We’ve have had a good haul of homegrown produce during January, normally a slow month, – nearly 20 pounds. There have been peas, a few herbs, and some carrots. But most of the credit goes to our little orange tree which produced for the first time along with a one of our neighbor’s orange trees that fortunately (for us) has a branch hanging over into our backyard. I did a rather lazy job of planning and planting our winter garden this year. I found myself so mired in canning tomatoes and jam that I neglected to put the peas in as early as I would of liked am now far short my favorite vegetable. Many of my pea seeds never even stood a chance at full maturity; I planted them in a raised bed under the roof line of our garage and they were pounded into oblivion by rain pouring off of the roof during five days of storms in December. Most of our greens grew a bit and then mysteriously disappeared; perhaps mowed down by the ubiquitous sow bugs that inhabit our garden? I planted a crop of late fall potatoes (my experience being that potatoes do not do well in Pasadena during very warm weather) and they were growing beautifully only to have their greens pressed into the ground so hard that they yellowed and began to rot during the aforementioned heavy rains. I ended up harvesting only slightly more potatoes than I planted in the first place. I planted too many carrots and neglected to thin them sufficiently so I have been left with a glut of relatively small orange roots that, while tasty, are quite the pain in the ass (or the hands, in my case) to clean and peel. I had intended to plant cover crops over some fallow land, but somehow forgot to do so until now.
But I think that more than anything else my problem with our winter garden is that it doesn’t feel, at all, like winter. While the weather is certainly cooler than in the summer and we get the occasional light frost we’ve seen most of our winter days with high temperatures in the 70s and days of the low 80s not uncommon. Such temperatures leave me at a bit of a loss as to what to plant – warm season or cool season? Do such designators have any functional meaning in an environment where spring, summer, and fall highs top 110 degrees and winter days can climb into the 80s, yet winter frost is always a possibility? Where rain falls only in the winter and not in terribly predictable amounts nor at predictable or regular intervals? Specifically I wonder whether this year’s heavy December rains are the most intense we will see this winter and whether or not the danger of frost has passed? My deciduous fruit trees seem to think that it is spring and have begun to leaf out. Should I follow their lead and start planting warm season crops (squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, corn) in the ground? I don’t want to put in all that effort only to have it washed or frozen away if winter weather returns, however, I would certainly start crops if I trusted that it was safe to do so. We’ve had April weather where temperatures have been over 100 degrees – I would love to start my crops now so that they are robust when the dry, heat inevitably blasts in.
Rather than demoralizing me, I need to use the unpredictability of the weather to encourage me in my garden. Even the very small-scale of our yard shows us how fragile our food system really is and how much many of us (including myself) have to learn and adapt to if we are to break our reliance on distantly produced industrial food. For now, I can afford to buy my organic spinach at the farmer’s market or the grocery store but given the shit storm of food/land speculation, unpredictable climate, economic decline, and high energy prices brewing I am not so sure that will always be the case. Our food safety net is slowly eroding. So last week I started tomatoes inside to plant on the first day of spring and this weekend I will go out and plant a few beans – perhaps the beans will succeed despite the calendar’s insistence that it is winter. I will dutifully record the planting date and, hopefully, harvest dates in hopes of discovering what a successful winter garden in Pasadena can include. I will wonder if the climate is stable enough for my results to be meaningful or if the climate is in such flux that this year’s success and failures bear no relation to next year’s potential. And I will be glad that, for now, we don’t seem to be short of oranges.