This month, there is nothing to be learned here. Instead, I'd love some input from you! Most likely none of these will ever see the light of day, but I want to make Southbound Gardens shirts and I came up with some really terrible punny dad joke one liners to put on said shirts. If any of these speak to you, please speak to us! Alright, onward to the cringes and giggles then:
Southbound Gardens: Trickle down Ecornomics
Southbound Gardens: Collard to the cause
Southbound Gardens: Lettuce break the industrial food chain
Southbound Gardens: Beet meat manifesto
Southbound Gardens: Squash the food industrial complex
Southbound Gardens: Kaleing them Softly
Southbound Gardens: Frisee all day
Southbound Gardens: Turnip for What (I know Michelle Obama already thought of this one, which is why her lovely face will grace this shirt)
Southbound Gardens: Uninhibited Basil Ganglia
Southbound Gardens: There’s still thyme
Southbound Gardens: Radish Ecology
Southbound Gardens: Satsuma Wrestling
Southbound Gardens: Persimmonous Theory
So before you read this, keep in mind that I began writing it in Mid-January, and at the time February was indeed the only dependably cold month in New Orleans. In the weeks that have since come, my thesis has been harshly disproven by an unrepentant sun that has left us in short sleeves all month long.
Every year in January small talk of the weather hovers all around the crazy warm weather we seem to be having, but in my limited experience, having first experience a New Orleans winter in 2007, there have always been weeks of t-shirt weather interspersed with a few random days of freezing or near freezing weather. This may not have been normal 20 years ago, but we hadn’t fucked the planet up beyond the point of repair yet 20 years ago. January’s are warm, but for now at least, February’s still tend to be dependably cold here. As such it is one of only two months that I think planting gardens is not a fantastic idea, August being the other.
Seeds and young seedlings are delicate creatures that need to be nurtured at the right times, at the right temperatures. February offers neither of these things to most plants. It is instead a time to barricade your garden against the onslaught of weed and pest terror that will inevitably come in March, and plan for a cohesive future in which only those things you wish to grow do so under your careful and caring watch. Many of us will be doing just this in our broader lives over the coming month, given the new political climate ahead. Let your approach to your life reflect your approach to your garden, and vice versa. Use February to curl up and evade the gloom, to plan for the future, and to take preemptive measures to protect yourself and your garden to the best of your ability.
Don’t force yourself to tend to the garden on the nastier days. It is best to glean optimism from whatever corner of your life you can right now, and a garden on a rainy day when nothing is growing can darken your mood and turn what should be a shining beacon in your life into more drudgery and emptiness. Things are going to grow slowly this month, and that’s ok. Save the sunny days to act on your garden. I preach often the importance of succeeding with your food early on so you don’t get turned off to the idea of growing for yourself in the long run. Shivering in the rain to weed a bed full of stunted herbs is not going to make you feel better. Unless it does. If it does, by all means, go for it.
Now is the time to buy seeds and get them started at home if that is a thing you do. Your anti-consumerist values hold no sway over the penultimate pleasure derived from flipping through a seed catalog and fantasizing about the myriad wonders that will soon be flourishing in your Spring and Summer garden. Johnny’s Selected Seed, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed. And Territorial Seed produce my favorite catalogs. They are all free and full of beautiful pictures, very handy information, and tons of seeds for sale. There are other great sources for seed buying, but these three have far and away the strongest print catalog game.
Diagram stuff. Plan out your space. Things are going to change, recognize as you make your plans that you probably will not accomplish everything that you hope to with your space, and that probably nothing will work out quite as you had expected or hoped. Still, it’s important to draw up an idea of what you’ll be doing with your garden. Where you’re beds will be, what you’ll grow in them, all of that. It will give you an energy as we creep into Spring, a catalyst and a reason to move forward. Again, recognize that nature has its own agenda and your dreams will inevitably have to meld into that reality, but without dreams your garden will not be your own at all.
