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.
A Treatise and a Sales Pitch: Why Southobund Gardens Plant Starts are Small, and Other Reasons our Plants are so Exceptional
When placed side by side to other similar contained foodstuffs in the garden center, the plants that we grow here at Southbound Gardens can seem pitiably small. The uninformed consumer of plant starts and many an informed consumer as well will automatically reach for the bigger thing that costs the same amount of money or less. This is what we do, for are we are not Americans? Even discounting the fact of our unfortunate cultural predilections, the intuitive inclination towards larger vegetable starts is understandable. The internal argument basically assumes that bigger means older and therefore closer to maturity and edibility, and bigger also means stronger and better able to handle the rigors of climate, insect and whatever other hardships life in the ground may present.
This is wrong. Our small plants are better. Way better. let me explain the myriad ways in which this is irrefutably and without exception true.
Let us begin by exploring what it is that makes other vegetable plants so much larger and greener than ours. There are two primary factors lending the plants such apparently incredible prowess over our little local starts; these catalysts are fertilizer and painfully artificial environments.
The fertilizer used by most plant growers is inorganic and derived from petroleum. You may or may not have druthers regarding this fact, but it is not my crunchy worldview that accounts for the inferiority that I claim these vegetables to have. Petroleum based fertilizers are powerful beasts that offer insanely huge amounts of nitrogen, the primary ingredient in leaf growth for plants of all stripes. A plant that is fed an extreme diet of petroleum-based fertilizer will grow rapidly and will flush deep green, to all appearances seeming a most beneficent plant to put in one’s garden.
Here’s the kicker though: that plant is going to collapse immediately in your care if you are not willing to feed it a rigorous diet on a regular basis. It has become unreasonably dependent on huge amounts of fertilizer and has very little capacity to grow on its own terms, as it has only known unregulated gorging on artificial nutrients its entire life. This is not the plant you want to eat.
Our plants are certainly fed nutrients, but of a different sort, and at a different pace. They are given a steady but somewhat meager diet of fish emulsion to help with their general growth in a healthy way and at a reasonable pace. They are also fed every couple of weeks with a booster shot of liquid kelp and bat guano, which is loaded with the micronutrients that will be coursing through them for the rest of their lives, giving them a strong immune system able to withstand many a pest and disease. Additionally, our plants are grown in a soil that is loaded with mycohhrizal fungi and other probiotic bacteria that will help enhance the soil ecosystem surrounding the plant’s root system in the short term and provide inoculation to your dirt that will last in the long term and thrive so long as your garden shall live.
You are supposing likely that I am going to argue for the ‘localness’ of our plants in regards to environment, and if you are supposing this, you are a little bit right. And you should support your local businesses. And plants that are born and bred locally are going to do way better round these parts, especially if they are grown from saved seed and are many generations deep in this climate. The thing is, even plants that are grown here in New Orleans or in the surrounding area are often grown in horrifically artificial climates.
Ours are not. We shelter our plants in non-acclimatized hoop houses that do serve to protect our young plants from the crueler tribulations of the world, such as wind, driving rain, wild cats and wild caterpillars. Our greenhouses provide controlled water and help ensure that the plants receive plenty of sunlight. We have ourselves a controlled environment designed to optimize our plants’ chances of success not just as they grow with us but also as they leave us.
Many, if not most commercial growing operations work their magic indoors where climate is controlled and lighting is artificial. Plants grown under these conditions are not ready for the sun’s heat nor brilliance and will often falter soon after they are let loose from their childhood homes.
Finally, let us revisit the issue of size in a different light. Potted plants that appear to be thriving in their small pots because of their gargantuan size often will not grow the least bit once introduced to your garden because they have become rootbound in their tiny potted, overly long-lived homes. If a plant lives too long in a pot its root system will overtake every tiny corner of space allowed in that pot, begin to grow thick roots, and essentially lose its ability to ever become anything more.
