Sunday, December 18, 2011

gone to seed

It is a cliché of gardening prose that non-gardeners are not aware of the origins of the produce that they consume. I suspect that, similarly, many gardeners would not recognize vegetable plants that have grown past the stage from which one usually harvests crops. Just as an urban shopper who grabs a bag of scrubbed potatoes from a fluorescent-lit bin in the produce section of a supermarket may not be able to imagine those spuds freshly dug from a mound of soil, so may a gardener have no idea of what a lettuce or collard will become if left to itself.

As gardeners, we are concerned with maximizing production and the efficient use of soil and weather; once a plant has produced the leaves, fruits, flowers, and edible seeds that the we seek, we pull it and compost it to make room for the next round of succession planting. We may assuage our feelings of ruthlessness with ruminations on the soil cycle—on how the unwanted stalks, roots, and leaves will be transformed in the compost bin into soil in which we will grow similar vegetables again; nevertheless, the change in our perspective in which a plant goes from being the source of food to vegetal waste differs little from that of the littering driver for whom a bag of cooling French fries transforms into trash to be thrown through the car window.

Our activities with crops extend beyond simple harvesting of products at the end of seasons; for many plants, we intervene earlier in the life cycle to extract our food. This is especially the case for those plants whose leaves we eat, such as lettuces, collards, chard, and basil. Our objective with these leaf crops is to keep them in the early stages of their life cycles, when their focus is on generating as many stalks and leaves as possible to serve as a photosynthezing basis for later processes of flower and seed production. Our goals as gardeners conflict with the goals of the plant: whereas the plant wants to guarantee the survival of its genotype, we just want salad.

At some point in the season, because of heat or some genetic trigger, a leaf crop plant will usually overcome the impediments of gardeners and bolt, or enter into its flowering phase. When a plant like spinach or lettuce goes into full bolt, there is no more harvesting: the plant’s leaves change from tender and succulent to tough and structural, and are no longer edible, much less palatable.
And like any adolescent, the bolting lettuce plant has volatile chemicals coursing through its body; in the case of lettuce, the plant is manufacturing a burst of sesquiterpene lactones, the compounds that make a broken lettuce stem ooze milky white sap, and which render it suddenly so potently, spit-it-out bitter. When lettuce season is over, it’s over. – Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life 

Unlike lettuces or spinach, leaf crop plants like collards and basil are more dilatory and less dramatic in their bolting, and gardeners can still intervene to slow the process and stretch out the harvesting of leaves. Pinching the flowering tops off basil plants, for example, can head off bolting for months, until the plant pulls an end run in October and turns bitter enough to dissuade a gardener from continued meddling. Just last weekend (mid December), I harvested the last tiny leaves from the collard and kale plants that we had kept from bolting for an entire season, and only because I didn’t think that they would survive any more days of temperatures in the teens.

Every time I remove flowers from a basil or spinach plant, I reflect that much agriculture is really just an effort to keep plants in a state of arrested development. We struggle to stave off flowering so that we can extract the products of immaturity. I believe that our own culture retards us, the gardeners, similarly. Pop songs celebrate the heady, initial stages of romance and say nothing about long-term relationships. Women feel pressure to maintain the appearance of nubility even after rearing children. Pictures of disturbingly buff geriatrics start appearing in the ad windows of the browser sessions of middle-aged men. We are encouraged not to be who we are becoming but to try to remain who we once were. Our fight to stay young, or at least young-seeming, requires that we purchase clothing and gym memberships and cosmetics and plastic surgery and Viagra. Capitalists harvest disposable income from our attempts to keep age in abeyance.
Partly to remind myself of my resolve to resist the blandishments of industries intent on infantalizing me, I do not pull up every lettuce or arugula plant as soon as it has bolted. I enjoy watching a few plants grow up wild and spindly in the spandrels formed between cucumber trellises; watching them change into something completely different from the luscious  seedlings that we tended so anxiously in the spring; watching them fully realize their phenotype, becoming what they intended to become.

A plant fully gone to seed reminds me to heed Max Ehrmann’s advice to “take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”

Swiss Chard