The weeds will come in full force with the sun and heat, loving it every bit as much as your plants do. So too will the aphids, caterpillars, beetles and more. February grants a bit of respite from all of that, and as such is the best time to fortify your growing space against the resource devouring waves that will come.
Also since you won’t be growing as much, this is a good time to refresh your beds with fresh compost and soil if you don’t have anything in them. Don’t preemptively pull anything out to this end though. Greens, lettuces, and everything else we grow in the Fall and Winter here will thrive through April in most cases. If your beds are empty, definitely get that fresh dirt in now, but if they’re full, it’s probably best to wait a couple more seasons to do so.
We are now in a post cold-season New Orleans, so all of these cozy aforementioned notions have kind of been thrown out the window, but I thought it was important to share some perspective and insight into what used to be the norm in our fair city.
It is the bane of our flagship garden, The Urban Farmstead, and it has likely touched your life in similar ways. Bad ways. Insurmountably difficult ways. Or perhaps you have surmounted, but I do not hyperbolize, because I, your urban farmer with all the answers guy, find oxalis absolutely impossible to beat.
Oxalis, also known as wood sorrel, somewhat resembles clover, in that above ground it is three leaves atop a thin stalk, usually in a clump with hundreds of thousands of like creatures. It is easy to pick out because the leaves are more triangular than rounded. Usually oxalis is green, but purple varieties are out there in the world as well, and are often available for purchase at garden centers. You are probably nodding your head in recognition about now. If not, then you may as well skip the rest of this writing, as you live a life blissfully ignorant of oxalis’ trespasses.
To clarify, I have no solutions for you today. This is more of a support group style entry. I just want you to know that if oxalis has taken over your lawn or garden, you are not alone, I am here with you, though we’re far apart, you’re always in my heart.
Just kidding, I probably don’t even know you. I just want to grant you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, and oxalis is one of them. You can’t change it, but you sure can eat it!
That’s right, it turns out this noxious and indestructible weed is not only edible, but downright delicious. They taste like lemony grapes and are a wonderful addition to any salad. Southbound Gardens sells our purple oxalis to restaurants for primo dolares because it’s that delicious and fetching. Apparently you can make a pretty tasty tea reminiscent of lemonade with the leaves as well.
When life gives you oxalis, make a drink reminiscent of lemonade.
There are some out there who would have you believe oxalis is a nitrogen fixer and thus a boon to your garden. I am sorry to say it is not so. Firstly oxalis is not a nitrogen fixer, it just takes takes takes. Nextly, just because a plant is a nitrogen fixer doesn’t mean you want it growing alongside all the other plants you are trying to grow. Nitrogen fixers still steal nutrients from the plants you always wanted to grow.
Weeding oxalis is near impossible; the tiny nut-like nodules that constitute oxalis roots pretty much never come up with the rest of the plant when you tug at them, and if you do not pull up that little guy when you pull up the leafy bits, more leafy bits will come.
Fear not, there is light somewhere in this tunnel. Oxalis doesn’t hang out all year long. It tends to pop up in the autumn and disappear in the spring, just in time to be replaced with all sorts of other horrible weeds. Also, if we luck into a freeze, all of the oxalis will shrivel up and die immediately, never to be seen again, for eight months or so.
I began writing this 4 days ago and then got preoccupied, but in the days since we have been blessed with the very freeze I have mentioned. I spent the morning at the Farmstead fumbling about a harvest with chilly wet fingers, delighting in the limp state of the sea of oxalis around me, though admittedly slightly nervous for the wellbeing of some of our more desirable plants.
We’ll find out tomorrow if I am hyperbolizing the power frost holds over oxalis. Even if it remains, fear not, for again, oxalis if an ethereal sort of weed. It will not remain forever, but it will come again.
We at Southbound Gardens resort to our flame thrower, or to professional horticulturists our ‘weed torch’, when things get too out of hand. It is a winning substitute for broadleaf herbicides, which you should never ever ever use for any reason other than that you wish only ill will towards the universe and all the creatures therein.
