For those that have previously encountered one of my pumpkin patch stories, you may have noticed that these stories could also be called backyard gardening stories.
While the garden behind my house is limited in space, it can produce a surprising quantity of vegetables and quite a few pumpkins. The pumpkins, however, only play a starring role toward the end of summer. Beginning in the spring, the limelight is on collards, kale, lettuce, parsley, and peas. By early summer, it’s all about sweet peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, basil, parsley, and other herbs.
Before reading further, I will warn seasoned gardeners that they may not have much to look forward to in my story. The same goes for anyone that doesn’t like gardening and those with no opportunities to garden. If you fall outside these groups, you may discover that backyard gardening offers interesting possibilities. So, not to keep you waiting, here are a few ways gardening can improve your life.
- Coming in contact with the soil helps create a more diversified microbiome. While you certainly don’t want dirt in a cut, being exposed internally and externally to living things gives your body an opportunity to establish friendly colonies of bacteria that support health. Amazingly, the bacteria in this symbiotic microbiome may outnumber the cells in our body. While probiotics can be supportive of our microbiome, they are unlikely to be the unique strains that can continue to thrive after you stop taking them. Fortunately, your body is pretty smart and will figure out what is right for you when given exposure to enough different kinds of bacteria and a plant-based whole food diet to thrive in.
- Hundreds of studies show that time spent in contact with natural surroundings provides a wide range of mental health benefits. For more about these amazing benefits, read the articles “The Gifts of Nature” and “Let’s Go to the Park.”
- Gardening is an opportunity for fresh air, natural light, and exercise. While air quality may vary, outdoor air in a natural setting is usually healthier than indoor air. Natural light is more restful to the eyes, helps ward off seasonal depression, and helps improve sleep. When exposed to sunlight, the skin makes vitamin D, an essential nutrient that reduces the risk of heart disease, reduces bone loss, and more.
- When composting is part of the gardening routine, it reduces your carbon footprint. The U.S. EPA says about 24 percent of our waste is organic material that can be composted. In fact, Americans on average throw away an average of 1.3 pounds of food scraps daily – translating to almost 13 percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste. Recycling our waste makes a better world. Throwing things away makes little sense when you think about it. There is no place called ‘away’ in a connected world.
- Gardening is an opportunity to upgrade the food you eat with organic vegetables and fruits. This is an opportunity for produce that is fresher, tastier, and more nutrient-rich than what you are likely to find at local stores. Plants grown in soil that has been supplemented with naturally composted vegetable matter makes it all possible.
Few activities in life have this many positive health benefits. In fairness, few activities in life come with as many challenges. Gardening requires an investment (seed, soil, water, hand tools, etc.), planning, and attention to the daily needs of the plants. On a small scale, gardening is often a breakeven deal at best, even after factoring in your labor as free. Still with me? Ok, let’s begin the story.
What grows well in my backyard each year is affected by a combination of events (rain, sun, things that peck, things that chew leaves, things that drill holes, etc.) that makes what happens in any given year unlikely to ever happen the same way again. Never knowing the outcome keeps the anticipation high and makes each little success a celebration. The many uncertainties make me suspect that farmers, gardeners, and high stakes gamblers may have remarkably similar psychological profiles.
The first act of gardening begins in the early spring with collards, kale, and lettuce planted from seeds bought at C.T. Garvin’s Feed and Seed. To the side of the garden, along a property line fence, peas are planted. In a small patch to the side of the main garden plot, parsley (in its first or second year of growth) grows year-round. Although the peas fared poorly (as they almost always do), the kale, collards, and lettuce were helped to success by a warm end of winter and frequent rain. For reasons not fully known, nibbling bugs left the tender leafy greens alone until mid-summer, which was about the time they would have faded from heat anyway. One possible explanation for the near absence of chewing critters was an overgrowth of marigolds during the previous year. As an amateur gardener, I’m never quite sure why, in some years, caterpillars can eat the lettuce patch in a week. For leafy plants, it was a good year. Having many months of fresh lettuce for salads was a remarkable gift of nature.
