Houston, We Have Cucumber and Tomato Plants Growing on the Porch

Can’t wait to see this month’s electricity bill, but ah, forget the cost of keeping these little babies warm and bathed in the artificial sun of grow lights – if all goes well, we’ll be eating our first homegrown cucumber of the season sometime in April and maybe, just maybe, our first homegrown tomato of the season on Memorial Day.

This race to the first vegetable started innocently enough, I thought, but I didn’t realize just how strong the competitive streaks ran in my mother-in-law and her son.  Willine and my father-in-law, Al, were not just gardeners; they were subsistence farmers in southern Maine, and they raised all of their own vegetables for their family of nine, and they raised their own beef, had cows for milk and sometimes would have chickens for eggs.  Strawberries, corn, and cucumbers were cash crops which they sold to the local grocery store, to a pickling company in Oxford, Maine, and from their front yard. The money was used to buy school shoes, clothes and other necessities in the fall.  37 acres and some hard labor can produce a lot of food.

And Willine did not like it one bit that our growing season was two weeks ahead of hers, which she realized the first summer we were married and we were comparing notes on how our gardens were coming along.  Within a couple of years, she was after Al to build a greenhouse off her kitchen, and the race was on.  Year after year, Terry would make sure his parents knew when we had pulled the first radish, eaten the first spinach, or lettuce, or whatever he had managed to pull out of the ground early that year (the asparagus was a favorite “first” because, well, it was a favorite to eat), and he would always be satisfied with a mournful cry from his mother when she knew she had lost the race again.  I must state here, however, that a race was never officially declared, but there was no denying it, either.

Now that Al and Willine have both departed the fun of friendly gardening competition has passed with it, but we do both like defying the winter by having a taste of spring before the snow season is officially over.

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Gardening in the Winter Happens in the Imagination

Ah, the seed catalogs. Johnny’s, FEDCO, Territorial, Cook’s Garden, and my favorite, Kitchen Garden Seeds, begin to arrive around Christmas. A gentle tease, I make myself wait until after the holiday season to crack them open in order of least preference, which allows me to clear out early on the catalogs that offer me no inspiration for our next garden, leaving me with one or two from which to dream and imagine what to grow in the coming seasons.

Last year, since we finally, finally finished building our little (9’ x 16’) greenhouse and set up a cost efficient way to heat it on especially cold nights we decided to try some greenhouse cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes. The seeds were expensive, but for twenty bucks we got to start early and ate our first homegrown cucumber in late April, which for a New England gardener is very early. We enjoyed early tomatoes also, but last year’s crop succumbed to the blight that made its way around, and most of our plants died, leaving us only with cherry tomatoes. Better than no tomatoes. The zucchini looked lovely on the vine, but we found them to be tough and aged, even at only medium size, so we won’t try those again this year.

Gardening is hard work, make no mistake, but the dreaming and planning for what we will produce in our small suburban raised beds is a source of joy for me. I love the possibilities, accept the work, and hum with delight as I meander through the plants and vines from April to November (sometimes even December) picking vegetables for our next meal or two.

During Thanksgiving weekend, we had the pleasure of two of JT’s college friends visiting for an afternoon, and I learned, much to my surprise, that JT had told stories of her parents’ garden for the four years she was away at school. One guest was skeptical of it, but as luck would have it, that morning I had spotted a near-perfect head of broccoli exactly ready to be cut, and I knew there were carrots that could be dug. When he expressed his doubts, I just smiled at him and said I’d be right back. When I returned with the broccoli and a fist full of freshly dug carrots his skepticism departed quickly, and as he bit into one of the fresh, live carrots, the look of astonishment on his face was satisfaction enough for me.

Maybe we have converted another to the concept of real, live, homegrown vegetables, which is the greater gardening, if you ask me.