There was a certain time this year when everything came together. We were growing 100 things we had never grown to seed before, mostly the flowers that have brought inside color to our catalog this year. It was joyful. It was hard. Hard not knowing the best way to do things. Not knowing the order ripening would take. Not knowing how much was time that wouldn’t pay, or if any of this time would pay. It was farming at its finest, if gambling is your drive. But there in September, came this day. The lettuce seed was in. Before rain, before goldfinches.
Hank’s fields at Avoca Farm had been brimming with lettuce all summer. Now that had been swept away one variety at a time, dried, threshed, field cleaned, final dried, and put away for further processing in November. Hank and the crew accomplish all this harvest by hand, with serrate blades, threshing sticks and tarps, Rubbermaid bins, dishpans, a few coarse screens, and the wind.
And dry weather.
Lettuce is one of the more “wet sensitive” seed crops we grow. Brassicas, leek, amaranth, and goosefoot don’t suffer so much from rain, but lettuce and quinoa are not ones for the wetness, so getting them in before rain is a major relief every year it happens, which isn’t every year. Hank’s farm grows most of our commercial lettuce lots–35 varieties this year—in addition to calendula, goosefoot, amaranth, kale and mustards, arugula, cress, spinach, phacelia, orach, fennel, and leek, 55 varieties in all. Each of these ripen at a different date, allowing a continual process of harvest over a 4 month period. This is how we accomplish so many crops each year—pacing.
Walking around our home farm, Aurora, I could now enjoy a new kind of bounty, a great diversity of flowers, not yet done being floriferous, but showing all their seed types at various stages of ripening. Every few days we needed to harvest some species that would otherwise drop their seeds even as new seeds were still ripening. The Chocolate Flowers seemed so precious, only 7 seeds per flower, I would visit twice a week to gather them lest they be wasted on the ground. The milkweeds needed regular collection or they would literally fly away. Delphiniums spill like pepper from their pods if you don’t gather them, even as fresh blue flowers get in the way. The same for the incredibly scarlet Maltese Cross, that pours from the pods like salt if you tip them.
Our venture into flowers is not so strayed. Our first catalogs from over 20 years ago were rich with native wildflowers from Oregon’s western oak savannah. Calendula has been a seed crop from our very beginning, and the bloom-time of the seed cycle is always the inspiring period. This new flower initiative is largely aimed a growing appreciation of cut flowers as valuable cash crops on organic farms, large and small, and an obvious lack of organically grown flower seed to supply this new demand. But equally, I have been moved recently to bring more beauty into my utilitarian life, and to enjoy the company of winged beings as I myself move slower and closer to the earth. What happens in the vicinity of flowers is often joyful. I’m ready for that.
There was every kind of result. Failure. Better failure. Fail better next year. Good deal. Bulls eye. The spacing is wrong for this, the weeds are too much for that, the cucumber beetles ate that one to the ground, the blackbirds mobbed it, those just looked sick, the weevils...the standout flower of the year from Australia, Lambs Tails, made no seed. Walking through the garden in September I see all these things happening. Towering sunflowers, pincushion seedheads of Scabiosa, rockets of Reseda bobbing with honeybees, the persistent snow white statice that we cannot figure out how to clean.
There were so many tomatoes, and now came the sweet Italian peppers. Tomatoes in each hand, I had a notion for lunch, Red salad, I thought. Making my shirt into a pouch I gathered a couple of crumpled ‘Bella Italia’ with the tomatoes and snagged sprigs of ‘Mrihani’ basil flowers as I passed by, headed toward the end-of-summer lettuce trial. On August 1st we had transplanted seedlings grown from the same seed that produced the best performing new lettuces from the spring breeding growout. I wanted to see how our best Red-To-The-Heart-type romaines performed when planted in early July and grown in the heat of summer. They had done fine with all that, and were now in a kind of waiting mode. I wanted to show them at the Breeder’s Variety Showcase in Portland, an event more than 2 weeks away, but they were actually ready this day. The wrapping leaves had fully enclosed the hearts of five kinds in the trial. Carefully peeling away the outer leaves with their slug holes and dirt splatter, the blanched inner leaves presented themselves–red as roses in one line, crazily contrasting crimson and yellow in another line, one line as smooth as ruby glass, another savoyed and puckered like a ‘Crisp Mint.’ Plucking from a dozen hearts until my harvest pouch was overflowing I headed to make a mythical salad, a solid red salad that I had promised myself to make one day more than 20 years ago. I had been waiting on a lettuce that wasn’t green when tomatoes were red. I finally had that.
That salad was amazing. Home Stoop and Estate tomatoes in wedges, cross-cut Bella Italia, and red hearts of romaine with a sprinkling of Mrihani basil buds, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Everything had come together. The juice and acidity, the crispness and aroma, the redness that was almost too much to bear–the color kept making me laugh, like I was enjoying a private joke with this salad.
Lettuce is not known for patience, though it does have a calming effect on us. I watched those headed hearts begin their elongation as I waited for the Breeder’s Variety Showcase, eating our share of them as days passed. They did not get bitter. By harvest day the heads looked like elegant celtuce, with stems more than a foot tall. The heart leaves were as good as ever, crisp and juicy and beautifully blanched. The stems were tender and crisp, better than any celtuce I’ve ever tasted. One never knows what you can learn from a garden walk. It is a different story every time.
Originally published in the 2017 Wild Garden Seed Catalog.