I almost threw them out. The unidentified shoots popping up in last year’s vegetable garden, not yet tilled and planted were destined for the compost pile, until I took a second look.
Lettuce, I repeated to myself. Tiny leaves of lettuce. Cilantro. I recognized the familiar leaf, the shape and the fringe edges. We hadn’t planted seeds. But the previous summer, this was the section of earth where the lettuces and cilantro had been growing.
Volunteers, is the name gardeners give for seeds that miraculously plant themselves. I like that name, volunteer, as if the plant took it upon themselves to appear, but I keep on thinking of these plants as pioneers signed on for a difficult journey. So sometimes, I call them pioneers. Whether they are called volunteers or pioneers, they are an unexpected surprise. The soil has not been cleared of the roots from the previous fall nor prepped with compost, still the seeds germinate and poke their green sprouts up to greet the sun.
Those feisty volunteer plants can come from the seeds left behind from the previous year or they can be brought in by visiting birds and squirrels. While they are an unexpected gift, gardening experts recommend that you may want to transplant your volunteers to an alternate location, particularly in the case of vegetable crops. The soil gets tired if the same nutrients are being repeated used.
While I’m thinking about whether we should relocate the lettuce, I’m also noticing that one of the lettuce heads is almost ready for harvesting. Never, do I actually pull up an entire head for use, like the ones you’d buy at the Farmer’s Market. Instead, I harvest a few leaves while letting the plant continue to grow, the way I cut a few sprigs off an herb. This can work until the weather gets warm and the plant starts to bolt vertically towards the sky, ready to flower and seed. Lettuces do best, before intense heat arrives, but last summer we continued to have lettuce that survived beneath the shade of adjacent vegetables such as radishes and corn.
I’m no expert gardener. For me, it’s all about the cooking. Fresh lettuce and fresh herbs make the best salads.
On the other side of the garden, last year’s oregano is prospering alongside last year’s sage plant. Most of my herbs made it through the winter, with the exception of the basil which cannot tolerate the cold.
I’ve got parsley, rosemary and mint. Too much mint, I might add, because mint likes to travel. But the good news is that until the new basil sprouts, mint is an almost substitute in some recipes for basil. Often in a salad, a piece of basil is laid across a sliced tomato, but mint works just as well. It’s a little early in the season for a tomato crop, but try it with some store-bought tomatoes drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
In the Garden
Whether you are a committed gardener or were once a kid who liked to put their hands in the dirt, we all have memories of growing things. What are your earliest memories of a garden? Were you planting seeds or looking for earthworms? What did the soil and plants feel like? What did you hear? What did you smell? Try this exercise writing about your experience in prose and then try it as a poem. How are the two writing experiences different?
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