Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What I’ve Learned in the Garden This Year

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Spring this year heralded the beginning of a surprisingly steep learning curve for me.  We’re only halfway through the main growing season, and yet it’s been such a different experience out there, I feel like I should get it down now.

The first lesson I’ve learned has actually taken a couple of years to sink in.  That is, prepare your garden bed in the fall.  In the late summer, when the bed was getting overgrown with grass, and the harvest was coming to a stuttering halt, I used to neglect my garden out of sheer guilt and leave it to its own devices all winter.  As a result, I’d start out my spring gardening season with such a weedy mess that I often considered quitting the hobby.  Then there was the magic year of the goat poop.  It didn’t take me too long to notice that cleaning and mulching the bed in the fall made for an easier, much more enjoyable planting season in the spring.

Which is closely related to lesson number two: take care of your dirt, and it will take care of you.  I’m a bit ashamed I ignored this for the first 3 or 4 years of gardening.  Even that first addition of goat poop didn’t solve all my problems, but after a second year of adding compost, I have much healthier plants and much prettier, disease- and pest-free harvests.

Along with that good soil, I’ve benefitted this year from a third happy lesson: a little mulch makes a big difference.  Last fall I got very serious about saving fall leaves.  Not only did I mulch the bed for overwintering, but I also stashed away three contractor bags’ worth of crushed, sweet smelling flakes of fall to use during the growing season.  I mulched once when I prepared and planted the bed, a second time after the seedlings had emerged, and again a few weeks ago when the hot, dry weather hit and I could see patches of naked dirt peeking through.  Nature does not like bare soil, and by keeping it covered, I’ve minimized the need to water.  I’ve also had a lot fewer weeds coming up from seeds blowing around the yard.

The newest lesson, and the one I bring up in every gardening conversation this year, is that of companion planting.  I completely changed my planting design, and I like how it’s worked.  I can’t be sure if the drop in pests on my broccoli, or my great crops of carrots and onions were a direct result, but I do know that I’m making better use of my limited space.  Last year I’d guess at least a third of my garden bed went unused after I pulled my spring crops.  This year almost all the gaps I see are being slowly filled by summer plants growing in.

I’m hoping the learning curve continues in the coming months, as I’m planning on trying out a fall garden for the first time.  Now that July is here, it’s time for me to start making decisions about what, when and where I want to plant.  I was going to start with just the planter Miss Chef and I built, but after receiving 50’ of row cover material for my birthday, I might expand my plans into the main bed.  Ambitious!

In conclusion, I’d like to present this year’s garden champion:

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That’s a 14 oz onion bulb (397 g for my metric-minded friends), which was donated to Friendship Gardens.  Also, there’s a cat, just for “scale.”

In spite of my best intentions, my new writing “career” and course homework have been stealing time from this blog.  On the other hand, you can see what became of that time by reading my articles here, including my first one in print, an interview with a new local baker. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Excuse My French…

…but I’ve turned into a lazy little shit these days.

Maybe it’s the weather, but I tend to believe it’s my true nature showing through.  Give me essentially unlimited free time, and I will happy fill it with pointless, time-wasting distractions.  For quite a while, I kept myself busy with volunteering, twice-a-week delivery gigs with a local farm, meetings, gardening, errands, and of course lots of internet time.  All of this neatly kept me from serious job hunting.  “Hey, at least I’m bringing some money in,” I told myself as I cashed the small checks from my delivery job.

But, as I knew it would, that job has dried up, and the postponed guilt for wasting time is starting to sneak in.  Have I mentioned that job hunting is my least favorite activity in the world?  At least a visit to the dentist has a definite ending, and it doesn’t usually make you question your worth as a human being.  And, of course, you know where and when to do find your dentist, and you are (hopefully) not only expected, but welcomed.  Not like waving your virtual resume in a stranger’s face, saying “Could you please read this and appreciate how my odd job history has actually given me a unique set of skills I can use to help your business?  Hello?  Was my wording too passive?  Did I use the wrong salutation?  Or is it that my cover letter is trite and meaningless?  Did you even see my cover letter?  Hello?”

All of this is to say, I’ve really been enjoying my summer vacation a bit too much. And while I’ve spent most of today procrastinating on the activities I use to procrastinate with, I did get inspired this afternoon to take a few pictures.  For some reason, I was possessed with the urge to go outside in the ridiculous heat and humidity and wander around the garden in the hottest part of the day.  Surprisingly, it seems mostly unaffected by our weeks-long spell of 90+ degree weather.

