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.
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.
We are midway into the New Orleans’ Spring Gardening season, and if any of you are growing vegetables, It’s a more than fair bet that you are trying to grow nightshades. Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplants. It’s what we do, it’s an impulsion that cannot be helped for the seasoned grower nor the gardening initiate. We like to grow these things because we like to eat these things. They are a cornerstone of just about every sort of notable cooking style throughout the world. The thing is, they’re not particularly easy to grow.
Rather than give you ultimate insight into how to best grow this family of food, I’m just going to give you one tip today. Grow small. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing in pots or raised beds or top of the line aquaponic indoor pink light systems. Growing small will take you further. Especially here in the Deep South where deep heat and deep moisture encourage rampant insect growth and plant disease in the summer months.
Small means cherry tomatoes, or pear tomatoes, or if you simply must have something more substantial, something no larger than Roma. I’m not telling you what to do, I’m just telling you what to do if you want a substantial yield. I’m just telling you what to do if you want to feel good about yourself and your garden this summer. I’m just telling you what to do if want to eat tomatoes this summer, and not just that one time on that one sandwich that you get to eat one time with one friend before all is lost in TomatoLand©.
Here’s why: Smaller tomatoes grow faster. Smaller tomatoes mature faster. Smaller tomatoes put out exponentially more fruit, not just in number, but in weight as well. In my opinion, they tend to taste better too.
I am no botanist, but I have a theory on why little tomatoes do so much better. Basically, they are derived from tiny fruits. That’s the theory. Our ancestors found these tiny little fruits, like smaller than marbles tiny, along mountainsides in South America, and slowly cultivated them over many generations into the tomatoes the likes of which we know today. So that’s how that works.
As I mentioned earlier, smaller tomatoes also ripen faster, so they are left on the vine and open to all manner of hungry insect and insipid fungus for less time.
I shouldn’t have divided this blog into categories based on specific vegetables, because I pretty much covered everything under ‘Tomatoes’.
Bell peppers take an extremely long time to mature. The good news is, we like to eat them before they mature! A green bell pepper is an immature bell pepper. The bad news is, green bell peppers are significantly less beneficial for you than mature bell peppers, regardless of their final color. Green peppers are like celery, tasty and crunchy but nutritiously fairly useless. Red peppers, orange peppers, purple peppers, and so on, are nutrient dense and delicious too. Either way, your peppers will be disappointingly small and the yield will be a bit terrible too if you go the way of Bell.
If you want sweet peppers, try something a little smaller, like banana peppers. If you want hot peppers, you are way better off. Hot peppers grow like hangovers in the New Orleans heat. They are unstoppable and multitudinous. You will inevitably succeed in getting them. Grow hot peppers. Put them in your bloody marys. Fight fire with fire. It is our way.
Eggplants are actually a lot easier to grow in our climate than their cousins. You will have better luck with smaller eggplant varieties, but growing the big boys isn’t too hard. The only real concern here is critters. Larger fruits do take longer to mature, and thus have more time on the vine to be sucked dry and inoculated with disease by beetles and the like. They are also huge and can be very taxing on the branches they grow from, so serious trellising might come into play, but if you’re willing to put a little legwork into infrastructure, go ahead and go big with these guys. I would recommend Thai and South Asian varieties over more common American or European varieties regardless of size, simply because our climate has more in common with those regions than it does with, say, New England.
All this said, if you’re not into small things though, please grow your monster vegetables and prove me wrong. The most important part of food gardening is to grow food that you will eat, so do that!
Thunder Magic is real. Though it doesn’t sound quite so powerful and evocative, Lightning Magic is even more real. Thunder Magic and Lightning Magic each are summoned by the earthly spectacle known to many if not all as thunderstorm. It is a spectacle you’d be a fool not to know of, and you may think me foolish for speaking of such obvious truths in such ridiculous terms. And also anyway, what the hell does any of this have to do with farming or whatever it is we aim to aid you in? Worry not, in the paragraphs that follow I will explain all.
Many gardeners are wary of the power of thunderstorms, and the damage that punishing rains and wind can impose on young plants, destroying nubile beauties of tender leaf and shallow root system with tearing, drowning, and dislocation. This is a legitimate fear, but as one must pass through the fire to find profound glory most true, so too young plants that undergo the tribulation of thunderstorms are far more adept and worldly than their weeny peers who have not seen the great floods.
