As the great man's guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table.
Cardinal J. H. Newman, Preface to The Idea of a University, 1852

Monday, August 3, 2020

A note on growing fruit and vegetables

Food from the garden comes from the leaves, from the seed/fruit, or from the plant storage organ (bulb/corm/root) of a plant.

The goal in life for most* plants is to produce seed (and maybe fruit to help spread the seed). To do this they need first to grow healthy roots, stems and leaves, and some of them also build up stores of food so that they can make a better job of producing seeds later.

*Some plants, such as mint, have discovered that they can manage pretty well by propagating vegetatively – sending out roots, underground stems or runners – and are not bothered about flowering and producing seeds.

Leaves. If we are eating the leaves – spinach, lettuce, parsley etc. – we want to encourage the plant to concentrate on growing lots of healthy leaves and not get distracted by producing seeds. To do this we make sure it has enough food and water so that it feels safe continuing to produce leaves. If we get it worried – if it thinks it could be heading for trouble – it might rush into producing seeds to make sure it gets that done before it dies. Once a plant has made that decision – it is ‘running to seed’ – it will no longer bother with growing leaves and our crop is coming to an end.

Some plants are biennials, meaning that they don’t plan to flower until the second year, so generally they won’t run to seen in the first year. Parsley is like that, so too are leeks. But even those, if they are badly stressed, will make a bolt for it and run to seed in the first year.

So if you are growing a plant for the leaves you need to keep it happy!

(I’ve never managed to keep cilantro – coriander – happy for very long. If anyone has any tips please let me know!)

Bulbs/corms/roots. With some biennials, such as onions and carrots, we are growing them for their storage organ. In general, the better fed and watered it is, the more it will be able to store and the bigger the crop.

Some plants, like potatoes, aren’t biennial bit still produce the storage organ which we crop.

As with plants that we grow for leaves, if we stress them too much they will run to seed – even some of the biennials – in which case they use up the store of food and our crop will be reduced or even lost entirely.

Fruit and seeds. In this case you want the plant to ‘run to seed’, but only after it has built up enough strength to produce a good crop of fruit or seeds.

Some of these plants know what they are doing and are single minded about it, so the better the life you give them the better the crop. Sweetcorn for example, and french and runner beans. Some others, however, can get distracted by growing leaves if they are too comfortable. This can happen with tomatoes, they will give you crop, but if you feed them with too much of a nitrogen rich fertiliser they will grow lots of leaves which are no use to you.

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