I’m trying to break a bad gardening habit. I’m trying to resist the urge to over-plant, to stuff the vegetable beds to bursting point no matter how good it makes me feel.
You see, when visitors ask for a tour of my gardens, I do a lot of apologizing-- for the small size of the zucchini plants, for the holes chewed in the tomatillo and cucumber leaves, for the broccoli beheaded by deer, sure, but really, I’m making excuses for the dark splotches of soil marring the beds.
“Don’t look over there, “ I say and lead bewildered guests from those dreaded gaps.
It takes considerable willpower to decide that another basil plant should not be tucked in here, more lettuce should not be planted there, a vining squash plant should not cover that dirt smudge between the peppers. It’s just that there’s something unseemly about the summer solstice approaching and bare earth still being on display…around the beans, the fennel, the eggplant, even the tomatoes. Most years the garden is in its full green glory right about now with the peas and favas producing faster than I can pick them, baby potatoes and carrots and zucchini in abundance, the second crops of lettuce, radishes and spinach gracing our table. Giving all that green.
Not this year.
And so some little voice inside my head tells me I’m a lazy gardener for allowing all that dirt to show itself. I can just hear the resident rabbits thanking me for leaving such nice gaps in the raised beds just for them—a place to sit while they nibble through young radicchio and chard and fenugreek. The deer nod their approval of the clear, wide paths between the kale plants. The robins appreciate the worms within easy reach. Little kids, cats, dogs...just about everyone but the impatient gardener likes all that dirt in mid-June.
What is it that compels some of us to rush out and fill the empty spaces in our gardens? Is it earnest advice from intensive-gardening advocates who would have us broadcast seeds thickly to get the most produce possible? Is it the fear that if we don’t, Nature will, and we’re not exactly thrilled by what Nature is offering—those grasses and weeds that we already spend hours yanking? Is it some deep desire to impose human order on the wild? Or some notion of aesthetics: were we taught at a young age that lawn and vegetables and flowers are beautiful unless threaded through with brown patches of soil? Is it competitiveness—a case of my-garden-is-better-than-your-garden disease (but not with all that dirt showing around the edges)? Do we suffer from some itch to fill the view akin to the tendency to jump into silences in conversation, our fear of quiet?
Why are we uneasy with the gaps?
My grandfather wasn’t. His World War II Victory garden was planned, carefully planned, to provide plenty of room between plants, between rows, so much so that he probably plotted ample plant spacings to the quarter inch. My parents, on the other hand, attended the school of intensive gardening and so packed plants closely together like mosaic tiles.
If I give into temptation, I’ll follow my parents’ example and the garden will certainly look better sooner—with that lush full greenness splashed on magazine covers. But really, the gaps are good. Plants, like children, need breathing room. Some space to push out their roots, stretch their limbs, set their fruit without the stress of someone pushing them around.
Steve Solomon, in his thought-provoking, even startling book, Gardening When It Counts, writes about the difference between the actual nutrient values of vegetables grown well (in terms of soil composition and plant spacing) and those grown haphazardly. Those gaps right now mean healthier vegetables later. They will not over-compete for root space or water—they will suffer far less stress than the same plants nestled close together.
Oh dear, my closely-spaced carrots might not carry as much vitamin goodness as I had thought? My kale plants with their tips touching one another might not be as super a food as I had assumed? That multi-colored carpet of lettuce is lackluster in the nutrient department?
Okay. In the name of good gardening, I’m changing my ways. I’ll give the kale two feet between plants, two feet between rows; the carrots one-to-two inches and 18 inches between rows. I will not plant more lettuce in the nooks and crannies: I’ll sow it every couple of weeks, but in the designated spaces for the lettuce crops, with the 10”-12” spacing Solomon recommends between plants. I’ll think back to my grandfather’s gardening ways and retrain my eye to embrace the swaths of soil, to appreciate, not apologize for them.
(For more photos of the garden, additional mid-June recipes, and a listing of summer cooking classes, visit Open View Gardens’ website: http://openviewgardens.com)