In terms of beneficence there is most obviously the monstrous deluge that these plants receive. Your irrigation system will never compare with the inundation of water into the soil that a great storm provides. If you do not have raised beds, there is a danger in this, and flooding is not to be taken lightly. If you do have raised beds however, your young plant children will be given a once in a lifetime opportunity to extend their roots deep into the soil and claim all the nutrients hiding in the far reaches of their dirt-laden homes, and their roots will remain sturdy and strong for the rest of their days.
Now let us speak of Lightning Magic. Lightning holds a most potent power, without which plants accessibility to Nitrogen would be darn near impossible. Leguminous plants and Lightning are the only things in nature which have the power to make nitrogen available to plant life in the soil, through a process called Nitrogen fixing. I won’t weigh you down with the science but this short and entertaining video surely will.
Though fixed nitrogen remains in the soil for a time, if it is not used by plants the bonds it has made with other elements do break, and nitrogen in the soil all too soon becomes unavailable to plants all over again. Young plants present in the soil during Lightning Magic have unprecedented access to Nitrogen, the most essential element to plant growth, and thereby are crazy strong and powerful and large. VIP baby.
Thunder Magic is a bit more disreputable, but strong magic all the same that should be wielded with confidence and moderation (because you totally have ultimate control over the weather). Probably you have heard of ozone, the ozone layer, ozone producing chemicals, ozone destroying chemicals, bad things about ozone, good things about ozone. Generally speaking, we do not want ozone hanging out down here with us, we want it high in the sky saving us from dangerous interstellar radiation, meteors, and alien invaders. When it’s brought low in the atmosphere, mostly through terrible things humans do, it causes the greenhouse effect, makes breathing hard, and just generally kills. Thunderstorms bring ozone down to the lower stratosphere in very light but potentially effective doses. This sounds terrible yeah? Thunder Magic rains down, humans die, plants die, everything dies.
It is not so. Things that you want to die, die, with the the power of Thunder Magic. Thunderstorm induced ozone is anti-fungal and anti-microbial, and as such a very powerful organic and dare I say permacultural solution for dealing with myriad scourges that want to eat your plants alive. A good thunderstorm will damage the teeming populations of fungi and microbes that are notorious for killing young plants whose immune systems are still in their early stages of development. Too much ozone is terrible for all living things, but a light touch of the stuff from Thunder Magic is a glorious cure-all tonic for what ails your young children. It levels the playing field and makes the dirt safe for humanity’s foodstuffs.
So. Plant your babies in the calm before the storm. Those that survive, which will probably be all of them, will sing your praises and tell the story of their harrowing adventure and your magnanimous gift to them for all time. Until you eat them.
It has come. The official last frost date for New Orleans in this our lord's year 2016 is February 19th.
Plant your tomatoes! Plant your Peppers! Plant Your Cucumbers! Plant your Basil! Plant whatever you want! You need fear the cold never again!
That’s what ‘they’ want you to think, that it’s all good, that everything’s under control and the powers that be control the weather just fine and you need never want for anything, especially not intuition or a regular and ever-adaptive analysis of your surroundings.
And they’re pretty much right. I listen to them. I heed the last frost date as gospel, fundamental, irrevocable, Truth.
I am a fool for doing so, but it is the eager heart of the gardener that beats in my chest and screams ecstacy into the heat of the Spring sun.
Frost dates are determined a year or more in advance by meteorologists, farmer almanac kooks, astrologists and other oracular future-casters of dubious scientific background, but they are by and large reasonably accurate. If you are not of a gambling nature it is best to wait a week or so after the frost date to actually get Spring plants and seeds in the ground, but as of my writing this it has been about a week, so you’re probably good to go without betting the farm at this juncture.
All this to say, frost dates are accurate but not that accurate. Pay attention to them but do as I say, not as I do. Approach the date with circumspection each and every year, then plant accordingly.
Meantime, presently, you’re in the clear. It’s Springtime in New Orleans. Let loose the heat loving plants upon your raised earth.
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.