I hope this has helped, or at least comfortably resigned you to the present state of affairs in your food garden. If you are burdened with the weight of oxalis, you do not bear the weight alone. Stand tall and persevere like the kale pictured below.
This month’s piece is less a blog entry than a quick list of where our food goes. We frequently get asked who buys our produce, and as the list is a fairly long one, I tend to freeze up and forget everything, so this list is for my benefit as well. I am still bummed that we had to shut down our CSA program, but there’s not much to be done for it, I suppose the future belongs in other methods of distribution. Onwards.
First off, these are the restaurants who have bought from us over the last month, in no particular order:
Sarsaparilla (pop-up inside Dante's kitchen)
La Petite Grocery
Turkey and the Wolf
We sell a good little bit of our produce to Dryades Public Market and St. Roch Market as well, each of whom distribute our food further to other restaurants and through their respective CSA programs.
And here is a shorter list of the other restaurants and pop-ups who receive our produce availability and buy things from us occasionally:
Rock Paper Pie
Lenfant Terrible (RIP)
I have almost certainly missed a few places on this list, but we’ll live, the lot of us.
We also sell our vegetable and herb starts at places that are better known for their produce sales, most notably Holly Grove Market and Farm, but also at Dryades and St. Roch.
As many of you know, we sell our herb and veggie starts at the Thursday and Sunday Crescent City Farmer’s Markets, as well as at the Monday Refresh Farmer’s Market but we generally do not sell our produce at these locations, though we’ve begun dabbling in such sales again of late, so you might just maybe be able to receive some of our foodstuffs directly again soon.
So that’s where most of our Orleans parish grown, more organic than organic, delivered within hours of harvest produce ends up. All of the restaurants and other establishments listed above go out of their way to use local ingredients, as evidenced by their working with Southbound Gardens, because ordering produce from us is not the most convenient way to get food. It is the difference between ordering your christmas gifts on amazon prime and walking Magazine Street for the same. Go spend your dollars at these restaurants and restaurants like them, because they spend their dollars on us, and we in turn spend our effort on you, trying to get local food on your plate whenever possible, preferably from your own backyard. It's the late capitalism circle of life.
I hope you find this helpful and not too self-reverential. If you happen to work at a restaurant or pop-up that wants in on our hotsheet don’t hesitate to reach out. Heck, if you’re anyone at all who is interested in what comes out of our gardens week by week we’d be glad to add your email to the list.
Onwards. Ever onwards. Let’s keep growing together.
I want right now to disenfranchise each and every one of you from trying to grow pumpkins for your Thanksgiving Cornucopia. You cannot grow pumpkins, gourds, cucumbers, zucchini, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, or any other cucurbits that are displayed on November calendar spreads across the land.
'Winter squash' is a huge misnomer that understandably throws many a gardener off on the regular. All cucurbits need warm weather to germinate and to thrive. Cucurbits, for the record, include, among other things, all of your squashes, cucumbers, zucchinis, pumpkins, and gourds.
In our climate, it’s actually a bit of a challenge to make any of these things really take off, but it’s a challenge worth taking on if you do it at the right time. Starting seeds for winter squash simply will not end well if you get started in September or later.
So why winter squash? Why did the naming powers that be play such a cruel trick on our ever-trusting literally predisposed minds? And why do we worship kittens in witch hats wrapping themselves around green speckled goblin gourds in the Autumn? It is beause these fruits are harvested in the Autumn. We pick our pumpkins in the Fall, we don’t start growing them in the fall. Pumpkins don’t take weeks to grow, they take months to grow, and their time to shine comes when the cold and darkness prevail.
Winter Squashes are also harvested in the Autumn, making its name all the more misleading. They are named such because they have hard shells that preserve the yummy foodstuffs within them very efficiently, and in the old times winter squashes could be stored for many months in the cellar to be eaten as needed through the meager Winter months.
So to summarize, Winter Squashes are planted in Summer, harvested in Fall, and eaten in the Winter.
