Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Just a Thought: In Pursuit of Imperfection

Seven misshapen artichokes © Tyler Storey

Earlier today I walked past a television that was showing a talk show in which, one by one, a series of women were displayed in a transparent case on a public street and passersby were asked to make comments about how each woman looked. After that, the women were sent off for plastic surgery and cosmetic dentistry and new hair and clothes, then brought back and paraded across a stage to raucous applause. The consensus was that the participants were much better people at the end of it all. It was fascinating and enlightening; I mention it only because it temporarily distracted me from writing this post, which is about home-grown fruits and vegetables.

If you're new to growing your own fruits and vegetables, there are a few things that you'll find rather different from what you're accustomed to in shopping at the market.

In nature, fruits and vegetables do not come in the uniform shapes, sizes, and colors that we see displayed in the tidy produce department cases. Producers and grocers provide uniform fruits and vegetables because that's what they believe consumers expect; consumers expect uniformity because that's what they have been consistently offered. Your vegetables do not have to be all the same shape or the same size. Variety is natural, and is one of the delights of the home garden.

Don't worry about a few spots or blemishes on the peels or skins of your fruit and vegetables; as long as the inside is in good shape, then the fruit is fine. On the other hand, if the inside is rotted or otherwise damaged, it doesn't matter how good the outside looks.

Much of what we see in the market are produce varieties that have been developed for appearance only; unfortunately, exclusive attention to outside appearances has led to much produce that has odd textures, is tasteless and insipid, and is lacking in nutritional value. When selecting fruits and vegetables to grow at home, look for varieties that provide interest, nutrition, and taste.

Many of the fruits and vegetables in the grocery are picked while still immature and then kept fresh-looking for as long as possible by the misting systems in the produce department. Once the produce starts to fade a bit, it's discarded, even if it's still edible. Fruits and vegetables attain their highest flavor and nutritional value when they're allowed to fully ripen. You can expect your mature home produce to have more well-rounded and complex flavors than you're accustomed to tasting.

Don't worry about your fruits and vegetables looking like the pictures you see in seed catalogues or gardening books; those are often idealized and unrealistic depictions, well beyond the ability of real gardeners. It takes a lot of work and time and chemicals and skilled photography to make fruits and vegetables look that good; best to just ooh and aah (or, better yet, laugh), and then get back to your garden.

Attention to the basics is key to growing good fruits and vegetables. Give your plants a healthy environment, learn something about their needs and meet those needs to the best of your ability, have realistic expectations of what they will produce, and learn to appreciate the often unexpected qualities that each brings to your table.

The artichokes (above) were part of dinner the other evening. My guests didn't seem to mind that some were odd sizes, all a bit misshapen, and that one of them had some odd purple spots; once we got down to the artichoke hearts, each was really quite sweet.


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