I’ve been doing the organic gardening thing for just about as long as I can remember. It all began with a close encounter with some kind of aerosol insecticide that my dear old Moms was using in about 1966 or so. She was spraying the stuff around some Jerusalem Artichokes, probably for aphids I guess, and I was standing several feet away watching because I’m curious. Also inquisitive. The wind shifted and I took a face full of the stuff, and since I breathe through the holes in my face, both lungs full as well.
Oh what a miserable feeling that was. I don’t know what the killing action on the intended victims might be, but for me it was a significant central nervous system assault. The biggest, scariest sensations were of my entire body vibrating, my heart pounding, an enormous headache, and erratic breathing. I wondered why Mommie Dearest didn’t think it important to haul my young ass off to the nearest doctor tout de suite. One way or another, I slept or passed out, and felt far less miserable when I awoke later in the day. Not good as new, but not so much like the grim reaper was drooling behind me.
While I lay there thinking about it, I concluded that if a lot of that poison all at once felt the way it had, then ingesting a little bit of it as residue at every meal throughout an entire lifetime couldn’t possibly be without consequence. I vowed to find a way to grow plants without poisons — and being just a little guy at the time I didn’t yet know that these poisons were relatively new in human history and most weren’t even invented yet when my parents were my age. It just made sense to me that it should be possible, given that all of the green guys growing out in the wilderness without human involvement were doing just fine. Back in those days, organic was not the thing. It wasn’t really any thing at all. That Rodale guy was out doing his thing, I suppose, and maybe a small handful of hippies were using the word, but in suburban white bread America chemicals were marvels of modern technology all set to eradicate world hunger and ensure that food would always be plentiful, healthful, and cheap.
In those days, we children would stand in the mist when the mosquito abatement trucks idled past, trusting that the chemicals were perfectly safe for us and wouldn’t harm anything at all that was not a mosquito. DDT was still in widespread use, Nixon was just a hawkish turd whose political career was over, and Martin Luther King, Jr. could still be seen, fully alive, on the evening news from time to time. There were no human footprints on the moon, the only microwave ovens you ever saw were in restaurants, talking on the telephone meant being anchored to the device by a cord, The Addams Family was still in production (in black and white), and saying that modern chemicals were somehow bad was akin to saying that John F. Kennedy was a philandering capitalist pig.
Tangentially: Back in those days I thought Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia Addams in the TV show, was the most beautiful woman on Earth. If you were to take photographs of her and lay them out with photographs of Amethyst at the same age, you’d be unable to tell them apart. Eat your hearts out, guys.
Back to the topic at hand. I would eventually learn that the stuff I was doing was called “organic” and that not all seeds are created equally. I learned in school all about modern plant science and that thing called “hybrid vigor”… Which came at the expense of never being able to keep the seeds of those plants because they would revert to type and produce something entirely unlike the fruit the seeds came from. I wondered what kind of idiot would think that a good thing. Shouldn’t the seeds from a fruit produce plants that yield pretty much the same fruit?
That’s what got me into open pollinated heirloom varieties. Those old varieties were selected for desirable traits over centuries by people who didn’t get the Burpee seed catalog so had to be careful about where their seeds came from. I wasn’t aware of any heirloom seed catalogs so don’t know if there were any yet, but I got seeds from old folks around the neighborhood who’d been growing and saving the same strains since practically forever. Some of them were old enough that they vividly recalled the very first time they ever saw an automobile. I wish I still had that seed stock… ‘nuther story, probably won’t get told.
For the next several decades, I planted nothing but organic, open pollinated, and mostly heirloom varieties, but I wasn’t opposed to new strains at all as long as they were non-hybrid and would run true over succeeding generations. I would eventually come to find out that the planting methods I developed over the years were called French Intensive and had been around since the late 19th century. All I cared about was getting high yields with few weeds and no bug problems that might make me think sinful thoughts about chemicals. I cannot tell you how many times modern farmers have told me that I was doing it all wrong… Or how many times I’ve clued those same modern farmers in later that same year so they could get the same results in their own kitchen gardens. The best part of that was getting the opportunity to hear from them about the things their mothers and grandmothers had done way back when, as there’s a lot of wisdom that’s essentially lost to us now that will only survive to benefit us if we know where to find it and how to listen for it.
One example of that lost wisdom: My paternal grandmother told me once that when she was a child in the last days of the 19th century, her parents grew lots of garlic and when the rainy season came the whole family would get together and eat it. She figured it was because they just loved garlic, and with the inclement weather they’d receive no callers who might be offended by the aroma. I didn’t question the explanation at the time, but I’m certain now that the timing of it had nothing at all to do with avoiding giving offense to visitors. Her parents were keeping their family alive by warding off the diseases of the day for which there were no medical cures, diseases that became more prevalent during inclement weather when people were generally restricted to close quarters.
If you’re wondering, the answer is yes, I do have a point. Not a big one, but a point nevertheless.
The house in which we’re living now is a nice house, and too darn large for just any two people who aren’t us. It seems a bit cramped for us, though, because I still don’t have room for crocks of pickles and sauerkraut, five and six gallon secondary fermenters full of homemade wines, and so on. And the yard? The space that was to be our garden is occupied instead by the landlady’s derelict automobile and random other stuff like that. A snow machine trailer with no snow machine, old tires that were once used but serviceable which are now dry rotted so can’t go on that derelict automobile… Dammit.
We do what we can with the limited space available to us, but this year modern life has again got in the way. Last year we grew some excellent brandywine tomatoes, this year I didn’t get those saved seeds started when it was time to start them because life got in the way. Instead, we got some nicely established plants from the local feed store that were tagged, simply, “TOMATO”. Somewhere or other I’ve got some seed for some really awesome cayenne chiles, the Ring Of Fire variety. Open pollinated/non-hybrid, of course. But where is somewhere or other? Still lost, like Atlantis. So we got some established plants that were just whatever cayennes the feed store had, and sure enough they’re hybrids. I rationalized at the time that maybe I’d been a little too radical in my views, and maybe the fruit wouldn’t suck as much as expected.
Yesterday, after watching for weeks, it was time to harvest that first big red ripe tomato. Dinner was tomato sandwiches, a common thing in the heathen household this time of year. I sliced into that fat bastard of a tomato, and though it could probably have stood one more day on the vine to get the wee tinge of green around just two of the seeds turned, it was otherwise dead on perfect. Nice firm consistency, glorious color… it turned out to be what I call “first wife produce”.
First Wife Produce is stuff that looks really, really good, good enough to pay for even. After you get it home, though, you find that its only purpose in life is to empty your wallet. The folks who made it are just tickled to death that you bought it so they’re not stuck with it.
I can see how someone who never knew any better might give gardening a try with what they don’t even know is first wife produce and decide, come harvest time, that it just wasn’t worth it. It tastes so close to the same as the crap from the supermarket that it’s just not worth all of the expense and bother of turning lawn into garden, weeding, watering, and fretting through the growing season, nourishing moles and voles and gophers and mosquitoes the whole time, trying to convince the neighbors’ cats that the garden is not a litter box, only to find at the end of it all that it’s the same tired crap Mr. Albertson or Kroger would sell you.
It’s all I can do now to resist the strong urge to go out on the deck and yank that pseudo-tomato out by its roots and hurl it far away. My greatest hope for our container garden at this point is that the cayennes aren’t equally disappointing — but how could they be? It’s hard to foul up a chile. Not impossible; some folks down New Mexico way are working on genetically engineering the New Mexico chile, a crime for which I personally believe they should be punished by incendiary castration.
A word to the wise: Don’t fool around with mass market plants and seeds for your edible garden. Go with heirloom varieties wherever possible, and non-hybrid strains exclusively. Don’t be a seed saver if you don’t want to, but support others who are by saying no to the mutants and mules because the future of our species might just depend upon it.
And you’ll eat better.