City Sustainability - Jun 1, 2011

01:00 June 01, 2011
By: 2Fik
[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]


Laissez farming begins in earnest this month for me—a repreave from the laborous fall months. Though summer is nearly upon us, it's not too late with a little effort to still enjoy becoming a laissez farmer for the summer.

First off, I generally don't bother with tomatoes. In a humid climate they don't fit the definition of laissez farming - they require too much pest control effort, which means time in the sun away from my sweet tea in the shade. And even if you do go to all the effort to keep them bug-free, tomatoes can split when it rains, stop fruiting/flowering when it heats up, and develop fungus problems in the humidity.

So for true laissez farming, I stick with just a few reliable summer vegetables: peppers, eggplants, okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and lots and lots of basil.

For peppers, I always buy transplants.

The few times I've started them from seed, the seedlings get leggy and look unhealthy and they take much longer to produce fruit than a healthy transplant. But that is the key: look for healthy transplants, preferably ones grown in the state. Big nurseries like Home Depot and Lowe's stock plants grown far away in a different climate, that are hopped up on fertilizers to look good. The plants usually yellow with shock when I plant them in my garden and sometimes die before producing fruit. But pepper transplants from Mizell Farms at the Crescent City Farmer's markets are grown on the Northshore and they have a wide variety of interesting sweet peppers (banana, chocolate and purple bell), medium hot cooking peppers (Anaheim, poblano) and super hot, mouth on fire, hot sauce peppers (tobasco, habanero).

Generally, I buy a variety (because I want to have it all), plant them and water a little until established. The same applies to eggplants: I buy a few different transplants, plant and let them go. Then I simply rely on New Orleans' summer rains to take care of any watering needs and I sit back and watch them grow. With eggplants I primarily rely on the smaller, Japanese types that produce an elongated fruit. They fruit faster and more often because the fruits are smaller and they seem less susceptible to bugs. Mizells at the Farmers Market also sells a variety of heirloom and interesting eggplant transplants, but other good sources for locally grown transplants are Jefferson Feed, Laughing Buddha Nursery and Green Parrot Nursery.

Okra and Black eyed peas are easily grown from seed. Okra makes an impressive plant in the garden, growing 4 - 6 feet tall, with pretty, yellow/cream colored flowers with dark centers that become the okra pod. Last year, I grew red okra with seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. The plant was green with tinges of reddish purple and one seed packet provided me with what will probably turn out to be several years' supply of okra.

For black-eyed peas, I sow an entire seed packet, close together, and cover the seeds with about an inch of soil. When planted about an inch apart, the beans shade the ground surrounding them and out-compete the jungle weeds that want to take over. They can be eaten green, but I don't really know how to cook them that way, so in true laissezfarming mentality, I just let the beans hang out on the plant until the pods turn brown. Then I shell the black-eyed peas and store them in jars as dried beans for cooking and eating over the next few months.

Sweet potatoes require a little more planning, and space if available. The sweet potato plants, called slips, often aren't available at garden stores, so I start mine myself. Take a sweet potato and stab with three toothpicks, then suspend in a jar of water and set on a sunny windowsill for a few weeks. Gradually buds will form that sprout into leafy sweet potato slips. Once leaves form, it's best to pluck each slip from the potato parent and stick them in water. In just a matter of days, they will form their own roots, and then be ready for transplanting into the garden.

I plant them about 18 inches apart and water well to start and then let them sprawl. It takes a long time for the roots to fatten up, but the harvest is fun. I dig them up in September, when I'm ready to make room and have renewed energy for planting. Each shovel full of dirt is like a treasure hunt: sometimes lots of fat, bright orange potatoes emerge, ready to be stored for fall and winter use.

Lastly, I scatter basil seed with wild abandon in the midst of all the peppers, eggplants, and sweet potatoes, and then forget that I did it. The benefit of forgetting is that I feel like some kind of gardening genius when, weeks later, I notice a short, bushy basil plant nudging it's fragrant leaves above the sweet potato vines I haven't tended, and the jungle weeds that I haven't pulled. But, in my experience, basil loves heat and humidity tolerates neglect. I even let it go to seed so that the flowers provide nectar for the bees at a much-needed time of year, and I'll save the seeds to sow with wild abandon next year. By September I might get motivated to pluck the leaves and make pesto, but right now that sounds like a lot of work. I'll just pick a few leaves here and there and use when I need a little extra gusto in my food. The life (and garden) of a laissez farmer should always be full of flavor.

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