Co-existence requires letting go of non-essentials

Growing vegetables on a conservation site brings us into interaction with “nature,” for good and for bad. We put up a solar-powered electric fence to keep the Humber River deer herds (hordes) from grazing on our lettuce and beans, but that doesn’t help with the rabbit (so far it’s “the” rabbit, but how long will that be true?). The garter snakes keep down the vole and mouse populations, but we really need a cat or two. Goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, and graceful barn swallows are a constant pleasure – not so much the aphids and white cabbage butterflies. (A favourite article title: “How to avoid a brassica massacre.”)

And the killdeer, in spring, are just plain in the way. They assemble “nests” (that’s not even a shack in my opinion) right on top of the growing beds, completely exposed, and sit on their eggs a month. Who has the heart to till and plant the bed then?


You can’t even come within ten feet of a nest without the parents putting up a monstrous display – a persistent piercing piteous cry (their Latin name means “notably noisy”) to draw attention as they flutter awkwardly away appearing to be hopelessly injured prey. If I were a cat or a dog I’d be after it in a second – only to be fooled as the adult, having drawn me far from the eggs in the camouflaged nest, suddenly takes wing and sings out “Kill-dee!” in a triumphant jeer.

This is wholly inconvenient.


But … the chicks, when they hatch, are endearing replicas of the adult form, reminding me of pictures of Victorian children dressed in miniature copies of a grownup’s formal clothing. They don’t lounge in the “nest” to be fed for weeks but totter around right away, getting into as much trouble as any three-year-old child. This spring, one chick somehow got across the busy road near the plots; the parents had a distressing (and noisy) time bringing it back to safety.

It turns out that, if I yield on non-essentials a bit more than usual when negotiating with a human inconvenience, co-existence isn’t difficult, and it has compensations I didn’t consider when faced with their vigorous defense of “my” carrot bed. It’s not really hard, after all, to re-plan the beds and leave working “their” area to the last. As insect-devouring champions they are superlative allies for a human raising vegetables.

And … we at the plots now know why the chick crossed the road.

Who knew a cabbage could be so beautiful?

Flowers aren’t the only beauty on the plots – luscious plum tomatoes, smooth green-sided zucchini, and glowing carrots also have compelling charms!

But this cabbage beats them all, not only for its unusual colours, form, and texture but (with a farmer’s eye) for its perfection: there’s not a single pinhole to be seen. How did he do that?


Organic produce still growing has the same unearthly vibrancy that just-fallen autumn leaves have – a sheen, a shine, a vitality that dulls a bit only hours after it’s picked. I suspect our eyes are perceiving something outside the common light spectrum, something inherent to being alive and thriving.

We who live by supermarkets and even farmers’ markets rarely see this. “In living colour” became a catch phrase because it had real meaning. But today most urban residents don’t see much living colour from one week to the next. We’re immersed in artificial colours – the paint on walls, the dyes in our clothes, signage and street lights, tools and toys, the beiges and greys of cement and steel, sidewalks and construction, cars and computers. When was the last time you were surrounded by living colour?

“To see the world in a grain of sand”

The plots take us adventuring across all of human knowledge.

Food flowers help us learn about plant families and the care they need — but botany and agriculture are only the start of it! They easily connect us to history, geography, social studies, literature, culture, ecosystems, archaeology, and of course the culinary arts.

You probably recognize this squash flower – with a wild-bee pollinator! – but do you know the others here?

These are the flowers of a fava bean (Windsor bean, broad bean), grown from seed sent me by a UK filmmaker who collected them in Syria years ago and has grown them out in his allotment plot ever since.

The flowers are quite unlike those of beans from “the New World.” In the Middle Ages these were the only bean known in Europe.[1] Today, fresh pods are available in the market briefly in early summer.

Fava beans are a little work to prepare, but so delicious! Martha Stewart lists 15 recipes to try.

 

 

 

This “hedge” of coriander (cilantro) is in the same plant family as carrots and parsley (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae), easy to grow, and cultivated for a very long time. Archaeologists found coriander seed in Tutankhamen’s tomb (1300 BCE); the oldest find so far is from Israel about 6000 BCE. Imagine generations of households growing out coriander, handing a parcel of seeds on to their children, for eight thousand years!

Coriander “seed” (actually the fruit) has a citrus flavour that adds sparkle to curry powders or sausage, or is used whole in pickles. (Refrigerator pickles are a lovely way to use summer cucumbers.)

On the plots, the flowers attract beneficial insects that eat aphids

One of the prettiest food flowers is in the same family as marshmallow, hollyhock, and roselle (called sorrel in the Caribbean). Got it yet? Okra is believed to originate in “the Abyssinian [Ethiopian] center of origin of cultivated plants” along with melons, sesame, tef, and coffee. From there, people on the move took okra to northern Africa, Arabia, India, and beyond. Its culinary use was described by a traveller who visited Egypt in 1216.

Mature pods add a gluey thickness to soups: if you don’t like that, maybe you think you don’t like okra, but very young pods (“ladies’ fingers,” picked every day) lightly stir-fried have a tender crunch and a delicious green taste.


[1] Oddly, some people with circum-Mediterranean and African backgrounds have genetics that make fava beans toxic to them; if you’re one, you probably already know it. The condition used to be called favism, now “G6PD deficiency.”

Plots tip: Great success with carrot germination

Everyone wants to grow carrots, but they’re picky about germination: they insist on a fine soil and perfectly constant moisture at least until their third set of leaves is showing. Will, one of the GPO plotters, experimented with drip irrigation on raised beds, which he covered with damp burlap until the seedlings were up – a great success.

The Dubois kits are easy to assemble, and even the smallest kit has enough tape for two of our large plots. The water-wise drip tape delivers water exactly where it’s needed, which cuts usage by more than half, and an additional $40 buys a timer for hands-free early-morning watering. We held a “Tent Meet” skills-exchange to learn how the system works, and now several plotters have followed Will’s lead. Wish we had funds to give a kit to all our plotters!

drip irrigation