You can’t stop the future
You can’t rewind the past
The only way to learn the secret
…is to press play.
For the last couple of years, the weather has thrown us the Polar Vortex, torrential spring rains, and unbearable heat during the summer months. What grew effortlessly a few years ago has struggled in our changing climate. Have you noticed it in your garden? Or maybe it’s just me. I felt like things were not in harmony. My garden wasn’t singing. It was time for a change.
My garden provides for us, but it’s also my refuge. When it is out of sorts, so am I. Last year, I felt more like I was battling Mother Nature than playing along with her. So this year, I made pretty drastic changes to my dear garden. Gone is the overabundant summer squash and her need for constant vigilance against squash bugs and fungi. Gone are green beans, with their desire to be picked daily. Gone are the lasagna beds, which were as appealing as last week’s leftovers. Adios to the tomatillos! And you know what? I don’t miss them. The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze any more.
Have I given up gardening entirely and started watching reality TV shows (not that there’s anything wrong with that)? NO, my friends! I am growing. I still raise a few summer crops that we love, like heirloom tomatoes and okra. But by reducing or eliminating the crops that were taking up much of the space in my raised beds and testing my gardener’s patience, I gained room for well-behaved edibles that require less work and deliver huge returns. Think about it. What costs more to buy at the market–squash and beans, or organic garlic, figs, and asparagus? I decided to support my local farmers market by buying the popular crops they grow so well, and devoted my garden to delicacies that we treasure.
Press play and listen to my new tune! My “new” garden is abundant with fresh herbs—peppery basil, dill for pickles, bay, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, mint, sage, turmeric, ginger and thyme. We use herbs constantly for cooking, as medicine, and even in cocktails. Herbs are easy to preserve by drying or freezing. If I only had a little space to garden, I’d devote it to herbs, as they make everything taste fresh and add so much flavor to every meal. They’re good for you, and they attract lots of pollinators, which is great for the garden. We also devote garden space to garlic and shallots. These alliums are planted in late fall, and we pretty much ignore them until we harvest the crop in the spring. Today I’ll make some gorgeous pesto with our garlic and basil, instead of weeding in the 95 degree humidity that is summer in Florida.
In the centers of several of my raised beds, I planted edible shrubs. A Goji Lycium Sweet Lifeberry from Proven Winners is quickly filling one 4X4 and is full of purple blooms and tiny berries this season. Goji berries are a superfruit. Rich in anti-oxidants, they are purported to have anti-aging benefits, and a handful of berries provides more vitamin C than an orange. The Thai Red Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) that I started from seed this winter anchors another bed and is underplanted with strawberries. A beautiful red-branched shrub (pictured below), Roselle leaves are used to make a healthful tea that’s supposed to reduce high blood pressure, but it’s the calyx (part of the flower) that I’m most interested in. These citrusy-flavored exotics can be used for jelly and pie, or preserved in simple syrup for cocktails. A Roselle dropped in a glass of champagne makes a celebration! If you’ve ever seen the little jars of wild hibiscus at the market, you know they cost a small fortune.
Sweet potatoes are a “2-fer crop” that grow like crazy and once planted, need little attention until harvest. They also look gorgeous in the garden (the photo below is sweet potatoes and tarragon). But did you know that in addition to the nutritious tubers, the vines are also edible? Yes! They are a favored hot-weather green in African and Chinese cuisines and can be quickly stir-fried in a little oil with some garlic, jalapeno peppers and a shot of fish sauce. It’s one of the few greens that will stand up to our hot weather and produce all summer long. I think we’ll have some for dinner tonight.
For several years, we have been adding to our little orchard, which now numbers about 12-15 varieties of fruit. The Meyer and Ponderosa lemon trees are so heavy with fruit that we will need to provide extra support for their still-tender young branches. I think we have enough Meyer lemons to sell at market this fall, and they command a nice price! Our fig trees are also loaded with gorgeous fruit that will be ripe in a few weeks. I’ll dry some and make jam and share them fresh off the trees.
We are also growing persimmon, pomegranate, olive, limequat, loquat, mulberry, quince, Asian pear, pineapple guava and satsuma. The fruits of most of these trees ripen at different times of the year, so we won’t be overwhelmed on harvest days. I will continue to add to our fruit tree collection, because they are just so much fun to grow, and because they produce nutritious, high-value crops. Judicious pruning and fertilizing 3 times per year are the main requirements of the fruit trees. I also spray them twice a year with organic horticultural oil, which helps protect against pests and diseases. There are wonderful varieties of fruit trees that grow in every climate, and there are dwarf varieties for small gardens. If you’d like to plant a tree or two, make sure you start with good quality stock from a reputable grower. My favorite local grower is Just Fruits and Exotics. They nurse their plants like babies and are always available by phone or e-mail if I have a question. Their web site hosts a wealth of useful info, too. That’s what to look for in a grower! And no, they don’t pay me to plug them.
So change is good, and I am relaxing and playing in my garden, rather than overworking it. I’m dipping my toes in the Koi pond, and reading cookbooks, and playing in the kitchen. I’m picking flowers and taking photos. A good gardener naturally pays attention to her garden—to the soil, the insects, the health of her plants. But she also needs to pay attention to her heart and soul and intuition.