Vegetables Come From the Store

Growing up I never questioned where vegetables came from.  I didn’t believed they grew at the grocery store, they just came from the store.  It wasn’t until I was a young teen that this unconscious belief came to light.  My family home in San Diego was large and mostly filled the city lot it was situated on.  There was a very small front yard hidden from the street by bushy plantings (great for finding lizards), a small side yard that we eventually made into a covered patio, and a small back yard.  The back yard was an oval patch of hopeless grass surrounded by a border that grew plants that needed no care.  I know this because no cared for them.  I used the dirt area around the lawn to bury my animals and on a few occasions watered the lawn hoping it would become green.  The lawn never responded.  Mostly the back yard was a place where my sister and I laid out to tan ourselves, and my brother keep a land turtle and later an iguana.

One summer my mother grew a tomato, a pepper and an eggplant.  I only noticed her project when the fruit began to ripen.  I found her one afternoon tending her plants and probably asked what they were.  This was my ‘aha’ moment.  Vegetables came from the earth and someone was growing them.

‘Duh’ you say and so do I now, but not then.  I had never considered this.  It isn’t that I was a book worm with my head buried in pages, or so dreamy I only noticed the clouds.  I picked red hibiscus flowers to feed the iguana, I ran the street barefoot, picked mint and caterpillars from the side yard before it became cement, and went to the egg lady’s house in the country when an Easter duckling was no longer a prized pet and needed a new home desperately.  The origin of vegetables had just slipped my awareness.

This memory stays with me.  I wonder if it is the beginning of my fascination with growing plants.  There were many years from that moment till I grew my first vegetables.  I was married and living in Sonoma County in Northern California.  We lived on a Poled Hereford ranch in the old foreman’s house.  The soil was fabulous.  I didn’t really know this at the time.  It is only in hindsight and lots of experience with not so great soil that I realize what I had that first year.  I planted a six pack of cabbages in late January and by March they were huge.  I didn’t like cabbage and so I gave them away.  I also planted some tomato plants.  One morning I found the tomatoes limp and no amount of watering would make them right.  I went to the vegetable stand where I bought them and asked what had happened.  They told we’d had a frost and that’s why they were dead.  I wanted to know why they would sell them if this could happen.  They gave me new plants for free. I imagine out of compassion for my ignorance.  So I learned about frosts.  San Diego never gets colder than about 50 degrees, frosts were not in my experience

After that first taste I wanted more.   We moved to a small cabin in the redwoods.  My husband, Bill, built me a small green house in the only cleared level space we had.  I started my tomato plants.  I had been reading about compost.  I knew there was great composted soil right under the big redwoods and used that for my plants.  They grew to 2″ and stopped.  After research I learned that tomatoes can’t grow in the acidic soil around redwoods.  All plants have a PH range in which they can grow and most vegetables want soil in the middle ranges.  Not to be deterred,  I read more and learned that worm castings is the crown jewel of planting soil.  We found a source nearby and took truckloads back to our house.  We build some cold frames from wood and old windows and I moved my tomato plants.  They began to grow.  They grew and grew and became so leggy they couldn’t stand up.  A new lesson, plants need to have seasonal highs and lows to grow well and not the high heat of a cold frame followed by the cold of night.  I put in a veggie garden in the only patch that got almost enough light.  It went ok.  I started a compost pile and tended it with care.  When Bill and I separated I took my compost and weeks later took the bin too.  I was getting attached to growing.

Through the years I planted gardens when I could.  I moved back to San Diego and put in a garden.  My dad helped me turn the soil.  We were both so excited.  He told me how he had always wanted to grow tomatoes (secret life of parents).  My tomato plants grew lush and green but not one tomato.  Why???  It turns out that when you live by the ocean the summer weather is too cool for tomatoes.  My dad and I were so disappointed but my education continued.

When we moved to Oregon the house we bought had a large garden space.  I was itching to get started.  The previous owner helped me draw up a grid and plot my garden – 25′ X 50′.  I bought a 24′ greenhouse on impulse.  I lost lots of sleep worrying that I didn’t know what I was doing.  That year I planted a packet of basil and several packets of tomatoes.  Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Soloman was my bible.  I carried it everywhere.  I found my way to Portland Nursery.  I wanted to know if they would have the tomatoes I was growing in case my starts failed.  Talking with the plant buyer he wasn’t sure; as they bought from local growers and it would depend on what they planted.  I went home and tended my new plants.  As they grew and I potted them into 4″ pots, I realized I was a local grower.  That year I sold Portland Nursery basil, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.  I sold cut basil to Marco’s my local restaurant.  I was trilled with my success.

I loved driving across the river with my car filled with flats of green plants.  I was in an ocean of green, just another sprout among many.  One year I decided to really go for it.  I filled and emptied the greenhouse three times.  I drove plants weekly.  In the end I probably grew 1500 tomatoes, 500 peppers and eggplants, and lots of basil.  I grew pansies too, but they were covered in aphids and too leggy to sell.  I planted them in a newly turned bed.  When I did my accounting I realized I had paid for my expenses but not my time.  My career selling plants came to an end.

Plants under grow lights

One year after buying a new indoor growing system I grew about 900 plants to pay for it.  I sold these to friends and Langdown Nursery and then planted all the extras that I had.  My beds were filled with lots of peppers and eggplants.  Now I grow mostly for myself with a few extras to sell.  I still thrill to see the seeds sprout and bear their first true leaves.

Tomato with first flowers

I like to transplant them into their larger homes for planting out later.  Each year I experiment with new varieties but also stay true to old favorites.  If I had the room and the help I would plant hundreds of different varieties.  Neil, my husband and occasional helpmate, has asked me if there is ever enough plants?  I don’t think so.  This year I am trying cowpots, four inch containers formed from sterilized cow manure.  I like the idea of not using plastic and planting plant, pot and all.  I’ve learned that the down side of plantable containers is that when the pots are close together in a growing situation they can form mold.  I’m still learning.

So now I know – vegetables do come from the store, but they come from growers first.  Want to be a local grower?

Sweet pepper in bloom

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Marcia on April 30, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Gardening is a wonderful thing. Thanks for sharing some of your evolution in this passion.

    I’ve recently set up a worm operation. Only two months in to it and already I’m seeing beautiful worm casting soil supplement piling up. A very fun project and satisfying on several levels for me and my gardens.

    Marcia

    Reply

  2. Posted by Dennis on April 30, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Thoreau was the kind of observer and chronicler of the natural world you are. I wonder if he ever journaled from the perspective of his early awareness like you did. That is a narrative of hope and discovery — a classic narrative plot and the voice you display in your autobiographical essay is just right for the story. I, too, find that even when things don’t turn out right with something I have planted, the journey was meaningful. And also, I view my gardening as a hobby and the extra cost is like buying a ticket to an NBA playoff game or some other pleasure that takes a device or other resources.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Neil on April 30, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    The photos look great! Found out things I didn’t know about you & gardening after 25 years together! Thanks for sharing.

    PS: seems like the ultimate blog subjects are those that ‘your friends might want to know about you’ before they even know they do. You did that here, and that’s inspiring.

    Reply

  4. What a lovely adventure! I have always been fond of dirt. My mother says I would often be found in a puddle of mud or pile of dirt – with or without clothes. My grandparents were farmers and ranchers and my mom always grew vegetables. Although I realized where food came from, I didn’t know how soothing and meditative the process would be for me. I enjoy the balance of my creation and nature’s control of my creation! I hope to keep learning as you do. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

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