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I did water yesterday morning, and I mulched well this spring, so the soil is retaining moisture pretty well.  Still, you can see on the the left where I pulled out a broccoli plant, the top is pretty dry.  I think it may be time to put down the rest of the crushed-leaf mulch I saved from last fall.

I’ve still got plenty of radishes in the ground, but they get so spicy in this heat that I’m letting them flower to attract pollinators.  Besides, they’re quite pretty, in a messy sort of way.

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The plentiful pollinators wouldn’t hold still long enough to get a decent picture.

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This cute little visitor did, though!

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Honestly, I don’t worry too much about pollinators this time of year, because the rose of sharon tree next to the garden is abuzz with insects while it’s in bloom.  The dramatic hibiscus-like flowers draw me in, too.

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There are other flowers that I find more passionately about, though…like this cheery little cucumber blossom.

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The brown-eyed susans are rocking their annual extravaganza, though my sad little mortgage lifter tomato on the right is mostly stem and sterile flowers.

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Not to fear, Miss Chef’s Cherokee purple is working on some pretty fruits…

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…and the first Sungold cherry tomatoes may well find their way onto a salad tonight!

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And, with that, it’s time to head inside, and let the plants do their whole baking-in-the-sun routine.  I’m gonna go suck in some air conditioning!

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Monday, June 9, 2014

Farms For Fun and Profit

Last week I spent two different days helping out in very different ways at two different farms.  In order to go in chronological order, I’ll have to defy my title and start with the “for profit” one, first.

At the market a couple of months ago, Mindy at Tega Hills Farm mentioned to Miss Chef that they were going to be looking for a new delivery driver soon.  Long story short, last week I helped out a couple of days, riding along and doing the running…and jumping, hopping, lifting, shifting, stepping, stumbling and fumbling.  Of course, none of this was conducive to taking any photos—I needed both hands to manage invoice, box or bag, pen and doors. 

However, on the morning of the second day, I did have a couple of minutes while we were packing to document a bit. Tega Hills specializes in lettuces, microgreens and edible flowers, and most of their crops are grown hydroponically, in greenhouses.

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In the front, you can see the dark square area that is uncovered water.  The white squares are foam boards with holes which receive small cups where seedlings are placed.  These boards float in a nutrient-rich solution which is circulated through a system that is undoubtedly confusing and simple all at the same time.  Me, I just enjoy seeing the pretty colors floating around in the water.

Here’s another shot, where you can see some of the younger plants near the back.

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I’m going to guess that these varieties are red oak and green oak lettuces, with a section of dark green kale on the right.

The microgreens, which are grown in soil in a separate greenhouse, are even more colorful.

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In case you’re wondering, microgreens are simply the seedlings of familiar edible plants, such as these tiny beets above.  Not only do they serve as colorful garnishes, but they impart a surprising amount of flavor, which is sometimes more subtle or less bitter than their full-grown counterparts.  Some of the more unusual microgreens they sell are celery, purple radish leaves, pea sprouts and my personal favorite, popcorn shoots.  Yes, they taste like corn!

I interviewed Mindy for my article on squash blossoms, and was excited to see the very vertical growing method they use for the zucchini and cucumbers—yes, they sell those vegetables, too.

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On the right, you can see the nylon netting used to support the cucumbers; to the left you can see just how long these rows are.  Can you imagine trying to get your kids to eat all that zucchini at home?

And in case you were wondering just how you would package up all those colorful heads of lettuce, here’s a picture from inside the cold room.

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For each order, the appropriate number of heads are put into giant plastic bags, which are tied shut and put in the open-top waxed cardboard boxes.  Each box costs about $2 and can hold about 25 heads (so that’s about $30 worth of boxes you see there).  The microgreens are put into small zip-top bags or small plastic tubs like take-out containers, then orders are put together in plastic “t-shirt” shopping bags.  Most deliveries involved one box or a small bag of microgreens, but some restaurants ordered two boxes plus microgreens.

So now lets think about what it takes to get that crunchy lettuce or tasty microgreen from the farm to your table.  First it has to be plucked from its watery bed, packed as above, and the box labeled with the name of the restaurant and the contents, so it can be matched against the invoice.  Then the boxes are stacked in the bed and cab of the pickup truck in order of delivery, so the first deliveries are on top, and the last deliveries are in the air-conditioned cab.  This takes some excellent knowledge of the route, which involves 30 to 40 stops.  There are also a couple of coolers in the bed, for the myriad bags of microgreens.

