Time to plant the peas

Sat, 03/12/2016 - 7:15am
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There has been a somewhat dubious advertisement playing over the airwaves of late. To the background song of “Food, Glorious Food,” from the musical “Oliver,” the Cox cable ad would have us believe that in future years we will all be able to use a 3-D printer to print out exactly what we wish to eat. With all the style of Willy Wonka, colorful, supposedly edible ‘food’ oozes out of machines. The kids are in paradise. The ad cuts out to a young child, forlorn and scrawny, seated in a room devoid of all warmth. “That’s what I’m going to do with my four gigabytes,” says the child. Ouch. Will someone please give this child some real food? 

Real food is what gardening is all about. Real food is not dumping a powdered mix of nutrients dreamed up by some techie in California, who with little time to eat, and littler still to cook, if he even knows how, suggests his powdered concoctions may be a game-changer in the way we eat. This came from an article in The New Yorker sometime last year. I was suitably unimpressed and tossed the guy’s name and product out of my mind.  The magazine, I recycled. 

Somewhat later, this article on changing the way we all may eat in the future was referred to in another article in another publication. The writer said if that was the way of the world, she wouldn’t want to be there. I agree. Why should we, as a society deny ourselves the pleasures of eating a rich variety of foodstuffs? And why should we deny ourselves the rituals that go along with cooking and dining together as families?  Okay, okay, I know the strain of a growing world-wide population, along with the effects of climate change will change the way we may have to approach our food supply, but wouldn’t it be better if we all had small gardens in our backyards than on relying on others to determine what goes into our mouths?

So, here it is, almost Saint Patrick’s Day, the day we celebrate at home by planting the peas. Some ‘expert’ gardeners will think that mid March is too early to plant peas. They determine the appropriate time to start planting by how the soil crumbles in their hands, or some such thing. 

It’s important for peas to get an early start so they will bear fruit before the hot sun of late June burns them up. Our philosophy is that unless the soil is frozen, as it was last year, the earlier the peas are planted the better. The peas and the peas alone will determine when the time is right to germinate. 

The peas we plant — and we plant a lot of them — do more than just nourish us all winter long. (Blanched and frozen in gallon bags, we take out just the amount we need at any given time.) Peas, as all legumes do, fix nitrogen in the soil. So, for us they act as a cover crop, adding nourishment to the soil for the tomatoes and peppers that will be planted when the peas are done.

Fixing nitrogen involves pulling it out of the atmosphere in its gaseous form and storing it in the plants’ roots. The legumes do not do this all on their own, but with the help of the bacteria Rhizobium. To get the full effect, do not pull the pea plants out of the ground when they are done producing. Just cut them off at the soil line. As the roots decompose, the nitrogen will be released into the soil.

What? You’re not ready to plant because the garden has yet to be roto-tilled? Good. All you need is a pitchfork. It’s easy enough to till up an area adequate for planting peas with your pitchfork. It also allows you to get rid of the weeds by pulling them out, instead of just grinding them up and burying them again, which, well, just results in more weeds. (Admit it, it’s happened to you. You roto-tilled and three weeks later the garden was full of weeds again.)

Not roto-tilling has many other advantages. Those types of machines produce a lot of carbon emissions, and their deep reach into the soil destroys its structure. Plus, hand tilling allows you to keep the little plants that spring up from last year’s garden. We let the last lettuces of the fall go to seed and when those seeds, like the peas, feel it’s time to germinate and grow, they do. (You would be surprised how early this can happen.) 

Ditto for the dill, which planted once, many years ago, continue to come up all by themselves, year after year. All we do is nothing. 

One ‘weed’ that you may wish to keep around is clover. It too is a legume and so “fixes” nitrogen in the soil. The soil in many of our non-vegetable garden beds is rather gravelly and devoid of organic matter, being on the terminal moraine that we are. Leaving clover to grow here and there has made a marked difference in improving the soil. 

Of course allowing clover to grow is just one trick in the bag. Compost is another, and we continue all winter long taking our vegetable food scraps out to the compost pile. Some of the food scraps may get eaten by deer, but the amount of garbage we take to the transfer station is greatly reduced, and that’s a good thing. The central, state landfill in Johnston is quickly filling up, and the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which runs the land fill is greatly encouraging backyard composting.  (It has all kinds of tips on how to do so on its Facebook page.)

Some worry that a compost pile attracts rats, and sometimes they do, especially if things like bread and meat scraps get in there. And that leads us to this week’s “Tips from Travis.” To kill rats without poison, make a mixture of cornmeal and powdered cement, with a little added sugar. Place this out, with a little bowl of water next to it. The rats and mice eat the mix, drink the water, and then guess what happens? C’mon, use your imagination. By the way, Travis says the carcasses don’t smell, either.