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Keep Planting!

What I Learned from a Decade in the Garden

by Jocelyn Engman

spring garden
Abundance can be yours ... with perservance.

When my husband Tim and I moved back to the family farm to start a market garden, we knew we were walking into hard work and high risk. So we said, “We’ll give it five years and see if we can make a go of it. If we can, great. If we can’t, we’ll at least learn something.”

That was a decade ago, and we’re still here, sowing and hoeing and tending our plants. Over the years we’ve grown basically anything you can grow in the Iowa garden, but our main focus is herbs, tomatoes, and garlic, which we make into products we sell at farmers’ markets. You might have even met us if you’ve come across the Pickle Creek Herbs booth at your local market.

Over the years we’ve seen many vendors come and go, and there are days I wonder why any of us sticks around. Market gardening is a lot of work for sometimes truly pathetic pay. Maybe we’re real stubborn. Maybe we just like warm sun and fresh air. Or maybe we’ve fallen in love with the stories of the garden and what those stories have to say. . .

Yelling over forgotten broccoli may come back to haunt you

Our first year gardening we grew Calabrese broccoli, an heirloom that to this day is still the best-tasting broccoli I have ever eaten. To show off Calabrese’s amazing flavor, I made a big pot of broccoli cheese soup to sample out at market. The soup was a hit, but the broccoli was not, because Tim accidentally left it in the cooler back home. I was incensed, and all the way home from market I let him know it.

calabrese broccoli
Calabrese broccoli (photo from My Patriot Supply)

And then a couple of weeks later I completely forgot to pack our Sugar Lumps, our precious pre-Fourth of July tomatoes, and I knew what I was eating for dinner that night—I was eating crow.

To this day, when I feel frustration building over a little mistake, I try to remember the Sugar Lumps and embrace patience.

Exploring what colors tomatoes can be is better than assuming all tomatoes are red

All my life I thought I knew how tomatoes looked and tasted, and then I began reading garden-seed catalogs. I spent hours poring over pictures and descriptions of tomatoes I never knew existed—green ones, yellow ones, white ones, black ones, striped ones. And each variety had a history and its own flavor—such a range of flavors!

More than 100 varieties later, I’ve elevated tomatoes from a boring salad garnish to an infused olive oil and a must-have on the summer dinner table.

Our market gardening adventure opened up a whole new world of taste for me, and now I wonder what else I may discover just by learning to explore.

Build a bad fence, and you’ll end up with cows in your cabbages

It was midnight and storming when we got the call from my dad: “It’s raining, and the electric fence is down, and the cows are tromping all over the garden. I can’t get them rounded up and at this point I’m not sure there’s anything left.”

Armed with flashlights and D batteries, we raced our truck to our muddy fields and spent a wet and foggy night chasing cows we couldn’t see through a maze of electric fence. It was Jurassic Park in Iowa with cows. We wanted to get mad at those stupid cows, but really the whole thing was our fault. We had built a bad fence. Luckily the cows only ate a few tender cabbage plants, but now I use that night as a lesson for whenever things go wrong: Are the cows being stupid or did I build a bad fence? I can’t mind-control cows, but I absolutely can control their fence.

Keep planting: this might be your year for bumper garlic

Gardening is addictive, and here is why: Every year you put your heart, your money, and your time into the ground. You put your seeds in the soil on faith, in the hope that you’ll get a little something back for all your trouble and care.

Most years the weather cooperates and you get back pretty much what you expected. Some years, however, the sky refuses to cough up a single raindrop and the harvest is a bust. You can’t do anything but sit back and philosophize, “Well, there’s always next year!”

But then there are the years when it all comes together—and you go out to your garlic patch and pull up heads the size of your hand. Oh, the exhilaration of success! You’ll never forget this glorious year, this harvest to beat all harvests. The abundance that can be yours with perseverance . . . that’s gardening!

You never know when the tomato plants might come back to life

Our second year of growing should have made us quit. I will never forget the burning sun, the eye-stinging sweat, the cracked earth, and the dearth of water that marked the drought of 2005. Temperatures hovered above 100 degrees into October, and our well pump kept dying.

We were irrigating 1,000 tomato plants representing 70 different heirloom varieties, and some just couldn’t take the heat. Every day I watched leaves drop off our cream Roma plants until nothing was left but the crusty brown stems tethered to the trellis. “Well,” I said, “So much for trying to grow cream Roma.”

I didn’t have the energy to pull out the dead plants, so I ignored them . . . until one day a bit of green at the ground grabbed my eye. Lifting up out of the dead stems and leaves were new shoots. The tender, tenacious life grew and grew and even produced fruit before frost finally put that awful year to rest.

“You never know what’s possible in the garden,” I say. “I’ve witnessed resurrection in my tomatoes!”   

Visit Pickle Creek Herbs' Tasting Room in Fairfield at 104 S. 3rd St., or visit them online:

picklecreek.com.

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