Cauliflower & Kings: A Gardener’s Guide

While I was writing The Merman’s Mark and had a small square of dirt to do so, I started an overambitious vegetable garden to get more into nature and into character. And, if there is one thing I can say after a year or two of plowing and planting, it is that gardening…is difficult.

Firstly, the ground was awful, filled with bits of bone and broken tile and knobs from appliances circa 1960. I even pulled a bra from the underbrush, which was quite surprising and also a bit gross. I stopped sifting after that for fear of what else I might find.

The dirt itself also wasn’t the best. A dry, grey, lifeless color mixed with sand, the stuff that was passing as soil  was a far cry from the soft black-brown stuff I was used to seeing in flowerbeds back home (This was before I started composting, which later fixed the issue).  Still, I forged ahead like the naive farmers trekking across the western U.S in The Grapes of Wrath, hopeful and unaware of the frustrating issues that would befall me.

There were successes. I did manage to fill a whole casserole with veggies, grow a tomato plant to cover a wall and harvest enough carrots to merit a crazy slew of purposefully-awkward selfies. There were bean stalks that climbed to the roof and broccoli and cauliflower heads with a level of deliciousness I’ve never tasted before. There were surprise bouquets of yellow flowers when I left a broccoli alone and swarms of beautiful bees afterward (bees here really like broccoli?).


Overall, it was a wonderful experience. Would it have kept me alive should all infrastructure collapse and life cease to exist as we know it? No, it definitely would not have.

I should say up front, I have unrealistic expectations for plant life-expectancy. I have this idea in my head that a plant should be a sort of Gandalf/Treebeard fruiting hybrid, producing food for an indeterminate length of time. That’s just not true in most cases, and even if it could be, it’s usually not preferred (I’m told young plants produce tastier offspring).

Aside Boast: One chili pepper plant did get on board with the idea of living long. It’s living happily in a pot in its fourth season now. At the time of posting, it’s over a meter tall and sprouting more than 20 [increasingly potent?] peppers. I cut it back like a rosebush, and it blooms again in summer. Speaking of which, I probably should pick the rest of the flowers so it doesn’t exhaust itself. I always forget to do that.

But longevity I’m told is not the norm, and depending on what’s being grown it’s really difficult to know how to stay sufficiently organized to be sustainable, to plan what should be picked and left to seed, and to know when and where to plant. For every success story, there were at least twice as many failures, most of which, if I was solely depending on the garden for nourishment, would have left me starving to death.

So far I’ve tried to grow more than forty different edible plants on my little patch of land, not nearly as many resulted in something to eat. Diseases, wrong watering, wrong timing, wrong soil, (general impatience) all affect the output, and the bugs…don’t even get me started on the bugs. If there’s one certainty in life it’s this… if there’s something tasty in the garden, something less tasty will definitely try to eat it (To confirm, see the sampling at the end of the post of all the knobby and gnarly creatures that have killed my plants). “Expert” online advice across multiple websites on how to deal with issues often ended up being at best mediocre, simply copied from one page to another without (I assume) anyone ever checking its validity.

Needless to say, there were a lot of sad days and unspeakable inefficiencies. Even plants that did manage to do well aren’t always practical. The surviving cauliflower was amazing cooked from fresh, but the plant is HUGE, as is broccoli. Some plants take years to be fruitful, others require a lot of water, both of which pose difficulties n the middle of the drought-stricken Cape. It’s a tough time all around.

But I still love the puzzles that come with plants and gardening, and I’m learning to appreciate bugs. It has, however, made me wonder considerably about the balance between exploring and knowing things for one’s self and acknowledging the skill of people who are far more intellectually and emotionally invested in a subject than I am. There’s a massive historical record of trial and error, of knowledge behind what we eat. I think that is true with many things, and it’s a shame how often in these Cartesian instances of “hey, I can also do that!”, the effort of others can become ignored or mistaken for easy, and people disrespected for their life’s work.

It’s a problem I’ve often wondered about recently in regard to so many subjects…cooking, gardening, health, social politics. Especially with regard to political issues, how does one respect the opinions of all people in a democratic way? How does one genuinely acknowledge and learn from the voices of those who have had less opportunity, without disrespecting those (often privileged) people who have put a considerable amount of work into their voice? In many ways I think you pay for the authority your voice carries, in the trial and error and the time you put into the knowledge behind it, but what also of those who may be equally passionate but with far less resources?

I don’t really have a great answer for the question. If I think of my personal reactions to people with knowledge, I generally have the greatest respect for those who have put in the work but also maintain a certain level of humility about it. If you’re willing to listen to other “lesser mortals” for potential new insight, you’re likely sufficiently subject-oriented to be a trustworthy source on the actual subject.  And, if I think of it, nothing brings out the angry American country girl quite like egotistical condescension, but that’s a matter of temperament more than of judgment, so it doesn’t really answer the question.

At the moment I guess all I can do is continue exploring my little patch of land with a certain level of thankfulness… the kind of gratitude that comes in knowing that while my cucumber writhes with white worms and my tomatoes turn crusty, somewhere out there on this big blueberry, other heavy-lifters are feeding my fridge.

Hungry Bugs

Pickleworm: cucumber, muskmelon

White cabbage moth: broccoli and cauliflower

Stinkbug (green): corn, beans, tomato, peppers

Aphids (grey, white, green, black): lettuce, nasturtiums, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers

Fuzzy caterpillar: basil, cauliflower, onion

Spiders: bell pepper, pansies

Ants: pineapple sage

Tiny, tiny red bugs: tomato