While we are on the topic of Seasonality, I would like to remind you that you can’t just grow whatever you want whenever you want to here in New Orleans just because we have a year-round growing season.
The following plants will definitely not grow well if you start them now:
Anybody selling you these plants or seeds is knowingly or unknowingly trying to bamboozle you. Be informed. Do not be bamboozled.
The good news is, you can grow damn near anything else this time of year, including but certainly not limited to:
Greens, all the greens.
Fall is finally really here. It is the best time to grow food in New Orleans. better still, you can pretty much get things started anytime between now and Mid-January if you want a solid food garden throughout the Winter and into the Spring. So get to it whenever. See ya in the dirt pit.
A note before we begin:
This is an old posting from another time, another year, another time of the year, and as such may read a bit awkwardly at times. It was meant for Spring Growth; I have changed the word 'Spring' to 'Fall', or perhaps 'Autumn'. Also, It was written over two years ago, and my seed growing knowledge has increased many folds since that time, what with running a nursery and all. Still there is plenty much here for your ever-hungry garden brain to consume. Without further ado,
It is time to make babies. Though we may be back in the depths of a southern sub-tropical oven days from now, at this moment Autumn is trying hard to creep into the atmosphere. Regardless of sentiments or feelings related to weather or completely unrelated to anything I’ve addressed thus far (which is more or less nothing), there are some seeds which ought to get sown pretty much right now.
It’s important to understand that even though it’s a relatively simple process, most people fail pretty miserably the first time they try to grow their own plants from seed indoors. There are hundreds of how to’s on the internet and in books. You can buy starter kits with instructions and most of the fixings needed to get some seeds started for yourself. All of those instructions everywhere will tell you the exact same thing and you need to listen to them if you want anything to work. I have only one thing to add to those instructions: listen to the instructions.
Actually I have a lot of things to add. Even though you can find instructions anywhere you like, I’ll go ahead and do it all over again right here, and tell you why you’re going to screw up along the way. This is going to be very non-linear and probably entirely impractical, but maybe somebody will get something out of it and some snippet of it will end up in an e-how article a few years down the road.
You will need seeds. We will talk about that later, the whole context of this rant being there are certain seeds you should be starting indoors right now, it belongs in a later place.
You will need little cell packs to put your seeds in and a reservoir tray to put those little cell packs in. You can find something like this just about anywhere. Don’t get sold on any kitschy make your own vegetables! tiny little incubator. You want one (or three or four or five, depending on how much you plan to grow) tray that says it can grow at least 32 starts for you, and you want it to come with a cheap plastic cover. If there’s anything else involved you don’t need it, and if it can’t grow at least 32 plants you don’t want it. Also, the reservoir is essential. If that thing drains, if it has holes in the bottom of it, you don’t want it. It is to be a reservoir: a natural or artificial place where water is collected and stored for use . That plastic cover is helpful but not necessary.
You need shop lights. You absolutely need shop lights. If you do not buy shop lights your babies will die. It is the mistake that everybody makes. You can not shine a light bulb over your plants, and you can’t stick them by the window. They will burn if you put the light bulb too close and they will get leggy if it’s too far away, and there’s no way you are going to angle that thing in a manner that effectively and equally bathes your baby seedlings in life giving light. With the window, your seedlings just aren’t going to get enough light. You will get your seedlings, but they’ll be a foot long when they should be three inches long and then they will die of Gigantism.
There is plenty of advice out there recommending specific light wave spectrum and wattage for optimal plant growth and that’s all totally legit, but a cheap shop light with a low wattage will be fine. You are going to hang that thing about three inches over your tray and once your seedlings germinate, move it up as needed so that at any given time it’s between zero and three inches away from the tops of your plants. This is important. Gigantism kills. Don’t freak out, shop lights are cheap.