In April, the second act of backyard gardening began with tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, and basil planted (from young plants) at intervals of 5-15 feet in the same rows as the collards, kale, and lettuce. To make space for the new plants, small patches of the greens were transplanted to an unused row in the garden. With help from frequent rains, the transplanted patches of greens continued to thrive as if they had never been relocated. In the same time period, butternut squash was planted from seeds along the edge of the garden closest to the house. The hope was that the butternut squash would send vines into the remaining part of the grassy backyard and with their huge leaves, suppress grass growth. Alas, grass and pumpkins have a mind of their own. What resulted was tall grass and pumpkin vines growing as they wished.
By the end of May, cherry tomatoes had begun to produce, and the Cherokee Purple tomatoes were well on their way. The butternut squash vines had now appeared and progressed a few feet with no sign of fruit or any indication they would ever be more than little green vines randomly wandering along in search of another place to put down roots. At about the same time, six volunteer plants popped up on three garden rows. These volunteers were the expected pumpkin plants that seem to always arise from seeds unavoidably incorporated into the prior year’s compost. Like the butternut squash vines, the pumpkin vines got off to a rather unimpressive start.
As June approached, sun and rain had created what looked to be a perfect year for gardening. Rain was frequent enough that the drip watering system was rarely needed. June was also the time that mystery critters took a fondness to my Cherokee Purple tomatoes. For weeks, it became usual to find many beautiful Cherokee Purple tomatoes that had been pecked or gnawed. Often all that would be left was a fourth or less of a large tomato. As I would learn, our garden had become the nightly party place for the neighborhood’s raccoons, opossums, rats, and ground squirrels. During the day, tree squirrels, and birds kept the party going. The problems from birds decreased when our neighbor began providing water near her bird feeder. It seems tomato juice was ok, but water was more to their liking. As for the many four-legged interlopers, after some ‘negotiations,’ they relocated to a natural setting with a scenic waterfront. My hope would be that none of our four-legged visitors had any regrets aside from missing the taste of my Cherokee Purple tomatoes.
With frequent daily rain from May till mid-August, all plants continued to grow rapidly. Cucumbers especially love water, and as you might guess, they produced abundantly. Often it was difficult to find enough people to give them to. By the end of July, something written into the cucumber’s DNA decided it was time to stop growing. The cucumber leaves and vines soon wilted. Fortunately, this was just in time for the advancing pumpkin leaves to get a better view of the sun.
Raising vegetables where large trees block part of the day’s sunlight comes with some challenges and some unexpected advantages. With about 75% sunlight reaching the garden, crookneck squash, zucchini, and okra rarely produce anything more than leaves. In contrast, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and basil grow well although much slower than in full sunlight. Another challenge is that in reduced light, plants grow spindly and must be tied to a pole for support. On the plus side, reduced sunlight provides one interesting benefit for the home gardener. Plants that grow in the absence of full sunlight grow slower and have a longer season. The advantage is that tomatoes can usually be picked until frost. Unfortunately, due to the abundance of rain, tomato growth was accelerated this year. As a result, the tomato crop, which could usually be counted on until the first frost, had 95% given up by mid-October. It seems that too much nutrition reduces the longevity of tomato plants just as too much nutrition reduces the longevity of people.
Up until September, the sweet peppers had competed desperately for sunlight in the shadow of towering seven-foot-high tomato plants. As the lower tomato leaves began to wither, the peppers once again saw the light and nicely produced late season peppers until the end of October. Seeds to plant the peppers from were taken from red bell peppers bought at the grocery store the previous winter. Next time you chop a bell pepper for a salad, consider saving the seeds for your garden or to give to a friend that gardens.
As September approached, the lower level leaves on the tomato vines fell away and made more ground-level light. With more light shining through, the pumpkins were now set for their day in the sun. This is the time when growing tomatoes and pumpkins on the same row becomes interesting. Left unattended, pumpkin vines, once they get their speed up, can grow several feet a day and easily climb anything they encounter. Unless redirected, the pumpkin‘s vines will climb to the higher level tomatoes and with their huge leaves block sunlight from the tomatoes. So, from about mid-September on, the marauding pumpkin vines had to be trimmed or redirected along the ground to protect the few surviving tomato plants. Where tomato plants had died, the pumpkins were allowed to have their way and freely climb poles and trellises. Often, the pumpkin vines climbed seven feet high and travel 30 or more feet as they blossomed and made more pumpkins. With luck, the pumpkins usually held on to their lofty perch till mature. Some appeared to need a little help, although it was hard to know what might happen as they got heavier. The simple fact is, pumpkins don’t plan their lofty perches very well. Rather than chance a hard trip to the ground, the larger pumpkins got help from a basket or other contrivances that could provide some support.
As October arrived, the garden had reduced its production to a pound or less of sweet pepper and tomatoes a day along with an occasional pumpkin. With Mother Nature essentially on automatic to finish the job started in the spring, it was time to think about planting the fall garden.
As in past years, a few of the pumpkin vines escaped into a neighbor’s back yard. This time the escape was under the back fence and across a 12-foot city utility easement. To our neighbor’s delight, within a few weeks she had three pumpkins.
While growing a backyard garden is more work than mowing grass, in its favor, it’s far more interesting and entertaining. Healthwise, any activity that gets a person in the sunlight a little each day is good. Even summer heat is not so bad when you understand that sweating is an important part of the body’s detoxification process. Ideally, an organic garden requires no pesticides or herbicides, and if managed with the ‘no till approach there is no need for gas-powered tools. As for fertilizer, recycling your neighbor’s bagged leaves into your compost pile is a good start. Then, over the following year, mix your vegetable food scraps into the compost.
So, which is better, mowing grass or gardening? Personally, I favor gardening for the health advantages and the entertainment it offers. Gardening also brings us closer to the earth in a way that mowing grass misses. As for getting excited about watching grass grow, I suspect there are few that find it thrilling. For myself, watching a sweet tomato grow, picking a fresh cucumber, or watching pumpkin vines go wild – well, that gets me pretty excited.
While my pumpkin patch is only part of my yard gardening story, it has been an entertaining part. Of course, all plants have a story; pumpkins however, have the most remarkable ability to amaze, annoy, and get a laugh.
You may wonder what the pumpkins get used for. Hopefully, they will all be turned into delicious recipes, especially soups. Except for the hard stem, all of a pumpkin is edible, including the hard outer shell. Seeds can be dried, baked and stored for later use. Ground pumpkin seeds make a nice addition to breakfast oats. For more about the story of the pumpkin and a few delicious and nutritious recipes read, “Proven Health Benefits of Pumpkins + 9 Truly Healthy Pumpkin Recipes (That Taste Delicious!).
My favorite winter soup recipe uses pumpkins or butternut squash, depending on which one is available. Below is the recipe I most often follow.
Pumpkin Soup Recipe
1 large onion, cut in 0.5-1-inch pieces
2-3 medium carrots, cut same as onions
2-3 stalks celery, cut in 0.5-1-inch pieces
½ bunch parsley stems, chopped
3-6 cloves garlic – peeled, roughly chopped
medium to large sweet potato, chopped in 0.5-1-
cups butternut squash or pumpkin – unpeeled,
cut in 1-inch pieces
4-6 cups water
0.5-1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/8-1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1-2 tsp salt (or to taste)
1 small can coconut milk or coconut cream
In a large Dutch oven (or similar large pot), start with sautéing onion with 1-2 tbsp water or 1 tbsp olive oil, then add other vegetables as you chop them – carrots, celery, parsley, garlic, sweet potato, butternut squash or pumpkin. Season with salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne. Add water, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until squash and potatoes are tender. Remove from heat and add coconut milk and blend until smooth with an immersion blender.
