Saturday, March 24, 2012

Crowd Control

One of the things I enjoy most about living in this rural area of Connecticut is its lack of crowds.  Impatient people like yours truly don’t do well waiting in line at the grocery store,  getting caught behind dozens of cars on the turnpike because of some sort of tie-up, or being corralled into a zigzagged maze of people to get through Immigration as I did coming home from the Dominican Republic.

There must have been close to a hundred weary travelers ahead of us in that line, patiently shuffling along between the guide ropes. Everyone was extremely well-behaved, no pushing or shoving, but it took almost an hour to finally pass inspection and find our way out of the airport.

Here in the Northwest Corner I hardly ever experience crowd control, at least not one involving people.  My crowd control usually involves my vegetable garden.  It took me years to learn how important it is to plant delicate little seedlings far enough apart so they can grow to a proper size without crowding.

You don’t get great heads of broccoli if you’ve planted the slim little seedlings just six inches apart, but it’s hard to picture what monsters they can turn into by mid-summer. Those seedlings need to be spaced at least 2 feet part.  They not only grow up, they also grow out, and if the outside leaves are crowding one another, you won’t get that first head worth bragging about.  It’s the large outer leaves, not the roots, that supply the fast-growing head with food, so they need plenty of space and sunlight.

Tomatoes also need plenty of room, but not until July.  For the first month or so they can afford to share their places with radishes, lettuce or spinach.  Onions are the most polite  of all the vegetables, whether as sets or seedlings.  They can be lined up in a zigzag fashion, three inches apart in a double row, or closer if you plan to thin them.

Until last year I never worried about crowd control with my pea vines which climb the garden fence.  Unfortunately the daffodils and feverfew on the other side of the fence came up so early they shaded out the pea vines before they could start climbing.  By the time they’d gotten hold of the fence, the lilies  were blocking out the sun.  I had a very poor pea crop.  Live and learn.  This year I will be planting my peas on the east side of the garden against the stone wall.

Planting seeds is a little harder to organize than seedlings.  For very small seeds like carrots or lettuce, I dig a shallow trench, then mix the seeds in a can with sand and vermiculite and dribble it down the row,  which helps space them and also keep the row weed-free.   Radish seeds are big enough to handle individually, but remember to plant short rows.  That's  because when they’re ripe they should all be picked.  If left in the ground in a few days they’ll become tough and pithy.

The seeds of bush beans are easily handled and can be planted 2 feet apart.  At least that’s what I thought until the summer I had a job working in the vegetable garden at Stillwater Farm in Salisbury.  I was stunned when I saw the row of bush beans.  They were barely two inches apart.  When I offered to thin them, the head gardener shook his head "I like 'em close like that."

Those bean plants were more tightly packed than the travelers in the Immigration line at JFK, and each one produced only one or two clumps of beans.  Since there were four times as many plants as there are in a normal row, however, the resulting harvest was just as plentiful.  Furthermore, with such stiff and upright parents, the children were raised very properly, not allowed to play in the dirt the way mine do. 

The cleverest method of crowd control I ever saw was my friend Bruce Zinke’s technique of planting pole beans.  He puts in a row of sunflower seeds in early spring and a few weeks later plants two bean seeds next to each sprouted sunflower stalk.  The beans and the sunflowers grow up together.  No fussing with poles or string or any of that nonsense.

Have fun planting yourvegetable  garden,.  And if you don’t have one,  think about how convenient it would be to step out the back door for a truely tasty tomato for the salad, what a treat to have really fresh lettuce instead of that store-bought stuff, and what fun to sit in the sun and snack on a handful of peas while you're weeding, Oh, and don't forget how much money one saves on the grocery bill.  


  1. Love the idea of sunflowers and beans 'en deux' - I think I'll try that this summer. Lovely article. Sorry you had crowds at JFK, but trust the trip was worth the headaches.

  2. There are nothing like fresh peas - hope you get a good crop this year!