Friday, 22 May 2015

Nature vs Nurture

At this time of year when I have been foraging, I start to reflect on the differences between wild and cultivated plants. When ramps and fiddleheads are at their peak there is virtually nothing to be seen in a vegetable garden.
Jessica and Alex picking ramps on Mother's Day, 2014,  accompanied by Scylla
Fiddleheads earlier this past weekend beginning to unfurl
Of course it is not really a justifiable comparison. If we were restricted to hardy plants we couldn't grow tomatoes and peppers which need to be started indoors since they need a longer frost-free growing season than we have here. I'm always finding potatoes when I dig the beds in the spring - but that's because I somehow missed them when digging last year's crop. But if I didn't rotate the beds for potatoes, very few would survive the growing season because the potato bug overwinters in the soil. With no control they would devastate the potato foliage preventing the plants from producing tubers underground. But I have never found a summer squash or cucumber seedling that survived a winter hibernation. Likewise with beans. Carrots and beets and all the biennials would undoubtedly be overcome by weeds even if they were left to flower and set seed for a crop two years later. Wild carrot (Queen Anne's Lace) thrives in the wild but because all of its energy goes into producing flowers and therefore seeds, the root is fibrous and skimpy.

But greens are a difference story. As long as you grow open pollinated lettuces, mustards and kales and allow them to flower they will drop their seed. After a winter under the snow, when conditions are favourable, they will germinate. Despite, or perhaps because of, the various weather scenarios they experience - everything from late frosts and snow to temperatures in the 30C's and full sun they grow hardy and well adapted to their very local environment. I then transplant these seedlings into beds refreshened with compost and manure.
Earlier this weekend weeding the bed of lettuces and spinach seeded last fall
A close-up of the bed with lettuces on the left, spinach on the right
Another greens bed. The lettuce on the top germinated from seed  that overwintered from lettuce plants left to go to seed and the seedlings on the bottom were sown a week ago from seed saved and stored inside all winter.  
I also plant a crop of spinach and onions in the late fall. Like the lettuce they start growing when conditions are suitable and provide a crop at least four weeks earlier than seedlings direct sown.
Fall planted spring onions
Permaculturists aim to reproduce, as much as possible, a woodland ecology; as many perennials as possible, a canopied treescape with large trees at the top, then fruit and nut trees underneath, soft fruit below like berries and finally strawberries and traditional market garden vegetables at ground level. It always seems to me, the optimum approach is to take the best ideas and/or the strategies easiest to employ from wherever you can glean information. I love my rhubarb patch - one of just three plants we inherited - who knows how old it is. Other than using the leaves from harvested stalks as mulch it needs no care.
The rhubarb patch
Another perennial vegetable I grow which I planted a few years ago is sorrel. It is not universally liked, but for those who are fans they love it for its crisp lemony taste.
It would be nice to have a greenhouse to get a jump on the season. But you really need to live where your greenhouse is, to monitor ventilation and temperature. I don't have that situation. But with some perennial vegetables, fall sowing and letting plants flower and go to seed, I can manage to provide a smooth procession from foraged plants to cultivated ones, by relinquishing a certain amount of control and working with nature, at least some of the time. So, not nature vs nurture, but nature and nurture.

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