First up: a disclaimer. There are many, many rules about gardening that are completely unnecessary depending on your climate or soil or water situation. Potatoes can be grown in rows and hilled in the traditional manner, or grown in black trash bags, or even just thrown on the ground and covered with mulch, as I have just learned from Ruth Stout’s highly amusing tales in her book No Work Garden. (Thanks to my friend Linda for recommending it to me.) I have been planting potatoes in a diamond grid for a few years now, and mulching them heavily so they do not need to be hilled. It saves space and since I don’t find potatoes very pretty once the stalks start to die, I confine them to a space of about 15 feet x 5 feet along an edge. Then I plant flowers in front of them and don’t really look at them until they are ready to dig.
However, my anecdotes are not rules. The best fun in gardening is breaking the rules or problem solving around them. My husband plans things on graph paper before he plants them out. Every thing is symmetrical and orderly and I do love this about him. I walk around with a spade and consider the angles, then dig a hole. I move things around all the time. He doesn’t get how much fun that is, but I think he probably loves this about me.
So, plants that have bossed me around:
- Potatoes. I’ll start there, because they were a dismal failure in our hard clay soil. I tried for a few years and every time I dug them up, they were gnarly little lumps that would give cooks nightmares to peel. Not only that, I was plagued with nasty white worms the crawled just under the skin. I threw away a few of those crops and didn’t try again for years. As the soil loosened up with loving attention, I tried again, as described above, and have been getting abundant yields. The only problem now is storage. If they do get wrinkly and sprouted before they get used up, you can simply plant them in the spring when the ground warms up a little. Please don’t throw a wrinkly potato into the garbage disposal!
- Carrots. Same story as above. They like very loamy soil. But if you do have that, they can almost be grown year round. Not quite, but they can be stored in the ground for much of the winter. Google it. And they taste so much better than the ones in the produce section.
- Sweet potatoes. The only issue I had was that they vined all over the garden. I kept trying to pile the vines back onto themselves, and they kept crawling over the tomato cages. These did very well for me long before I grew regular potatoes. In fact, they grew so huge, I struggled to know how to cut them up. One potato was much more than I needed for a meal. It became one of the children’s favorite things to harvest, digging up these massive submarines in the fall.
- Sweet corn. One basic problem is space. I planted corn in double rows, about 8 inches apart. Then I left a normal sized space (so I could walk through to pick it) before the next double row. This meant that I could almost double the amount of corn I had space for in the garden. Corn is tall and shouldn’t be planted where it will shade other plants for a large part of the day. Also wildlife loves it. When we fenced our orchard, we tilled up a large section to grow corn and melons. Occasionally a deer would hop the fence and stroll through, wreaking havoc as it went. I really do not like that.
- Zucchini. Okay, this is super-easy to grow, but in my experience, it dies super-easy. Many times I have battled squash beetles and powdered mildew on the leaves. A plant can go from luscious and huge one day to a sad and dispirited pile of wilt the next. It is dramatic and sad. But the good news is, zucchini grows fast and is easy to start just by dropping seeds on a mound in the garden. Then there is a small, but not insurmountable problem of too much fruit to keep up with. One thing I learned from my neighbor is to leave one lunker of a zucchini on the plant and it will slow down the growth of the new ones, space them out a little, so to speak. If your plants do flourish, you could feed a small army. My children start looking suspiciously at casseroles and soups and even desserts when zucchini season is going strong.
- Peppers. My only problem with these lovely veggies is that it always takes too long until they are ready to pick. Occasionally I have a season where they don’t set fruits until late summer. The little girls watch anxiously and harvest peppers the instant they deem them big enough to eat. I plant a lot of them, because why not?
- Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower. One word: pests. I cannot stand those green worms that hatch once the white cabbage butterflies start flitting over the garden. I have fed broccoli crowns to the chickens when I couldn’t stomach how many worms were dropping out in a the salt water soak, because I know how easy it is to miss some and then they drop out in the kettle. Shivers. If I were starving, I wouldn’t quibble, but so far I am avoiding eating worms. This is the one exception I make to spraying poison on my plants. I confess that I have a spray bottle of Sevin for my cruciferous vegetables. It seems like fall crops are not plagued quite as much with pests, so I often wait until July to plant cruciferous vegetables. They can handle the chill of fall, and even survive light frosts.
- Melons. They are space hogs. They have no concept of social distancing, you might say. I have tried growing them at the edge of the garden where they can go wild down over a steep bank. It wasn’t very successful. Also I struggle to know whether they are ripe enough to pick, even with the “watch the tendrils” rule. But if you do raise even a few melons off one vine, you will feel very accomplished. Consider that a large watermelon can cost $6, and your plant may have cost $1. What is there to lose? Besides your dignity, of course, if you cut your prize open and it is still disappointingly pink inside. (On the other hand, gourds have the same vining tendencies without the risk of harvesting at the wrong time. When our boys were 5 and 7, they made $40 one fall by selling decorative gourds in a wheelbarrow set beside the road.)
- Peas. You knew this was coming, right? I love peas: the shelled variety, bursting sweet orbs of fresh flavor, but they are labor intensive. They can be grown on the ground in single rows. A friend of mine gets very impressive yields this way. Her rows are long and lush. Every year we discuss our crops and hers is always amazing, but I notice her wincing and rubbing her back as we speak about it. Picking peas is backbreaking work. If you have wire fences for them to grow on, it isn’t nearly as bad. Make a double row, install the fence in the middle so they share their support system. Then get ready to pick through the jungle to find the treasures. Totally worth it. I think. My mother-in-law has a neat trick. She plants her peas in double rows, but then she leaves the space of a row empty for other plants before she puts in another double row. This way the later plants can grow and fill in the garden when the peas come out in late June. My own strategy has been to pull the peas for the goats or till them back into the soil, then plant green beans or broccoli for a fall crop. Our season here is long enough to do that if the peas go in early.
That’s what pops up to the top when I think of bossy (as in, treat me right or I won’t produce) vegetables. I’m sure there are many other fascinating ones that you have grown or would like to try to grow.
(Zinnias, distracting the eye from the weeds, covering for the less comely plants, attracting the flittering butterflies, and providing endless bouquets for us all. Do plant zinnias.)