Spring Garden II
Heads of broccoli and cauliflower are actually the flower of the plant. They begin to develop after the leaves and stalks of the plant have grown large enough to nourish and support them. Cauliflower heads grow in a protective glove of close-fitting leaves. Exposure to the sun too soon will ruin the flower and make the head inedible. As the broccoli flower matures into the vegetable we recognize in the produce section, a brain sized and shaped mass of tiny green spheres attached to long fibrous stems, or the florets that come steamed as an alternative to French fries at Chilis, the gardener wages a daily battle against time. Pick the broccoli head too soon, and the overall yield is diminished. Pick the head too late, that is, after the flowers begin to petal, and it’s no longer edible. Try to grow the broccoli after the temperature gets too hot, June in Arkansas, perhaps even late May, and the head loses its flavor, or bolts, again, becoming inedible.
As the days began to warm last spring, and the sun wilted the leaves of the spring garden, I monitored the broccoli each day, trying to measure the green of the broccoli buds against commercially grown California broccoli that has been refrigerated and trucked almost two thousand miles. At the same time I read Tracie McMillan’s What America Eats: Undercover at WalMart, Applebees, and in the Fields, in which McMillan spent a year following our food chain from field to grocery to restaurant to home. A WalMart produce employee’s primary job takes place behind the scenes, where she trims away the rotten parts of produce, making aged produce look wholesome and salable, trimming away until there is nothing left to trim, and the fruit or vegetable is a total loss. Then it is discarded. I harvested the broccoli over several days, first taking the heads, then selecting the subsidiary florets that continue to produce as long as the heat is mild. The cauliflower slowly matured, but I started a bit late in the season, so it falls prey to worms. Still I was able to harvest several softball size heads, and after trimming out the wormy parts, we blanched and froze them for the meals to come in the following year.
The lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage I planted two weeks ago are currently enduing a three inch crust of sleet and snow hardened by successive 11 degree nights to a slick, hard, icescape. I covered the garden in plastic sheets spread over sawhorses and weighted down with rocks, pieces of lumber, and stapled to the raised bed, but I have no idea if anything survived our late winter storm. Tonight’s low will be in the low teens again, but the weather is supposed to warm over the next few days, so we will see once the ice melts.