ru·bric (rbrk) n.
1. A part of a manuscript or book, such as a title, blah blah blah. (Nope, not it.) ; 2. Ecclesiastical A direction in a missal, hymnal, or other liturgical book. (Warmer, but much less judgmental.); 3. An authoritative rule or direction. (We’ll take it!); 4. A short commentary or explanation covering a broad subject. (Meh, this could work, too, but 3 is closer.); 5. Red ocher. (Which we love for barns, but not this post.)
Even with much-coveted yard space, we’re still pretty limited garden-wise, and not just because of the acreage (or lack thereof). There are shade issues with both our trees and the ones belonging to the neighbors. Then there’s the slope – we live on a steep hillside that breaks the yard up into slightly-less-sloped terraces which require some dirt moving or very creative planting and irrigation to prevent erosion. And speaking of irrigation, that’s getting addressed but right now, if an area doesn’t have easy access to water (see previous remarks about the slope)? It’s out of the planning matrix until I have time to hook up the plumbing pipe and drip systems. Hah! Until I have time…what is that exactly?
These myriad limitations mean that I am far less likely to save space for growing a zucchini than I am for, say, French tarragon, Spanish black radishes, or English peas. I choose wisely, or I hope I do, using a set of criteria, a rubric, for what I’ll grow and not grow in the vegetable patch. It keeps me from wasting valuable resources on mediocre harvests by outlining my priorities.
Do I stray from the rubric? Hell, yes. But the rubric almost always saves me time and aggravation. As I head into 2012, with a resolution to adopt better planning and scheduling in the garden, I have a feeling the rubric is going to grow and change and take on a new importance.
Creating the rubric actually eliminated a lot of ridiculous purchases. That six pack of Early Girl tomatoes I spied last week failed three criteria right off the top. The standard Mission fig tree failed two. I will say that the sadly maligned zucchini I mentioned earlier got a reprieve because Steve asked me to plant some, even though it failed all my criteria. Bottom line: love knows no rubric. You can try explaining the rubric all you like. Don’t. Love can spare some square footage.
The rubric also required that I significantly up my skills in seed starting, since a lot of what fits the rules won’t be found in neat little six-packs. While I do have an awesome local nursery, and their plant selection is downright mind boggling sometimes (peanut plants? quinoa?), it’s still pretty limiting. I’m basically at the whim of their buyer. So to seed I go.
Seed starting yourself also saves a lot of money. $3.99 for one pre-started organic artichoke plant? Or $2 for a pack of seeds that could give you a whole row, assuming you have the space? Plus, your extras can go to appreciative neighbors or you can trade with other homestead folk who tried things you didn’t.
Another aspect of the rubric involves meticulous record keeping. When something doesn’t work in one place, it can be tried in another or eliminated altogether. If it does work, keeping track of locations, sun patterns, and water simplifies crop rotations. But that’s another very long winded post for another time. Like, when I actually know what I’m doing when it comes to crop rotation. Gardening, whether for vegetables, flowers, ornamentals, or trees, is so not for the uninquisitive, the willingly ignorant, or the always impatient, that’s for damn sure. You’ve got to have the ganas. It’s no calculus, but you do need to practice it until it become a habit.
So keeping it simple? Highly desirable. So I present… The Homegrown Rubric.
1. Thou shalt not plant that which is commonly available at the farmers market. Example: regular brown-skinned onions – no. French shallots – yes. Common “artichoke” garlic (supermarket softnecks) – no. Youghiogheny Purple – yes. Fuji apples – no. Gravenstein – yes, if you have the climate for them. Dutch ball beets – no. Chioggia beets – yes. Maybe you love artichokes? Fine. Plant Purple Globes. Carrots? Atomic reds or Cosmic purples or if you like them small, Thumbelinas. Albion strawberries – no. Elderberries – yes. You get the idea. If you have a grower who produces superb heirlooms – better than homegrown and reliable, organic, and of good quality, save your time and space and give your money to them. The exceptions to this rule are…
2. Thou shalt plant fruits and vegetables at home that suffer severe declining quality the further they are from harvest. Some heirloom strawberries come to mind. They go soft very quickly after being picked, but usually have superb flavor. Same with most berries actually. Tomatoes, too. I don’t care how many tables full of rainbow-hued heirlooms I see at the market. Plucking a sun-warmed tomato from your own garden and eating it on the spot attunes you to the glory of nature. Hokey spiritual clap trap? Absolutely. I encourage you to try it.