Once the truck is loaded up, off we head with a stack of invoices as our guide.  Most of the stops are simple.  As we drive, I check the next invoice and figure out if I need a box, a bag from the cooler, or both.  Once we arrive, I hop out of the cab, hustle to the back of the truck, pull the order, carry it inside, barge my way into the kitchen (“Hey there, I need someone to sign for a delivery!”), quickly verify with the chef/manager that the order is all there (“One purple radish, two mix, one popcorn, plus the lettuce”), have them sign their copy of the invoice, thank them and go.  Sometimes I’d forget the box, and have to go back in, but for the most part it was in, hello, sign, thanks, bye.

Many of the Uptown restaurants are vastly more complicated.  Many require finding on-street parking, which is particularly challenging when streets are blocked off as they were on Friday for Taste of Charlotte.  Also, those “Parking for Delivery Only” signs are really important.  Sometimes I had to haul boxes down a block, or through a parking garage because the usual parking spots weren’t available.

Then there are the deliveries to restaurants located in 30-story skyscrapers housing corporate headquarters for banks and other security-conscious companies. 

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Here we have to stop before even entering the delivery dock, so security can check our IDs, and do a sweep of the truck, including having us pop the hood and using mirrors to check underneath the chassis.  Fortunately, the driver is Mindy’s husband Mark, who has been doing this for a decade, and knows many of the security personnel, as well as the routine.

Now, once we get back into the truck and park where we’re told, I have to go through another security checkpoint.  At the “dockmaster” window, I have to surrender my ID for a “Contractor” ID and sometimes keys or an electronic key card to operate the elevator.  My favorite is the delivery to a restaurant on the 27th floor of a building that has a single freight elevator for to serve all those floors.  There’s often a bit of “hurry up and wait” involved in this job.  I have to move as quickly as possible to try to get to all 40 stops before 5:00 dinner service starts, so standing in front of a slow-moving elevator can be a bit irritating.

And that is where I often I find myself thinking “All this for a few ounces of microgreens?”  Once all the harvesting, packing and delivery rigamarole is completed, the kitchens still have to rinse and prep the lettuce, and store and portion the microgreens before they finally hit the plate, where diners may say, “Oh, how lovely,” before stuffing it in their mouths and continuing their conversation about stock futures or The Voice.

Fortunately for my sanity, this is not going to be a long-term job, more of a fill-in and backup position for when they find themselves shorthanded.  Even if it would drive me nuts long-term, it is an interesting insight into a hidden part of the food-supply system, not to mention a cool way to get to see some of the city’s best restaurants and meet more chefs.

Now, let’s change gears a bit, as we move into the second half of today’s post: Farms for Fun.  Saturday was another work day at Friendship Garden’s urban farm project at a local high school, which I’ve posted about already here.  This weekend’s event was a huge effort of Wells Fargo, where over 50 volunteers came out to help rake, weed, mulch, dig, haul and put their hands to any other job the garden could offer.

I was assigned a team to mulch under the few orchard trees next to the raised-bed area.  Sadly, I didn’t think to take a “before” shot, but here are a couple of this incredibly hard-working group when they were nearly finished with this task.

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There was a huge stack of cardboard boxes, which had to be stripped of any tape or stickers that wouldn’t break down, then flattened and placed on the ground as weed stop before the mulch was barrowed over and spread.  Fortunately, although the high temperatures were forecast near 90, the sun was hidden most of the morning by a thin layer of clouds.

After this mulch job was done, the volunteers took their wheelbarrows down to the main field, which has been divided into three large beds.  One is already planted, but needed plenty of hands to help pull weeds.  The second one in back needed paths mulched before the planting rows were mounded up and compost dug in.

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Here’s a shot to my left, which gives you some idea of the scale of this project.

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You can see one quadrant of the first field, and the 100-foot long greenhouse in back.  The shipping container to the right serves as a storage shed for tools, seeds and equipment, and has had a solar panel installed to provide power for the aquaponics pumps in the greenhouse.  Amazing system, isn’t it?

Shortly after I took this picture, the sun came out, and I started flagging.  Those amazing volunteers, however, kept right on going, completing an enormous amount of work before leaving around 12:30.  There was even one woman who was still recovering from mono, but still came out and did what she could.

Last time I came out in April, the first field looked like this.