The only other material necessity is your growing medium. As long as it’s inert you’re fine. What you’re doing here is protecting your tiny plants from the big bad ecosystem that exists in the dirt. Incubating, as it were. They’ll have plenty of time to develop immunity to various illnesses when they get a little older. No bag of potting soil is going to say ‘inert’ on it, or anything like that. Just buy something that doesn’t have any fertilizer in it and that isn’t made out of bark or manure. It can be peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, or any combination of these things, and maybe some other things. The back of the bag will tell you what is inside. If it doesn’t you shouldn’t buy it for anything, because it’s probably made of car scraps and dinosaur bones, or same similar ingredients.
Now you do a bunch of obvious stuff. Fill the cell packs with your potting soil (it’s not technically soil but it’s okay to call it soil), put your seeds in the cell packs, one in each if you’re feeling lucky, two in each if you’re prepared to slaughter half your young when they reach puberty. Your seed packet ought to tell you how deep to put in the seed, but if it doesn’t it’s alright, just cover the seed with as little soil as possible. Oh, buy a spray bottle. Spray your seeds down.
This is giant mistake number two, the spray bottle. You will want to spray your plants with a spray bottle all the time, and that won’t work. Getting your seedling wet is dangerous business and you probably won’t ever get the soil wet enough to make your plants happy. That’s what reservoirs are for, water. Initially, before germination (the crowning of your baby’s head from the soil), spray that thing with a spray bottle because there are no roots there. Once germination happens, stop. Fill your reservoir with about a half inch of water. The roots will find the water, everything will be fine.
In a perfect world you will let that reservoir dry out and let it stay dry for a day at a time before refilling it, but if you do that you’ll probably forget and leave it dry for a few days and find your plants dead. Keep it wet, it’s safer. Your roots are better off soggy than dry.
That clear plastic thing, if you got one, that’s just to retain moisture in your tray while waiting for your seeds to germinate. Leave it on until your babies pop their heads out, then take it off and forget it ever existed.
That’s almost everything. If you are irresponsible and have a few extra dollars, you’ll buy a timer for your shop lights and set them to be on for 18 hours a day, starting around dawn. This is ideal. If you are responsible but cheap, turn on the lights when you wake up and turn them off when you go to bed. This is not as great, as the plants get less light and you’re probably not responsible enough not to forget to turn the lights on some days and off others. I believe this is considered a form of torture by many nation states, and in America torturing our babies is illegal most of the time. Be a patriot; buy a timer.
Here are other things you should do. When your plants start forming true leaves (a third leaf that looks cooler than the first two that popped out), feed them some low concentrate organic liquid fertilizer or whatever you can get your hands on. Put it in the reservoir and watch the fruit flies devastate your closet. Keep feeding them every couple of weeks or so. If you’re feeling fancy and have the space, it’s a great idea to transplant your seedlings into 4 inch pots when they start getting big, but It’s not necessary as they’ll be in the ground soon enough.
Remember, you’ll probably fail miserably your first time. It’s okay, you only wasted about $40, and if you still care about growing food next Fall, you’ve got some fixings and a slightly better shot at success.
To call it grass is too kind. Grass is a thing that people like to have in their yards, present company excluded. Make no mistake, grass is an unnecessary evil, but it is a light sniffle beside the chronic bronchitis that is Nutsedge.
This weed was never meant to be ours, it was bred in Egypt as a crop once upon a time and somehow found its way into the New World long enough ago that we consider it a native plant these days. I have been told it was introduced to the mainland by way of farmers unintentionally dredging up nutsedge laden silt from the sea to use in their agricultural practice, but I can’t verify this and refuse to do all but the most cursory research in defense of this fact. The plant can now be found throughout the United States, but lucky us, it is perfectly suited to our climate, so here in New Orleans it reigns supreme throughout the Summer months.
It’s roots, or more accurately tubers, look like tiny nuts and are very difficult to pull from the soil. You can catch some, but you cannot catch them all, not every time, not any time. It will prevail. That nutsedge was once considered a food crop in more than a few nations is unfathomable to me. It is so difficult enough to weed, I cannot imagine that it provides enough sustenance to make up for the calories lost and the stress levels gained through harvest. It is said to taste a bit like nutmeg, and is a common ingredient in horchata, one of my favorite drinks. This does not make it any better in my book. It should be destroyed.
Alas, it cannot be destroyed. Not only are those tubers near impossible to effectively eliminate, but the blades of grass that it shoots forth into the sky are razor sharp and seem to grow inches each day. They can and will cut through mulch, landscape fabric, cardboard, or whatever else you lay atop it to curb its growth and photosynthetic activity. Worse, the tubers do a great job of sending out roots and building networks that can weasel their way into your garden beds with ease. Those god-forsaken tubers are a little bit easier to coax out of soft, pliable soils, the sort of soil your garden bed ought to have, so their spread can be mitigated if caught early. Mind you, I choose the word mitigated with purpose. It will not be controlled, it will not be destroyed, it will only be mitigated.
Even Round-Up has proven only somewhat effective against nutsedge. It cannot be destroyed, but it must be mitigated, else it will cover all that you know and love throughout the hot months.
Beyond the hot months rests the silver lining in this unfathomable kingdom of nutsedge. It does go dormant as the heat of Summer abates. In our case, that may well not be until mid-November, but the sedge will seem to disappear once temperatures drop a bit, and you will be able to breath easy for about two days before the Dollarweed moves in and takes over the weed scene.
The extremely persistent gardener might manage to eradicate nutsedge from their garden after a few seasons of militant weeding, but for most of us it is an unavoidable that must be lived with Summer after sweltering Summer. I tell you this not to dishearten you, but to let you know that you are not alone and you have done nothing wrong. We all deal with nutsedge and we likely always will. Breathe easy, we’re all in this together, forever.
Weeds are an evil that cannot be altogether contained in a place like New Orleans in a time like July. They will exist despite your best efforts to stifle them with fresh dirt and any or all of the mulches, be they cardboard, plastic, landscape fabric, or wood chips. Even if you lay concrete over your gardens, it’s going to crack before long, or a bit of dirt will accumulate in that not quite even spot, and there will be weeds. There will be weeds.
And you must weed them. And if you want to weed them less later, weed them better now.
I heard tell from a certain celebrity chef in New Orleans of a yardman who defined weeding as the spraying of weeds with Round-Up. He also swore up and down that Round-Up was totally organic. I am certain this yardman was being honest to the best of his knowledge on both fronts, though whether one should consider themselves a yardman if their knowledge is so limited as this is very questionable.
Weeding does not happen with round-up. Weeds are killed, but so is everything else you love about your garden, especially its heart. Also, Round-up is extremely not organic. It is far less organic than genetically modified foodstuffs. Leave it alone if you care about your soul, or the soul of the universe, which your soul is arguably a part of if you go for that all one Gaia principle on a cosmic scale stuff.
You can plow and rip at the soil to take care of your weeds if you like, till hard, turn the soil, refresh the earth. It will look gorgeous for a few days, but a few days after that you will likely find more weeds than you had the first time around, for you will have unearthed millions upon millions of weed seeds that had lay dormant beneath your garden soil before.
What then, if you cannot till and you cannot spray, can you possibly do? Get on your hands and knees and pull. Pull the weeds up, grab them close to the soil, tug gently but firmly, learn to feel for the loosening of the roots underground so that you may release the entire plant from its mortal coil rather than give it a measly haircut. It is an art form at least as subtle as fly-fishing, and its rewards are many, if less immediately tangible than a filet on the dinner plate.
Pull with your hands and know the soil, learn what lies there, learn what thrives and what withers, and learn how to make what you want to thrive do it’s very best by being there next to it.
Weed frequently. If you allow your weeds to grow tall and put out seed, you will have to conquer their children who will be many and ever so slightly more adapted to your garden. Weed before you allow your weeds to plant their roots so deep that you cannot pull them out with a firm flick of the wrist, or even a bodily tug. Weed often and you will find that as the seasons go on you will not have to weed so often. This is an IRA for your garden, invest now.
