I feel guilty. I set out to make a blog celebrating the art&culture(&pork) of Iowa, yet I’ve neglected a significant element of the Iowa experience.
No, I’m not talking about farming. Those days are all but gone. Most farms are now operated like factories and owned by mega-corporations. It is rare to find a family managing their very own commercial homestead despite the demand for farm fresh everything.
What I’m talking about is generally practiced on a much smaller scale. Specifically, horticulture* is plant cultivation and management. Gardeners and hobby farmers are horticulturalists. The Quad City Food Forest practices horticulture. If you have a couple of potted plants sitting on your balcony, and you don’t totally neglect them, then congratulations! You’re a horticulturalist.
The thing is, we don’t just grow plants. We have deep, meaningful conversations about soil content. Geology is a common topic. And why do you think we’re constantly talking about the weather? Because I need to know how much rain to expect in the next couple of days so I can water accordingly.
If I hadn’t checked the weather this week before planting seedlings, I would have lost them to hail. My kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi would all be gone. But these are not beginner plants; I monitor the bloody weather.
New gardeners usually start with tomatoes and cucumbers. The two are complementary – each improves in growth quality when the other is nearby. If you have decent soil and keep it moist, that may be all you’ll have to do until it’s time to pick your fruit.
I often don’t even bother to stake my tomatoes. They’re more likely to rot and get blight that way, but omfg tomatoes are in my face all summer long. It’s like how everyone born between 1965 and 1985 has to own Pearl Jam’s Ten – everyone who plants anything has to plant tomatoes.
Speaking of an overabundance of crops: you can tell someone is a hardcore gardener in Iowa if they grow corn. I do not grow corn (mostly because there’s a cornfield right across the street), but if I did, it would be one of the ornamental varieties, like stained glass or gemstone.
Much like tomatoes and cucumbers, corn also enjoys a symbiotic relationship with another plant. Two, actually: squash and beans. Planting them together makes for healthy crops, and eating them together makes for healthy bodies.
Physical health is a decent reason to practice horticulture. In addition to eating well, there’s the physical labor that goes into it: hauling soil and compost, building raised beds and/or fences, and constant weeding. Every garden is a zen garden; you must make it your happy place.
For me, however, my garden’s most redeeming quality is that it allows me to cut my trips to the grocery store by almost 70%. I do not like the grocery store. It’s the people who shamble around with no agenda, mouths agape, who ruin it for everyone. If you shop without a list, you’re part of the problem.
But I digress.
The purpose of this post isn’t so much to brag about our growing capabilities but to encourage gardening practices and botanic literacy. I also hope to learn more, myself.
For example, though I’ve grown tomatoes for over a decade, I just learned yesterday (thanks to Michele Cotton Bailey of Permaculture for Planet Earth) that you can take a leggy tomato plant like this:
… pinch off the side leaves so that it looks like this:
… and then bury the majority of the stem so the plant looks like this:
That stem will now become part of the root system, giving you a much larger root ball that will provide your tomatoes with more nutrients and thus, produce a healthier crop**.
So often when I talk about gardening – or any one of my hobbies – people say, “I wish I could do that.”
Dude. You have to practice. No one is born knowing that you have to amend your soil each year to ensure the optimum percentage of nitrogen, etc. Start with a container garden. Or a few herbs and succulents in your kitchen window.
Here’s a good place to learn some new moves: Crimes Against Horticulture, a Facebook page curated by some good friends of mine. This couple also writes articles for various horticulture publications. The page offers good cultivation tips along with a little schadenfreude.
If you have any good resources yourself, please pass them along via email or in the comments below. And check back here later this summer to find out how my luffas did.
*Horticulture is just one of many botanical practices popular in Iowa, but I’ll get to others at a later date. Next up: Permaculture! Yay!
**I’ve also heard that you can take the leaves you pinched off and plant them. You’ll get another tomato plant. We’ll see: