Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

There is a great concept for seasonal eaters in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She calls it a vegetannual, and it looks like this:

The idea is, you think of all the crops in the garden as being a single plant – the vegetannual. By tracing this plant through the various steps of an annual plant’s life, you get an idea of what is in season when (though the entire sequence is condensed in Central Oregon’s very short growing season).

So, imagine a seed. You plant it, water it, and the first thing it does after sprouting is grow leaves. This corresponds with spinach, leaf lettuce, corn salad, lambsquarters, and more: the first spring greens.

An annual plant (one that grows through its full life cycle and dies after a single growing season) has one specific goal: to produce seed. So after the plant has grown leaves (and of course, a root system to support them), it begins to gather some of those leaves together in its center, preparing to create a flower stalk. That gathering of leaves becomes head lettuce, cabbage, and that sort of thing.

Next, the tightly clustered leaves begin to open outward, making way for a flower stalk shooting up from their center. The stalk forms flower buds; these are the broccoli and cauliflower.

Eventually the plant flowers. We do eat some flowers – squash and nasturtium blossoms come to mind – but at this point we’re getting excited for the really good part: the first tender fruits, those we eat in their extreme immaturity. Zucchini, cucumbers, snow peas and green beans are good examples here. Soon we get to sample the riper fruits, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and shelling peas. As the fruit develops even further, toughening its rind and maturing its seed, we start to have melons, and then even later, pumpkins and other winter squash, with very hard rinds, completely developed and viable (able to grow) seed, and long-term storage capabilities.

The final stage of this seasonal proto-veggie are the roots and tubers. In the case of potatoes and sweet potatoes, their development is another way that the plant ensures itself another generation (these plants grow from their tubers but also produce seed).

In the case of carrots, beets, and parsnips, the plants are actually biennials, which means they do everything an annual plant does, but they spend one full season just developing their leaf and root structure, not flowering until their second year. Thus, as winter approaches, these plants drain the energy from their leafy top growth, storing it in the root for safekeeping underground during cold temperatures. That’s why a carrot harvested in November tastes sweeter and more delicious than one harvested in July.

Clearly, not everything falls neatly into these categories. Radishes, a vegetable we harvest primarily for their root, are one of the earliest crops to come ready in spring. Many spring crops (broccoli, peas, greens) are grown for a second round in fall.  But nevertheless, if you pay attention, you will find that the concept of the vegetannual can help you understand which vegetables are in season at any particular time.

This spring on our farm (and, judging from the reports of our farmer friends, all over Central Oregon), we had an extended period of leaves (surely you recall the ten weeks of salad) and then, suddenly and miraculously, skipped over the heads and buds straight to fruit! Eggplants and summer squash galore!

The very long spring, which lasted through most of the summer, was to blame for this strange occurrence in more than one way. Of course, the cool weather limited the growth of the plants designed to grow in warmer conditions, delaying their maturation until later than usual – hence, we didn’t get the first tomatoes until this week, mid-September. But where did all the broccoli and cabbage (that we should have been eating in early July) go? And what about the peas? Well, the plants were eaten right up before they had a chance to do their thing. There were two squads of raiders attacking them: slugs from the ground, and birds from the air. We’ve been using a lot of mulches, more this year than ever before, and since slugs are supposedly not a problem in Central Oregon, we worried the mulch was to blame (creating a moist slug habitat not usually present around here). But other growers have had similar problems this year, leading us to suspect the weather. There’ve bird problems every year, but this year was by far the worst, with no preventive measure proving itself particularly effective. It seems likely that this, too, was weather-related, as the garden was one of the only sources of food back when nothing else was growing.

But through persistence and the eventual coming of summer, things have been looking up the last few weeks! We’ve had lots of lovely fruits and survived one frost and two freeze warnings. So here’s to late summer and the resilience of growing things.

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