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The Alchemy of Gardening, or Lack Thereof

June 27, 2012

Some days, gardening seems like alchemy. It doesn’t seem like that much of a jump from turning seed into a yellow summer squash than straw into gold. In particular, vegetables that grow under the soil are particularly mysterious. This weekend, I found out that one of the main maxims of alchemy – “as above, so below” – as described by one of my favorite bloggers doesn’t apply in a straightforward way to gardening. While this phase in alchemy means that what you do to a symbol affects the symbolized object, it doesn’t exactly translate well to nature. Instead, I saw that what appears above the soil may actually be the opposite of what’s going on under the ground.

Last year, in late July, we noticed our potato plants were yellowing and wilting. Figuring that the plants were dying, we decided to see what we got for our work. Much to our surprise, we found pounds and pounds of potatoes. From our four crowded plants, we dug up about 10 pounds of produce!

I decided to plant potatoes again this year, as it seemed so simple last year. I ordered potato starts from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange because I wanted to use as many heirloom varieties as possible. Even though I put them in a bit late, the plants shot up quickly and their ample greenery looked even healthier than last year. So when I thought about what to bring for our church picnic this past Sunday, my mind immediately went to the pesto potato salad I made last year. After all, the plants looked healthier than last year, so logically, there should be even more potatoes.

Staking potatoes makes them less likely to fall over. It also prevents them from taking over all of your other plants, which they are wont to do.

Despite Chris’s warnings to wait, I started digging on Saturday. The first plant, which showed a little yellowing, produced a few good-sized potatoes but fewer than anticipated. Even worse, several had large green patches. The yellow-green color occurs when potatoes have been exposed to the sun while growing. As potato plants tend to fall over, this isn’t exactly a rare occurrence. It happens even more often in my garden because I plant into a shallow bed of soil with a pile of leaves underneath as part of lasagna gardening. But it would be fine if the potatoes just turned an odd color. Unfortunately, the yellow-green is a just symptom of the toxic chemical solanine, the same poison found in nightshade. Disappointed, I planted the green potatoes again so that they could resprout.

I then started digging up the next plant, hoping for better luck. But there was nothing there! Just roots with teeny potato balls. I ripped up one entire plant in confusion. I poked around the roots of others and similarly found nothing at all. Clearly, my pesto potato salad was a bust. (We ended up making pasta salad instead.)

After yelling at the garden for betraying me, I realized that I could be the problem. I knew my lack of potatoes wasn’t a seasonal issue. Most potatoes are harvested in the fall, but we pulled ours out last July. With some quick Googling, I realized that I had completely misinterpreted the plant’s lifecycle. The plants yellowing last July was a sign of the tops dying out. The plants had stopped putting energy into growing and were instead putting it into producing potatoes. In contrast, the healthy plants in our garden have put all of their effort into growing new leaves and none into growing potatoes. We’ll have to wait until the tops die off before I take a spade to the soil again.

Similarly, I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to harvest garlic at all this year. Most farmers and gardeners plant garlic in the fall. I assumed that planting then allowed the garlic to come up much earlier, maximizing growing season and yield. But taking a look at a few agricultural extension websites, I found out that garlic bulbs must be outside for at least three months in sub-50 degree weather for the cloves to grow properly. If you want to plant garlic in the spring, you can stick it in the fridge for two months beforehand. But we certainly didn’t do either of those things. I never got around to it in the fall and the day I planted it, I literally just grabbed garlic off of the counter and stuck it in the ground. So despite the fact that garlic is “absurdly easy” to grow and the tops look great, I suspect my lack of research has led to garlic-fail below the ground.

Harvested shallots.

Fortunately, we have had success with at least one of our subterranean vegetables. We planted shallots, which are like onions, but sweeter in flavor and more mild. They’re also substantially pricier. Chris was excited to grow them because he uses them all of the time at work. Like the potato plants, the shallots sprouted and grew quickly.. They eventually produced big, white, ball-like flowers that were rather pretty. We only found out afterwards that allowing the plant to flower degrades the quality of the fruit. Not long after we broke off the flowers, the part of the shoot near the ground began to yellow and dry. As you may be guessing by now, this is actually a good sign. We ended up with a good bowl of the shallots, perfect for cooking.

Like any good alchemist, I just had to learn what the signs meant to be successful. As with many things in nature, what looks one way on the surface may hide a very different biological story.

Have you grown potatoes or garlic? Have you ever radically miscalculated a gardening project?

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