And finally, if you have been to the Urban Farmstead or any of our other gardens, remember to do as I say, not as I do.
Lead poisoning will make you stupid. Lead poisoning will make you violent. Lead poisoning will make you sick. Lead poisoning will ruin children and communities and just might be the main cause and perpetuity of systemic urban poverty in this fair city and our great nation. I mean, it’s not, but I’m willing to accept that it’s possibly more than a tiny part of the problem.
Lead is everywhere in New Orleans. We have a storied history of shitty contractors coming around and half-assedly repairing and remodeling homes, especially post Katrina. In terms of lead and dirt this is significant because painters and such frequently scrape paint off of our old houses and leave the chips and debris on the ground to commingle with our topsoil or children’s faces or whatever. That old paint is often lead paint. At least that old paint was often lead paint until a few years ago. Most of it’s in the dirt now, left to commingle with our plants or our children’s faces or whatever.
Keep your children’s faces out of the dirt. They will grow up violent and stupid if you allow them New Orleanian mud pies. Or they’ll die. Keep their faces out of the dirt if you live in any urban space. That lead is everywhere. However, if you don’t live in an urban space, get your kids faces all up in that dirt. It’s probably really good for them. Beneficial microbes and micronutrients and all that.
So I spoke at a farm to table symposium a few months ago as part of a panel on lead poisoning in the city and growing food in the soil here. I butchered it. In a bad way. I stuttered and disregarded my notes completely and gave halted explanations and three word answers to questions, even though I knew exactly what I was talking about and really didn’t feel particularly nervous or any other such public speaking destructive sensation. I don’t know what happened, but it was bad. This here is my attempt at salvation, one I meant to dish up to the universe way back in August when I failed the world with my words. I hope I can offer recompense unto you as well now with these words.
The poison leaded soil that surrounds us is actually safe for you to grow your food in.
Plants that are grown in leaden soil actually take up only a tiny percentage of the lead found in said soil, less than one percent in most cases. There are certain plants, known to some savvy garden types and/or scientists as heavy bio-accumulators and/or phyto-remediators, which actually take up larger portions of heavy metals and other undesirable elements in your dirt. Food that should be avoided in toxic lead soil because of their magnificent nutrient uptake abilities include mustard greens, vetiver, and lemongrass. That’s about it. Sunflowers are known bio-accumulators as well, but we only eat their seed and as such are safe from death and stupidity.
What’s this about seeds? That tiny percentage of lead that plants take into them from the soil, heavy bio-accumulator or no, it goes into any given plant’s stalks and leaves where it is stored, and never finds its way into the plant’s fruits or seed. This means any vegetable or fruit that you eat that is not a leaf is completely all the way safe. Tomatoes, peppers, avocados, persimmons (they’re gross though), ground cherries, whatever. It’s all safe all the way.
All that said, what one must truly fear when gardening in toxic soil is the loose dirt. The lead is in the dirt and it stays in the dirt. Wash your greens and fruits very well, extremely well, when you are ready to eat. Otherwise you will develop ulcers and murderous tendencies.
Also avoid root vegetables if you are growing in toxic soil. There will be soil particles on your root vegetables no matter what. Nobody has the power to clean all of those little nooks and crannies. Nobody. Just leave them alone.
If you’re still scared of the lead, you can bring the pH of your soil up past 6.5 and the lead becomes pretty much unavailable to plants. Unfortunately this is not ideal for most food plants so you might as well give up and as such I’m not going to tell you how to do it. While a pH higher than 6.5 makes lead unavailable, it also makes it hard for most of your veggies to dredge up other much more exciting and healthy, necessary even, nutrients.
If your still scared of the lead after that, put some cardboard down over your compacted, gross, weed seed infested soil and bring in some fresh healthy dirt. It’s what you should’ve done in the first place anyway silly. It’s pretty cheap and it’s really a lot less work in the long run. If you’re here in New Orleans, you’ve got a few cheap bulk options around town. I’m not going to tell you what they are because brand loyalty or something.