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Notice the other two fields hadn’t even been plowed under yet.  This past weekend, I took this parting shot, from a little farther away.

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You can see the scarecrow in both photos, which should help give some idea of how much progress has been made.

All in all, this weekend has made me realize one thing—growing food for mass consumption is hard work!  My little garden doesn’t seem like such a chore after all this.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Whirled Peas

First, the bad news.  This is the first year that my peas have been struck by some kind of pest.  It’s also the first year I’ve seen squirrels in our back yard.

Coincidence?  I think not.

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At first I assumed it was rabbits, and was fine with letting them cadge the bottom-most pods off of my plants.  But then I saw one damaged pod about four feet off the ground, and since then most of the remaining ones have been attacked, some of them completely destroyed.  A Master Gardener of my acquaintance suggested making a deterrent spray with the radishes I still have growing, as they are surely nice and spicy now that the weather has become hot and dry.

On the other hand, this hot, dry weather will probably spell the end of pea season anyway, so I may just go with harvesting as frequently as possible, and spend the rest of the year plotting my anti-squirrel strategy for next spring.  You’d think with a dog and a cat who have frequent access to the back yard, this would be a problem easily solved.

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zzzzzzz….

Still, I managed to harvest a good two cups of shelled peas in the first week, and thanks to the reference source that my blog has become, I remembered that last year Miss Chef had discovered the perfect way to appreciate them.  She hadn’t been very happy with the results of our first attempt, but I knew that just a bit of finessing would fix everything.

First, I had to obtain some excellent pasta, which I did at Pasta & Provisions, a local store that has just recently opened a more convenient booth at Atherton Farmers Market near Uptown.  I also needed goat cheese, and of course that would come from none other than our own Bosky Acres.

When I’d shelled the last day’s harvest I’d held on to the pods, and I started my meal by putting them to simmer for about 30 minutes, to create a quick pea stock.  Meanwhile, I blanched the peas, dropping them in batches into boiling water for a minute or less, then shocking them in ice water.  I still had some garlic scapes left, so I cut them into chunks, cooked them for a couple of minutes in the simmering pea stock, then added them to my peas. Next I grabbed our handy stick blender and made a beautiful pea purée. 

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Isn’t that an amazing green color?  I did keep some of the peas whole, to add to the finished dish. 

What?  When did I add that lemon?  Oh, I didn’t; it’s totally unrelated.  Miss Chef was using its zest and juice to make a bruschetta with ricotta, and some leftover pea hummus from a Friendship Gardens event I’d helped organize the previous day.

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It was easily the most pea-centric meal I’ve ever had.

Anyway, back to the main course—I had just puréed the peas and scapes while my pasta was cooking.  Now comes the magic moment, when we put it all together.

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A plop of pea purée, a plop of goat cheese.  Pour a tablespoon or two of the pea stock over it—not much!—and commence to stirring.

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Oh yeah, I tossed some of the leftover blanched peas in there, too.  You can see how the cheese and peas combined to make a wonderfully creamy sauce.  I can imagine adding chicken and either some diced tomatoes or blanched carrots for color. Peas and carrots, eh?

As it was, this made about four servings, and I ate three of them over the next few days.  Miss Chef knows I get all gaga over my pea harvest every year, so she humors me by standing by and letting me gobble it all down.  The smile on my face probably more than makes up for it.

Besides, I harvested another cup of shelled peas since we made this, and she’s already used those in a stir fry.  There may not be many peas this year, but they will be appreciated.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Garden Update

I can’t believe it’s been two weeks since I last documented my garden.  There’s been a lot going on in other parts of my life—volunteering, networking, writing—but the garden certainly hasn’t been waiting around on me to do its thing. 

I hope you all find this interesting, but I have to admit that the biggest reason I do regular garden updates is to serve as a reference for myself.  I’ve found it incredibly helpful as a record of previous years’ growing seasons, to calm my overeager perfectionist when it seems the peas are flowering too slowly.

The last overall garden picture I took was May 14th:

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These days when I go out poking around, I feel like I’m entering a jungle!

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The carrots and onions have jumped up, forming lush green patches between the prehistoric-looking broccoli plants.  Today I cut the last main head, which is probably the biggest I’ve ever grown.

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Last year’s weather really messed with my broccoli harvest, so in a sense this year’s crop was better, but I had fewer plants, so it’s a bit of a wash.  That one limp-looking plant never recovered, so I had five plants instead of nine.  Sadly, I’ll have to file broccoli as a crop I grow for fun, not for productivity.  I’ll let each plant give me one more head, and then it will be time to rip them out.  Hopefully the garden won’t look too bare when they’re gone!

