Thursday, June 27, 2013


Summer '08

When we started in this yard, I put one tomato plant in every row.  As soon as I read anything about rotation, I realized this wasn't going to work out.  I think I wanted the whole garden to be shaped like a giant yin/yang.  Or paisleys?  I wanted, basically, a food tangle.  Whatever the permaculturists say, a tangle is hard to rotate.

On the farm, Jeff loved the Eliot Coleman books, because they were all about infrastructure and measuring.  All the rows have to be exactly the same width so you can build special harvesting carts for them.  Better yet, build the rows for the carts!  And the tomato trellises and the watering systems and the hoop houses.  Everything is straight and even and functional.  That is some Jeff-style gardening.  

 Spring '09

We ended up, gradually, with a functional compromise.  Three long E/W rows with identical dimensions, for which Jeff would make a single, moveable hoop house, and inside of which I could do what I liked.  I read Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades thirty times through and got a few big messages.  One of them was definitely rotation.  My man Steve has a strong point to make about the threat of symphylans in the NW garden.  He practically insists that dangerous levels can only be avoided by rotation with grass.  Which is not for the single-lot city gardener, clearly.  (Although those first years when we were coming off of grass were amazing.  Slug-free living and tomatoes the size of a baby head.  Ah well.)  I imagined, as we committed to the three rows, that I would just slide things to the left each year.  Ah ha ha ha ha. *

Fall '09

The only reason I can keep doing this, all the time, year after year, is that things don't just slide to the left.  I struggle with guiding the tangle into rows, and I delight in helping the rows explode into tangle, but it is the dynamic tension between the two processes that keeps me interested.  I have the garden super-ego: expectations, plans, seed packets and (I just did this, seriously) even an excel graph.  I have weather underground, which I ignore completely (doh!).  And then I have the delicious, delighted, devouring id: yum yum! plant more! plant more!

Spring '10

Summer '10

I have such a small space.  I always want to grow more than I can fit.  I want to use the seed I have, because I almost never use a whole packet in a season, and yet I want to build on what I learned from the year before.  There is ever unpredictable weather, the slow or fast arrival of seasons, and the hurrying and waiting to take advantage of the golden moments for each variety, which are all a little different.  There is the history of the bed and the history of the crop - how it grew, how it was used.  There is the future of the season: when we'll be in or out of town, how much watering and attention I am willing or able to apply.  There is the now: what space is ready, what time I have, what I am excited about.  And, of course, for me, always, the aesthetic effect.  

Spring '11

Summer '11

Fall '11

I do think ahead, most of the time.  And whenever there is a hole, I fill it with whatever is close at hand that I think I will be able to harvest.  Which turns three long, dimensionally identical beds into five or ten or fifteen oddly shaped patches.  And in this way I triumph over Eliot Colman, Jeff Whitaker, and all other straight-edge suckas.  Also in this way I make regularly scheduled whole-bed rotations very challenging.

Spring '12

Summer '12

Fall '12

But challenge is what I am here for, really.  I am not on the verge of feeding my family with this space.  It is a play ground, for all of us.

What I want is to be alert.  To balance on this rolling ball of seasons and days and turn, with quick feet, to face the sun as it slips past my shoulder.  I want to brush with my fingers the compound mystery of the soil as it churns out life and death in an indivisible pile.  I want to not just see it or eat it or smell it.  I want to be part of it.


I am sitting down to do this now, with the reminiscing and the photos, because I have lost the thread of the rotation.  I got a little distracted over the winter, and spring came so quickly and I just started planting seeds.  I had a sense that row 3 needed to be in legumes.  Then there were a bunch of volunteer sunflowers in row 2, and I had a lot of sunflower seed, so I thought I'd just... and pretty soon I realized that I was planting a bunch of brassicas in the row that was brassicas last.  Which is a big no no.  Keep the brassicas moving.  Rule 1.**

Rule number 2 is Keep the Tomatoes Away from the Brassicas in Both Time and Space.  So when I got the surprise gift of a few tomato seedlings, I threw them mostly into the North beds, which god let's just not bring that space up right now.  But the biggest, nicest I put in a hole between the peas and the favas, and now those are done and what will happen with that row?

The cauliflower and sprouting broccoli in row 1, if they are not stunted by symphylans, will still be there in September.  I should stop the madness and not plant anything else cruciferous there, so no overwintering.   The sunflowers, beans, squash and anything else I can manage in the deep shade of the overgrown sunflowers, in 2 will have to come down in time for garlic and favas to go in.  So row 3 is overwintering kale, cabbages, etc.  But I planted that damn tomato there.  

The tyranny of kale!  Maybe leave the tomato, do a little greens and flowers (which seeds I have and need to spend anyway), seed the kale once the tomato is winding down, and cover row 3 (brave, brave) for the winter.  Then peas in row 1 come spring.

Yes, I think yes.  Worth trying, anyway.

*Things never happen as quickly as you would like.  You wish that a summer crop could go in behind the peas and favas.  But no.  Or that you could just get the damn garlic out of the ground in an efficient manner and fit a crop of bush beans in.  But really, in Portland, the ways in which you can get two chances in one row in one year are limited to spring (favas, peas, overwintered brassicas, greens or alliums) and fall (greens and alliums and brassicas).  If you want summer (corn, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, pole beans), then that is all you're going to get.  That and a cover crop, or a sleepy, slimy pile of leaves.

**Brassicas are the mainstay.   This is the Pacific NW, after all.  There are your spring planted brassicas and your fall planted brassicas.  You can't put the latter where the former were because that will break the rule.  But you don't want two full rows of kale.  So you - I - end up with brassicas interplanted, coming and going, with other things that have a similar time span and don't mind.  That is lettuces and other salad greens, chard, calendula, violets, nasturtiums, herbs, and sometimes bush beans.  Which is great.  But then you have two of three rows in brassicas, which out of three leaves you only one row you can plant brassicas in the next time you plant.  Fuuuuuck. 

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