Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Peak Harvest

Warm breezes from the south.  Humid evenings with the fan blowing in the bedroom.  I linger outside at dusk, enjoying the rare perfectness of the temperature, which is neither hot nor cold, while staring at the climbing pea plants in the fading light.  Because of the sunny days, the peas are blooming, the broccoli and cauliflower are ready all at once, and the leafy greens, just days ago content to live quietly on the ground, suddenly shoot upwards into flowering stalks.

I could be describing summer in the mountains, or in the Northwest, or in New England, but, instead, this is late January in central Texas.  Just a month after the winter solstice, and just this side of our coldest (or, at least, most likely to be cold) time of the year, is the Bizarro Summer, when warm-on-the-heels-of-cold temperatures transform the garden.  If that all sounds a bit too sweet, then rest assured that, blissful as the evening air may be, this rapid transition from quiet-hunkered-down-in-the-cold garden to hellbent-on-reproducing garden is nothing if not totally annoying.

The moral of the late-January heat is always the same.  Don't wait.  Spend out.  Harvest early, harvest often, and don't worry about whether there will be anything left later in the season.

Yet, here I am again, with a row of lettuces growing into spiral towers, broccoli plants flowering yellow along the house, and four carefully-spaced, ginormous tat soi plants developing flower buds.  Not to mention the already-flowering arugula and its neighbor, the about-to-flower mustard.  While there are this-year specific reasons why I have ended up here – the greens were slow to gain size last fall because of a caterpillar population explosion, and the lasting cold weather at the start of the year made it seem that I had more time this year – the truth is that every year there are reasons to put off harvesting, and every year I end up in the same place, with the same row of spiral-towered lettuce plants, thinking the same thing.  Which is that next year I'm going to harvest earlier.  So why don't I?

One reason is that I am a saver.  In other words, I save my dessert for last.  Psychiatrists call it delaying gratification, I call it good to my future self.  Either way it's a sign of maturity and makes me a good worker and a good partner and good citizen of the earth.  If only this were 1850.  Here in modern times, it means that I am Most Likely to Miss Out because I am too busy planning and waiting and anticipating, while everybody else is using the right-turn-only lane to get ahead of the line.  But it's the journey, right?  Anyway, back in the garden, I'm good at preparing the soil for the season, which is important for later, and I've gotten better at thinning the seedlings, which also produces healthier plants later, but I suck at harvesting full-size plants at peak harvest time, which will leave nothing for later.  I mean, what about my future self?  And what if this moment now isn't quite yet the exact peak harvest time?

And that is the other reason that I struggle with peak-season harvest.  I want to get it exactly right.  I want to harvest the lettuce plant when it is full size but before it begins to spiral towards the sky.  I want to harvest the head of broccoli when it is as large as it is going to get but before the flower buds begin to swell.  Which is a little bit like playing blackjack with vegetables.  That almost-optimal head of broccoli could grow a bit bigger tomorrow, or it's flowers could swell toward flowering, depending on whether tomorrow morning is cloudy and cool or sunny and warm.  By mid-January, with so many plants in the garden in that almost-optimal state, a week or two of warm temperatures is disastrous, like a run of high cards being dealt into so many already-close-to-21 hands.  Plant after plant after plant crosses the threshold from vegetative into flowering.

So what's a procrastinating, time-limited gardener to do in the Bizarro Summer?

Harvest with abandon.  Those spiral lettuces are still delicious.  In my experience, lettuce doesn't get bitter until it actually flowers, which is coming soon, but isn't here yet, making this the perfect time to harvest bunches of lettuce at once and enjoy huge, sweet garden-lettuce salads.  This is what I will miss in the depths of the real summer.

Let some go.  Unlike the lettuces, the mustards and Asian greens get bitter as soon as they send up their flowering shoots.  A mustard-family plant grows as a rosette, forming its flowering buds on the ground, hidden within the youngest leaves, so that by the time it sends up a flowering stalk, the flowers are ready to go and the plant is fully in flowering mode, already diverting its sugars into the flowering stalk.  It can be tempting to Eat it all!, but I've ruined a few dinners that way.  A few bitter greens are okay, but last week, when I cooked an entire wok full of gone-to-flower bok choy leaves, the result was bitter, chewy, and work to eat – everything that a kid unhappily associates with eating her greens.  That is no way to end the season with greens that have been so delicious.  As much as I hate to loose those plants, once the leaves turn that waxy, greyer shade of green, the plant is lost to the flowers that are about to made.

In the case of my broccoli plants, I don't mind letting the third cuttings, and some of the later second cuttings, flower.  I find it nearly impossible to catch the third cutting stalks before they flower, given that each cutting matures faster than the one before, the third-cutting heads are small, and the bees love the flowers.

Stay ahead instead of fighting for what is already lost.  Or, as business majors say, don't base decisions on sunk costs.  Arugula, bok choy, tat soi, and broccoli are already gone.  Again, it is very tempting to Eat it all!, or to sort through the remaining plants and build creative meals out of the results.  But the spinach in the back garden is at its peak, as is the cilantro in the front.  Both will get in on this flowering trend in February if not harvested now, and I have limited time.  It makes more sense to enjoy spinach salads and cilantro pesto now, and then to move on to beets, chard, and parsley, than to fight with the mustard-family plants now, only to find that I missed out on the peak harvest for the spinach in the meantime.

Plan for next year.  Seriously, next year I'm going to get it right.  Harvest all bok choy by Christmas, all tat soi by New Year's, mustard by mid-January.  Plant more lettuce, and don't save it for later.  Etc.

And remember that this is what I do for fun.  I'd be just as happy to grow flowers for the bees, who are so grateful this time of year.  So why am I so upset when a few of the plants that I intended for food end up flowering instead?  Mustard flowers are actually quite pretty, so I might as well join the bees and enjoy the first sign of spring here in central Texas.