Another just-for-fun crop we put in this year was three fennel plants.  One of them we pulled a couple of weeks ago, and this one is more than ready.  I’ve been threatening Miss Chef that if she doesn’t figure out how she wants to cook it, I’m donating it to Friendship Gardens.

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Some of the onions may also be ready to pull soon.  I haven’t grown these before, but I’ve read that the tops fall over, and then you’re supposed to wait two or three days.  This morning I saw this guy signaling he was about done.

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In the last couple of photos, you can see some of the weeds have begun creeping in.  Although I have been a bit busy, I think the real problem is that I’ve been once again obsessing over distracted by the peas.  They are my favorite crop, and so fun to grow!  For the past week or so, the plants have been positively dripping with long, flat pods while I check each day to see if they’ve filled out.

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I picked my first handful of pods the other day, and more today.  Yesterday, after weeks of baking sun and temperatures in the mid-80s, we finally got a good inch and a half of rain, so I’m expecting them to really get going soon!  I never tire of shelling my own peas.

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Sadly, after years of pest-free pea plants, the rabbits (I think) have finally discovered them.  Rosie is a terrible garden guardian, so I’m glad I’ve got enough to share a few with the local wildlife.  If I could let McKenna have the run of the back yard, I bet she’d keep the rabbits in check.  And then she’d probably go lie down on my bean plants, so I’ll just resign myself to sharing.

While I was waiting for the peas to plump, I started pulling the first baby carrots.  In this picture, you can also see some garlic scapes, which for the first time I’ve harvested early enough for them to be edible.

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What are garlic scapes?  I’m so glad you asked, because that was the subject of my second paid article that was published online this week!  Click here to read it.  My editor is planning on running my “column” on Thursdays, so you can get a weekly shot of my writing, even if I’m slacking off here in Flartopia.  (And if you’re too busy to read the article, garlic scapes are the stalks that the flowers would grow on if I let them.  But the article is much more informative and interesting.)

Back in the garden, I’m happy to see flowers showing up on some of the summer producers.  My bean plants are looking good…

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…and I was shocked when all the volunteer marigold plants I let stay in my carrot patch were suddenly studded with tomato flowers!

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I have no idea what variety they are, because I didn’t put tomatoes in this bed last year.  I’m fairly certain they’re not cherry tomatoes, since they’re pretty compact plants.  Once I saw the flowers and realized they weren’t marigolds, I tried to trim the suckers, and now I have to figure out how to stake them without being too invasive to the carrots.

Since we’re talking about tomatoes…the cherry tomatoes are still putting on little green babies, but none have started to ripen yet.  Miss Chef’s Cherokee Purple plant has finally fruited, though my Mortgage Lifter is still looking anemic and pointless.

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Field tomatoes should start showing up soon at the farmers markets, but we’ve got a ways to go before we’re picking our own.

Oh, and remember the lettuce I let flower, to attract pollinators?  Most of those flowers have resulted in a plethora of small seed-filled pods.

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I haven’t done any research to find if they’re tasty enough to eat, but I’m definitely interested in saving the seeds to see if I can grow some fall lettuce in my new planter box.  On the other hand, these may be a hybrid variety, so who knows what I might end up with?

And that is something that I’ve held as my gardening mantra for this season—every year is an experiment.  Sure, the peas are a tried-and-true producer, but this year I also totally rearranged my plans to try companion planting.  And I have to say, that particular experiment has given me some very positive results! 

Maybe it’s the two years’ worth of good soil amendments, but overall I’ve never had such a productive, happy group of plants. My broccoli had notably fewer holes in the leaves, and since they were spread out with other plants in between, only about half the broccoli plants had any pests at all (I did spray once with BT, but most years one application is not enough).  My radishes, shaded by the broccoli and lettuce, were slower to bolt and flower.  And it may be that the plentiful pea pods are a result of pollinators visiting the neighboring lettuce flowers.  Also, my carrots and onions both seem to be happy with their cohabitation arrangement.

Late spring is the highlight of my gardening year, but I’m hoping that I can extend this happy period a bit longer this growing season.  Last year’s beans, squash and beefsteak tomatoes pooped out under bushy marigolds, vine-boring grubs and poor pollination, so if they are at all productive this year, I’ll be a happy gardener indeed.