Mary, Mary, quite contrary.

It’s looking like the end of the summer growing season. Sad.

I’ve always had a pretty black thumb, even with houseplants, but this year was my first experiment with true gardening. I’d call it relatively successful. For the first time in my adult life, I have outdoor space, even if it’s only a 3′ x 7′ plot. It was important to me to try to grow my own organic food, and I have enjoyed taking care of my little plants.

I wasn’t too ambitious — I started with three types of tomatoes. I bought a roma plant, but grew seedlings for beefsteak and little sweetie (cherry-ish) tomatoes. I also planted a few okra seedlings, which grew into three strong plants. I bought two pepper plants — green and red. (I’ve since discovered that they’re really the same plant; the color of pepper depends on the length of time on the vine. Not sure yet if that’s a racket.) Early on, I came home to find the green pepper plant laying on its side, its stem looking suspiciously chewed by some vagrant animal. A chipmunk or rabbit, I presume. But the “red” survived.

I also attempted to grow parsley with some seeds I’ve had for a few years. That was a total bust once I put them outside. Basil from old seeds did sprout but didn’t flourish until I moved them from pot to earth, under the tomato plants. I bought new mint and rosemary plants, but both have struggled for some reason. I must have more sun on my patio than I thought?

Mostly I just winged it, but I did consult some sources that really helped:

One of the most interesting tips suggested used coffee grounds as natural fertilizer. I just sprinkled my weekend coffee remains around the plants and either watered or waited for rain. The grounds are rich in nitrogen, which is important to help the plants grow. You can’t overload them though since the grounds are especially acidic, and you could end up with spindly plants and limited fruit production. But it’s a great way to use what you’d otherwise throw away.

Some lessons learned:

1. Start early.

I bought organic tomato and okra seeds back in March, right as the weather started to turn. I planted them in little, compostable pots and kept them inside for six weeks, nurturing them as they grew little seedlings. I was so organized.

Then I planted them — some in the ground, some in pots. Only about a third made it, and they took forever to really bear fruit. My beefsteak plant has just sprouted in the last two weeks, so I’m worried those buds won’t even make it if a fall cold snap comes along.

I’ll need to start planting in January. Sheesh.

2. Plant a ton of okra.

It’s too bad that okra is a such polarizing vegetable. Sure, it can be slimy and gross, but it’s also delicious. And proudly, popularly southern. I don’t bread and deep fry it like most; I follow my grandmother’s method and just sauté with some chopped onion. Yum.

Even with three plants, these things (well, mine) grew so slowly that I was picking 1-2 okra a week. I’d chop and freeze them immediately, but it took a couple of months to store up enough for one meal. Next year I guess I’ll have to plant six or more to enjoy a true harvest.

3. Don’t let said okra out of my sight.

Once an okra stem sprouts, it grows quickly. You don’t really want to eat okra past a certain size because it gets really hard and gourd-like. Several times I left an okra to grow on a Thursday night but left for the weekend. By Sunday night/Monday it was reaching danger territory.

4. I probably shouldn’t go out of town, even overnight.

Ok, maybe that’s drastic. But I had sitters checking on my garden while I was in Australia, and it was in a shambles when I returned. We haven’t had rain here in like 20 days. While growth in my little sweeties exploded, many of the leaves shriveled. It was slightly apocalyptic.

5. Peppers take forever to ripen.

I haven’t had so much luck growing peppers to full, unblemished maturity. My early ones all developed a rotten place so I picked them and cut it out. I usually dice or slice the peppers and freeze them for later cooking, so I have been able to salvage some.

I’ve not yet made it all the way to the red pepper stage though. I have two large ones still cookin’ on the vine, so I’m hoping I’ll have success right here in the home stretch. The alternative is the $2.49 red pepper from Guatemala I had to buy last week. $2.49 each! From Guatemala!

(I’ve taken international business, so I understand economies of scale and the benefits of global trade, but it’s hard to fathom how it’s cheaper to drive/ship/fly/drive that pepper to me rather than grow it down the road.)

Did you know that in Australia they call red peppers “capsicums”?

6. Find some organic or human-friendly pest control.

These little buggers are out of control. Some caterpillar-ish pest is decimating my leaves, especially okra and even basil! I murder them when I see one, but they are good at hiding. What could you spray that won’t harm you when you ingest it? I hear rumors about some sort of Epsom salt concoction, but I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet. Any suggestions or tips you have are welcomed.

7. Take no prisoners.

I didn’t realize how competitive my father was until the Great Tomato Contest of 2010 was born. I had been telling him about my summer vegetable-growing project. So, on one trip to Lowe’s with me, he bought a couple of tomato and pepper plants. Once those were planted, he proceeded to goad me every day about his tomato production versus mine. He’d start every conversation with, “Well, I have thirty tomatoes and four peppers…” Sometimes he’d stop by my house unannounced or when I wasn’t home (damn that extra key!) to spy on my garden progress.

He wasn’t solely guilty; there was smack talk on both sides, complete with aggressive picture texting. It got ugly.

(But I’m pretty sure I won.)

For all that time and effort, I’ve made roughly two meals with my bounty: a roasted tomato soup and a side dish of sautéed okra. Also a batch or two of marinara sauce. Sigh.

Guess what I didn’t try to make with my okra and tomatoes?

Stewed okra and tomatoes.



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