The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

How I became an extreme gardener

I’ve been practicing organic gardening, seed saving and permaculture in the same cold climate location for about 30 years.

As a young teenager I began to get passionate about good food. I mean, who knew that there was a different way to cook string beans than to boil them for 15 minutes?! At that time granola was an exotic radical new food, and around here you were unlikely to find any kind of lettuce in the supermarket other than iceberg, and maybe some romaine. Anyway, I soon realized that to be assured of eating the good food I craved, I was going to have to learn to cook. As I learned to cook, I realized that to be assured of preparing good food, I was going to have to find fresh, unprocessed ingredients. My quest for fresh unprocessed ingredients made me realize that I needed to learn to grow them whenever possible, especially if I wanted to avoid all the collateral pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and so on.

Foreground, San Michele, a sweet and tender savoy cabbage that turns red in the fall.

I gardened, and I soon realized that it was of critical importance to have plants that were adapted to my garden, and that were also delicious and otherwise useful. I researched and trialed, and learned to save seed and propagate plants. This was in the bad old days, way way before the internet, when you had to write a letter and send a buck or two to get a catalog sent back by mail a couple of weeks later. I’ve trialed a really wide spectrum of plants: culinary, medicinal, ornamental, and just plain interesting. Throughout this ongoing process, many long term relationships have developed.

As I saved seed and my grafts turned into trees, I got to know the denizens of my landscape in their full life cycles. I realized that the typical way of planting a garden when I was growing up - rototill the whole garden in the fall, again in the spring, plant your peas, potatoes and onions in May, and everything else the first week of June - was rather crude. Much as I would have loved to own a good tiller early on, I was never able to afford one, nor did I have reliable access to a pickup truck to rent or borrow one. I could, however, afford a really good digging fork and spade, and this is still what I happily use for soil preparation, even when busting sod for new garden space. It’s also cheaper than going to the gym.

Delicious and useful. Annual and biennial volunteers on one end of a raised bed: purslane, tribulus, wood sorrel, with a siberian kale seedling and hesperis upper left; perennial mother-of-thyme on the right.

When it’s just you and your digging fork, you get really intimate with the soil. You start to easily recognize tiny emerging seedlings and dormant roots. If you are saving seed, some of these seedlings are probably volunteers from your parent plants. So, what if you let the plants you want just plant themselves?

This question is the essence of my approach, and it works for me in varying degrees with different plants, of course. You have to keep an open mind, observe carefully, and figure out how flexible you want to be - just as you're learning how flexible your plants can be. If you can't appreciate controlled chaos, you won't be happy gardening like this. I love the surprise of the moment of discovering a volunteer - it's a plant saying to me, "I like it here!" I also get pretty smug about harvesting, for instance, salad greens that are ready long before the stuff I sowed in the more normal manner.

I never have enough time to do all the gardening tasks I know should be done, so I try to figure out how to do less, short of letting the witch grass take over. Most of my long term plants have survived some form of torture test from my neglect. It’s very Darwinian.

I’m on the edge of USDA hardiness zone 4, nearly zone 3, though global warming seems to be changing that. Twenty years ago, I considered it a gamble to try plants rated for zone 4, but now I sometimes play fast and loose with stuff rated for zone 5. The gardens are at elevation 1400 feet on a nice southern slope. The soil here has been cultivated organically for more than a hundred years, and I continue that practice.