3. Thou shalt plant at least one unknown-to-you annual vegetable each season. This season’s? An Italian heirloom spinach. It has fought me every step of the way. But I’ve been promised unsurpassed flavor, so I’m giving it a go. Last season it was mizuna and shiso, which aren’t so much unknown-to-me culinarily as much as horticulturally. I’m also eyeing some not commonly available additions from Kitazawa Seed Company out of Oakland, CA. They have Poha Berry and Molokeyhia, both of which intrigue me for completely different and fascinating reasons.
4. Thou shalt plant for economy as well as diversity and include species which play a major role in your household diet that have a high price point. The major plant that fits this rule – herbs. All of them. At least in my house. In yours is may be strawberries, kumquats, artichokes, or avocados. Mentally calculate the plant matter that most matters and see if it’s worth dedicating a patch of soil to produce it. You may find that what you grow is better than what you can buy and it saves you a little cash down the road. Keep in mind the money savings are usually only realized if you’re planting from seed. The minute you get someone else to sell you a tray of pre-started plants, you’re paying a premium for what is essentially minimum convenience. At my house, Rule #4 covers herbs, pickling cucumbers, sugar snap peas, and a variety of lettuces and other “salad” greens.
5. Thou shalt always think of the local fauna and include plantings for hard working pollinators and beneficial insects. Lavenders, aloes, and a variety of field flowers attract honeybees, butterflies, and hummingbirds year round. Try to select plantings so that you have bloom cycles each season. I also plant fennel and let it go to seed – it becomes a ladybug nursery. As do the rest of your vegetable plants. Just because your chard is bolting, doesn’t mean you have to tear it out. Let it flower and complete its cycle. Same with your winter brassicas. Harvest what you need and let the rest bloom as nature intended. Will you end up with a mess of seed everywhere and volunteer plants where you don’t want them? Maybe. I have baby kale coming up between the cracks in the concrete pathways because I pulled the plants out right when the seed pods were popping open. I saved what I could (free seed! woo!) but a lot of it went all over the garden. And I’m totally ok with that because I loved watching the bees and the butterflies make repeat visits. Do I get some non-beneficial bugs? Yes. Cabbage butterflies come to mind. And they are omnipresent here whether I have things in the ground or not. I opt to provide what I can for most and don’t begrudge the few opportunists that I’d rather not see. That’s gardening. Well, that and flipping over leaves to crush the larvae and eggs dead dead dead.
Many seed companies now offer a variety of seed blends designed specifically to attract beneficial insects to your garden. Johnny’s goes down the nondiscriminatory, equal opportunity path, while Botanical Interests and Kitazawa both have “Save the Bees” packets, complete with depressing Colony Collapse Disorder marketing language. American Meadows offers large quantity honey bee seed. Applewood Seed Company has several different types of beneficial insect seed blends. This year, I’ve purchased both the Botanical Interests and the Kitazawa blend for the hillside. We’ll see how that goes.
And that’s it. There are holes that allow for flexibility. And each person’s rubric will be different depending on what’s important to them. But when faced with tough decision making, having a rubric, ANY rubric, decides all and yields a much better return on investment in both quality and variety. It also means the garden is always changing, growing, and evolving while I’m learning, unlearning, and learning again. Which for me is part of the point of gardening in the first place.
Do you have a rubric? Feel free to add your own rules in the comments.