
I've also been pleasantly surprised by the response I've received from the supplier after notifying them of the problem. I was expecting to be blown off as an irate customer (which I was, but not unproductively so--I mostly wanted to prevent others from experiencing the same frustration I did), but instead they have been very interested in investigating any problems. I've provided them with receipts, pictures, soil samples at their expense while they have contacted their own suppliers and pulled samples from their production line for testing. Of course, they're not doing it out of any kindness, it's simply not good business to sell a defective product. But it's still nice to deal with a company that's responsive to customer concerns for once.
Chipmunk count: 13