We get our plants to market at a time in their lives when their roots are strong in number and fierce in will, but have not nearly grown to the point where they have been forced to fight one another for space in their pots. They are primed to continue growing outwards (as opposed to inwards) when they make it into a larger dirt-filled ecosystem. The plants that we sell to garden centers are of such an age as well, so that if they do not fly off the shelves in their first days on display they will not quickly degrade into a lesser product unfit for the world you want to bring them into.
Vegetable plants at garden centers that are derived from a nursery of a lesser caliber than ours often come onto the shelves looking incredible; they are lush, verdant, upright and eager to please, but within a couple of days they become leggy, pale and droopy. They hit their prime long before they ever got a chance to become somebody’s food, when they were still living in some greenhouse eating ungodly amounts of nitrogen on the daily, waiting for the week when they would look just perfect enough to sell to the uncanny consumer.
Our plants don’t do that. Our plants are fed well on a steady, but lean diet. Our plants find their place in the world as soon as they have the legs to carry them. Our plants have had youthful experiences that have prepared them for the world no matter what may come. Our plants can’t make it without you, but they don’t need you to hold their hand. Our plants are a little bit smaller on the outside, but what lies beneath their soil’s surface is infinitely more complex, resilient and ready to take on the world without fear or second thought. Buy local, buy organic, buy our babies.
Don't grow this.
Or this. See that tall guy to the left? He’s gone to seed. He went to seed a month ago. Don’t bother.
Nothing you grow now will look near as perfect as this head of lettuce.
Chard wants to freeze. It wants none of your sunshine. Don’t grow it
It’s tempting to let the sunshine, sleeveless shirts and long evenings of early Spring lull you into a universe of false belief and idolatry towards the fantastical gardening concepts of places farther north. There notions of short sleeves are within arms’ reach, yet still but a dream. Their litany preaches that daylight savings has come, the last frost date has passed, and we shall soon be allowed the opportunity to frolic in the public swimming pool, and as such it is clearly time to plant lettuce, but their litany is not ours, and if our garden is to thrive, it must be ignored.
Our Word comes from a lower place, a place where the heat rises and consumes all, all too soon. This, the deep South, is a place where the heat never truly leaves us, not even in the dead of winter. We had to wear jackets and gloves for maybe three weeks this winter, and those three weeks were non-consecutive to be sure. The northern gospel takes none of this into account when it preaches ‘Plant thy lettuces now, for the soil is only now tillable and the sun is only now letting us know we are not forgotten.’
The sun never forgot us here, and it will not forgive us if we try to plant the plants our northern kin are prepping their gardens for. Just as we hibernate in Summer when they hibernate in the Winter, the plants they put into the ground in the Spring we put in the ground in the Fall.
It is April First today. For many, for most, it is too late. Do not plant any of these leafy greens, or anything that reminds you of these leafy greens:
Why? You want to know why? These are plants that love sun and long hours, but they are also plants that love to make their babies get out in the world when the heat comes around. When the temperature starts to rise, these plants start to put their energy into producing flowers and therefore thereafter, seeds. When their energy goes that way, so too do their nutrients, and we are left with flimsy leaves that taste bitter and just plain less than the way we want them to. Shortly after everything starts tasting bad, it also starts dissipating, as the plants basically give up producing leaves at all. They don’t need to collect or store any new energy, they just need to put all that energy into giving birth. After this, they die. This is what bolting, or going to seed, is. Both terms are extremely self explanatory, but let’s delve for a moment, because we can.
When greens decide to produce seed, they very quickly shoot upward, growing easily five times the height they were when they were providing you with delectable leaves to chew on and swallow.
When greens go to seed, they become useless to us, as their greens get bitter and dissipate. Hence the expression, it’s all gone to seed. That shit has become useless to you. Duh.
So don’t plant any of those plants now, okay? Fortunately for you there are some leafy green, or at least leafy greenish things you can grow right now, that will provide you with delicious nutrition through the hottest days of the deep south summer if you start them from seed right now:
It’s a short list, but a dependable one. You probably won’t find seeds for any of these plants at your local garden center, but the internet can scratch your itches quite nicely.
This is mizuna that has bolted hard. It doesn’t even kind of look like its former self. This is the eventual fate of all greens, but why tempt the fates?
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.