We know we are in the thick of summer when all of the ingredients to make a farm fresh ratatouille are at hand (and how can it be ratatouille if it is not farm fresh?): tomato, garlic, onion, zucchini (courgette), eggplant (aubergine), bell pepper (poivron), carrot, marjoram, basil, and herbs de provence. For those of a more Southern Californian cuisine, we may think first of this as the salsa fresca season, a season truly worth celebrating no doubt!
Keep all these fruiting summer vegetable plants regularly picked and they will continue to reward you with their sweet, tangy, and intoxicating flavors. Let them produce submarine size zucchini's, pithy bitter eggplant, and fermenting tomatoes and they will punish you by cutting short their already fleeting season. And fleeting it is, so celebrate - this is about gratitude you know!
Of course summer is about the work at hand: harvesting, weeding, and pruning for these crops; but it is also about planning and preparing, for Fall's crops. Eliot Coleman is a longtime organic grower from Maine. He is the author of the bible of small organic market farming, The New Organic Grower, and most recently, The Winter Harvest Handbook. For six whole years in Maine, Eliot Coleman shunned the "regular" summer season and focused all of his energies on growing in the winter for local markets. I don't usually recommend that Westerners look to the East for wisdom, but in this case (and most of the times Eliot Coleman speaks) we should listen up. If he can do it in Maine, then it should be no problem for us here in Southern California to provide ourselves with fresh garden produce all winter long.
One of Eliot Coleman's main lessons is of "plant positive" gardening. This approach to gardening and farming cuts to a simple yet unfortunately little respected or understood premise (see health care system in America). It is the idea that plants like all organisms are adapted to resist pests and diseases, they are meant to thrive and produce abundantly here if their basic needs are met. If children are given love, support, diversity, healthy food, wilderness, and activity they will most likely thrive. Plants need good soil, sunlight, a diversity of organisms, water, and air. If they are given these things they will be strong and able to resist the forces of nature that threaten them. They will "go forth and multiply" as the saying goes. This simple premise is the foundation for all the hopes of attaining a truly sustainable agriculture. Corn for example is a summer crop, it cannot germinate in cool soils, and heat is required if the plants are going to grow vigorously and producing an abundance of sweet ears. Wait for April or May to plant corn, when the soil is warm and the hot summer is approaching for its maturation stages. Timing planting and maturity of crops to link up with the seasons in which they naturally "want to grow" is an essential first step in growing a crop in a "plant positive" way.
For crops other than the true heat lovers (tomatoes, beans, melons, corn, cucumbers, etc.) this means Fall, Winter, and Spring are often the best times to garden. Most of our favorite garden veggies (i.e. carrots, cilantro, spinach, potatoes, beets, lettuce, onions, potatoes, radish, chard, leek, garlic, turnips, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts) naturally thrive and taste better in the cooler weather found during the California Fall, Winter, and Spring. Not only this but we actually get some rain during these seasons, this coupled with cool weather can really cut down on how much precious water we need to garden successfully.
I love gardening when it is not as hot and dry as the summers here, and I anxiously await the crops of the cool season. By all means, celebrate the bruchetta and ratatouille of summer, but if you also to wish enjoy potato leek soup, sweet root vegetables, brassicas, and greens in January start planning and planting now. For example today in the Camp Stevens Farm and Garden we are sowing the seeds of broccoli, cabbage, artichoke, fennel, lettuce, spinach, chard, arugula, carrots, and beets. We should be enjoying these crops in the coming months, and you can too if you come visit us this year.
So if that zucchini you planted in May is languishing (and it will after 3 months!) or the lettuce is getting bitter (and it will after 10 cuttings and a hot July!) don't just let those things rot and go to seed as the garden waits for your spring fervor next year. Get out there, compost that pathetic crop residue (or feed it to the chickens), dig the soil again, and add some compost. Think of the garden in California as a never ending eden, as space opens up fill it with the crops that correspond to the season, and enjoy garden fresh produce all year in the sun while people in Montana shovel snow to get to their winter carrots. This is the land of milk and honey, now what great cool season crop would you like to enjoy this year?
Oh yeah, order flower bulbs and garlic if you want to plant them this Fall,