So maybe you are wondering now ‘how do I know if there is lead in my soil?’? And I am wondering now how to grammatically deal with me asking you a question wherein you ask me a question. As per your question, the LSU cooperative extension provides this service for a pittance, I think $12 these days but don’t quote me on that, I didn’t do the research. They will test your soil for lead, arsenic, and all manner of dangerous toxic things very accurately. If you look up something like ‘LSU cooperative extension lead test’ online you will find all you need to know. It’s quick and easy and probably important.
(update, I did the research. Go here: http://www.lsuagcenter.com/en/our_offices/departments/SPESS/ServiceLabs/soil_testing_lab/test_schedule/index.htm#SoilSamples. It’s only $5 to test, you will want to purchase a ‘heavy metal test’.)
The expression ‘gone to seed’ has a very explicit meaning. In the case of most common edible plants, once they start making seed, they become fairly useless to us. They will put all of their energy and nutrients into making their genetics go on. Their leaves become tiny and gross, as collecting energy from the sun is no longer a priority and all the of their nutrients (which translate to flavor and nutrients for us), head upwards to where seeds are being made. All new cell growth is concentrated towards the act of upward mobility, so that when seeds are dispersed by the plant they can do it from on high. Seeds will have a wider broadcast this way. Plants aren’t dummies. This is called bolting, and your cute little ball of lettuce can turn into a four foot tall tower of inedible doom in a matter of days when it is ready to release its children unto the world.
Yet there is hope for humanity in a plant’s death by seed. There are a multitude of hopes in fact, and I will share a pithy few examples of such to brighten your day and perhaps realign your disposition towards the darkness that is too much summer heat and sunshine.
Most obviously, when a plant goes to seed you can collect that seed so as to make more plants for your own future alimentary enjoyment. This is easy. Just wait for some flowers to bloom and die and collect that which remains. This varies, sometimes drastically, from plant to plant of course, but the basic premise remains always the same. In the case of most Spring and Summer vegetables we are waiting for the plants to go to seed just so we can eat them. Cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, beans, all the typically edible bits of these are the plants seed casing.
Sometimes when plants go to seed all is not entirely lost. Some plants, especially herbs, will not significantly change in structure or taste when they reproduce. Herb flavors are so strong to begin with that most tongues will not be able to discern a huge difference in taste when herbs start to produce seed. They do in fact get a bit more bitter or bland as a general rule, but in relative terms it is as nothing. So keep eating your herbs even as they go to seed. A lot of herbs also grow pretty easily from seed. I tend to let them broadcast their own seed in my gardens rather than harvest the seed. It makes them happier and generally whatever seed ends up germinating become exceptional young things once they mature
Some plants provide flowers that are beautiful and delicious. You should eat these and disrupt the natural plant propagation process as often as possible, because it feels really good to screw up nature’s way for the sake of beauty. Cilantro flowers are amazing. Sweet pea flowers are like candy bars, but prettier. Squash blossoms can make you rich if you know the right chef. Don’t let that plant go quietly into the dark night, cannibalize every single last bit of it and revel in the fact that you wasted not.
Some seeds and seed pods that are not typically thought of as edible are actually super edible and pretty delicious too. As I said before, half the stuff we eat is seed pod material, like beans, tomatoes, melons, and so on forever. But have you ever eaten radish seed pods? They’re good! Really good! If you don’t pick your cilantro flowers in time, they will become fresh coriander. Green coriander is a hyper-potent delicacy. Try it. One little seed will change a meal if not your life. Heck, try all your seed pods. The good ones are really good, the gross ones are not good at all, and maybe could kill you.
When plants go to seed, almost everything is lost, but not all. Don’t pull last season’s plants until you’ve milked them for every little piece of delicious they’ve got left, they will forgive you in the afterlife. Eventually.
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.