Toward the Lenten Garden

Watch me exercise restraint by planting only 20 types of tomatoes

For many people, this past plague year was one of garden discovery; for me, it was the year of garden burnout. I underestimated the spiritual and emotional strain the year would place upon me, and overestimated my ability to tend a modest garden while caring for three children under age eight. The garden, in its second season, struggled, clay soil and the verdant Missouri weeds taking their toll.

Though I did a lot of work in the garden, many of the plants were unproductive, and the total yield was disappointing for the effort and the range of crops we had planted. By the end of the season, I was bitter and heartsick and preparing to take a year off from growing annual vegetables, at least. A green manure crop, planted and left to rot for the 2021 growing season, would do both the soil and my spirit good.

Well. I’m not, as you can probably guess, going through with it. But I will be simplifying this garden year. I will dig out no new beds, but plant only my existing spaces. Where in the past I have had a magpie eye for varieties and vegetables, planting “just one or two” of everything I could fit in, I will plant only a few easy annual crops: alliums (garlic and onions), tomatoes, peppers, pole beans, salad greens, and basil. No squash to feed the vine borers, no root vegetables to languish in our limestone-and-clay soil. No single-packet sowing of corn yielding two (2) bowls of popcorn. No attempts at multi-crop interplanting or radical season extension. Just a simple slate of things that I know will feed us well. My garden will be a model of restraint and self-discipline, an expression of Lenten discipline, leading, I hope, to a rich reward.

Of course, even within that restrained list of plants, there is much to wonder at. Ease and productivity do not mean lack of variety, necessarily. We are growing four varieties of garlic; they require little care other than a bit of weeding and an easy mid-summer harvest. Three of these types are heirloom varieties we acquired last year, but one type has an unusual history: two years back we planted organic garlic from the grocery store around a few new fruit trees. The planting did not do too well—the heads were small and of little account—but we dug the garlic and ate it nonetheless. After another year, however, more garlic came up in the same areas, and this time the plants were enormous, often with multiple heads clumped together in one spot. I assume we missed some heads at our first digging, but I’m amazed at the difference in the plants from year to year; if anything, we neglected them more the second time around. In any case, we saved some seed garlic from that “volunteer” strain, and I notice that it is already showing increased vigor as compared to our other types, with earlier and larger shoots poking up from the ground. Maybe I should leave some of my other types to grow for an extra year as an experiment.

We are also growing several types of perennial onions, a crop type that I recommend for low-effort productivity. You’ll be familiar with shallots, which grow in clumps like garlic and can be divided and replanted each year, and scallions or bunching onions, which can also be continuously divided and replanted as a perennial. Less familiar are Egyptian walking onions, a green onion type that produces tiny bulblets on the ends of its foliage and appears to be unkillable; and potato onions, which have a clumping habit but produce a medium-sized bulb that I hope can serve as our primary yellow onion. Alliums, then, should be simple and prolific this year.

Tomatoes and peppers are somewhat demanding crops, but I know how to grow them and have the infrastructure in place already. Moreover, when I’m not messing around with other stuff, I can get a lot of food out of these. My favorite types of each to grow fall into particular categories: I like the tomatoes best that have a tart, umami, savory flavor rather than being excessively sweet. Usually dark colored varieties like Black Krim or Cherokee Purple have that quality, though there are pink types like Granny Cantrell or Pink Berkeley Tie Dye that do as well. For peppers, our family eats a lot of thin-walled frying peppers—these can go from plant to table in about twenty minutes flat. Just rinse them off, dry them, and toss onto a hot cast iron pan with a little oil and salt until they wilt and char slightly, then top with grated cheese. Shishitos are our favorites because they aren’t excessively sweet, but any frying pepper that’s not too spicy for the kids will do.

As to beans, greens, and basil, my restraint will be exercised simply in planting fewer varieties in an organized way. We have seed for many types, because seed catalogues are the one marketing tool that slips under my native sales resistance. But this year I will do simple, organized plantings of just one type of bean (probably Kentucky Wonder) and a couple types of basil and greens. We also have perennial greens that are now well-established—sorrel and sculpit (Silene vulgaris, or “bladder campion,” wonderfully) both of which are favorites with the family and should only get more productive.

You may be thinking, as these species and varieties stack up, that this garden isn’t sounding particularly ascetic after all. (I haven’t even touched on the trees or perennials we’re planting.) But this is a garden, not a cloister, and I can only renounce so much. And anyway, Easter is coming soon.