Serve in a bowl. Garnish with freshly chopped herbs (parsley, cilantro, etc.) and toasted pumpkin seeds. If the toasted pumpkin seeds from your pumpkin (or butternut squash) are not easily chewable after being baked, an alternate use is as a nutritious addition for overnight oats. A coffee grinder can quickly turn tough pumpkin seeds into pumpkin seed meal. Any of the meal that you don’t use should be refrigerated.
Nancy Neighbors, MD
A Garden Dog’s Story
Our dog, Pebbles, does an admirable job of trying to protect the garden. Tree squirrels and rabbits are intimidated enough to stay away most of the time. All else bide their time for moments of opportunity. After all, a dog does have to eat and sleep.
When Pebbles is on the job, the contest of wits never ends. While threatening a tree squirrel on one side of the yard, a smart bird knows that’s the all-clear signal for the other side of the yard. You might expect a dog that’s constantly outflanked and outnumbered would become discouraged. Amazingly, for a working dog, a day’s work is never done until every intruder has been given an appropriate growl or bark regardless of whether it accomplishes the intent.
There are rewards for being a hard-working garden dog. As you might not expect, it’s fresh garden vegetables. While Pebbles has to our knowledge never picked a vegetable on her own, she does gobble them up when placed in her bowl. If you can’t imagine a dog scarfing down fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and pumpkin, then you need to meet Pebbles.
Pebbles’ affinity to vegetables is not so unusual for dogs. In the course of hanging out with people for thousands of years, dogs evolved an ability to digest starches. In contrast, wolves lack the ability to produce the enzymes needed to digest starches. As a consequence, to a wolf, people look like food. To a dog, people seem more like a source of endless easy food, so why eat them.
Pebbles’ breed also makes her somewhat more suited for being a garden dog. Although she is a rescue dog of uncertain lineage, some guesses about her breed can be surmised from her herding behaviors and physical characteristics. For now, the consensus opinion is that she is part Australian Cow Dog (Blue Heeler.) Importantly, it’s a breed that didn’t evolve from a past in which food was almost always scarce. Hence, while they can overeat sometimes, like most dogs, they don’t cram everything in sight just in case hard times might be next up. In contrast, a Labrador Retriever might eat the garden given its genetic predisposition to store every calorie available. Interestingly, the affected POMC gene in Labrador Retrievers that compels them to cram food only occurs in one other breed, Flat Coated Retrievers. Now you know, the affection a Labrador Retriever can display is genetic and has a purpose – it’s negotiating to fulfill a never ending desire for more food.
Don’t Throw Your Pumpkin Away!
If this suggestion sounds familiar, it’s probably because you read it in a previous newsletter. In case you missed it, here’s a second chance to begin a nutritious fall tradition.
Pumpkins have quite a history as a food that provides excellent nutrition. Because pumpkins keep well, Native Americans ate pumpkins as a winter-time food. They also ate pumpkin seeds and used them as medicine. Fortunately, the pilgrims also discovered that pumpkins were a nutritious food, for without them, they might not have survived. One of the first American folk songs has these lyrics: “We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon; If it was not for pumpkins we should be undone.”
A Gardening Tip
Many library books, YouTube videos, and online communities offer gardening advice for the beginner. For those who want more knowledge, the Master Gardener of North Alabama offers an excellent course that covers what you need to know.
A website that offers to help you discover a garden style that’s right for you can be found at GrowYourOwnVegetables.org. As Stacy Murphy, the voice of the website points out, if you can grow a backyard vegetable garden in Manhattan, NY, you can grow one anywhere.
For a 3 minute quick start, Dave Mallett’s song, “The Garden Song,” sums up the basics in memorable lyrics. However, the alternate version of the song by Pete Seeger is technically more accurate. For those that lived through The Muppets, which lasted from 1955 till today, John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song” may be the most memorable version.