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Learning to Grow

Part two of three on “What the hell happened to June?”

(It’s not so much that I think even the five people reading this blog will care that much about my garden, but that I guess I’ve reached the point where I want to write things down as much for my future self as for anyone else, my memory being the increasingly lossy storage solution that it is.)

So I’ve been sad about vegetables for coming up on ten years now.

Vegetables might seem like an odd thing to complain about, but among all the things that impact my day-to-day mental health, ‘good food’ looms very large.

Some autistic people not only can but prefer to eat the same exact meal every day. Not me. I don’t know if it’s the ADHD component or what, but for me variety is crucial: if I get oversaturated or bored with a particular taste and have no other options I will not eat. Yet I still possess an autistic’s SPD sensitivity to texture, smell, and taste, so while I am wildly adventurous with my food by autistic standards, I still come off as ‘picky’ to uninformed neurotypical folk.

I spent many years learning to become an excellent cook — entirely in self-defense, because I couldn’t count on other people to take my sensory sensitivities into account. I’ve also been pescetarian for nearly thirty years; on average I eat vegetarian about two-thirds of the time and seafood the other third. And so of course I moved to a meat-heavy culture in an area with a comparative dearth of either vegetable or seafood options.

Seafood variety is low in part because we don’t live near an ocean; there’s not much I can do about that. But the lack of vegetable variety is just cultural, because this is an excellent area for growing … basically anything that doesn’t require a freeze to germinate.

Of course there’s almost certainly an urban/rural disparity in play as well as a national one. In the States I always lived in sizeable cities; here we’re in a small town. But even the grocery stores in Guadalajara — which are much too far away to be accessible under normal circumstances — have only a fraction of the variety that’s common to supermarkets in the States.

For example, if I want to cook a fresh green vegetable, most of the time I have two options: zucchini and broccoli. I vary the methods as much as possible, but I still get extremely tired of zucchini and broccoli. Occasionally we mix it up with some asparagus, which tends to be decent quality but expensive. (Oh, and there’s a light green squash called a chayote, which I tend to forget about because it is inoffensive but entirely bland. Its one redeeming feature is that it stays nicely firm when cooked, so I’ll use it in a chunky stew instead of zucchini, but I find it too flavorless to hold its own as a side dish.) Green beans are technically available most of the time, but they are always large and old and tough, and I rarely even bother trying anymore. Occasionally, Walmart — which is the only supermarket anywhere near us, don’t judge — has some extremely small and elderly artichokes … for about five US dollars apiece, so again, not really an option.

There are a few other things that are technically available somewhere, usually because of the local immigrant population (that’s us), but that are either very expensive or very poor quality. Adding in frozen vegetables gets you sweet corn kernels and edamame. That’s it. Otherwise frozen options just reduplicate the most common stuff you can buy fresh, except twice as expensive. (And usually in some unholy medley, like carrots-broccoli-cauliflower. If the paltry frozen food selection is anything to go by, Mexicans really love their vegetable medleys.)

Here are some of the vegetables I miss, in no particular order: Yellow onions, especially the sweet ones like Vidalia. Green onions. Shallots. Starchy russet potatoes. Flavorful heirloom tomatoes. Sweet-tart varieties of cherry tomato. Ground cherries. True baby carrots (not giant tough ones whittled down by machine). Literally any kind of thin-skinned, Asian- or Italian-type eggplant. Spaghetti squash and acorn squash. Swiss chard. Celeriac. Bok choy. Napa cabbage. Okra. Chinese long beans. Sugar snap peas! Broccolini! Sweet white shoepeg corn on the cob. Fresh baby lima beans. Snow peas. Golden beets (which I learned very late in life taste completely different to the red beets which I loathe). Fresh shiitake mushrooms. Taro. Cassava. Large-leafed, lemon, and Thai basil. Daikon, not for cooking but for making spring rolls and veggie banh mi. Decent bean sprouts, decent green beans, decent artichokes.

(Those are just the vegetables I know about. There are many kinds of winter squash I’ve never tried, and various mushrooms, and other vegetables common to different world cuisines. I used to discover new vegetables by going to gourmet and ethnic restaurants, or through a CSA box, but I lost those options when we left Seattle.)

We bought this house in January 2017. In 2019, I made my first attempt at increasing my vegetable variety by growing my own. I’d smuggled a few packets of seeds in from the US (Mexican customs does not approve of seeds); I bought some small pots and soil from the one local shop that carries such things and took a run at starting Sungold cherry tomato seeds indoors. I’d never started plants from seed in my life, so when the seedlings sprouted, I was thrilled!

And then Gracie promptly ate every single plant. I had no solution for that problem at the time, so that ended my 2019 effort. The only win was that after more than a year of looking I did finally manage to find someone to sell me some earthworms, and I started a worm compost bin.

the unrepentant seedling-eating culprit

I planned to take another run at gardening in 2020, but suddenly we had a pandemic and I barricaded myself and my problematic immune system in my house for seven months. I did give some of my Sungold and Clemson okra seeds to our shared community gardener; the tomatoes were never heard from again, but he got the okra going with basically zero oversight from me, and so by fall all I had to do was get over my pandemic agoraphobia enough to go out and pick them, which I did. A success! But also that year my worm bin became overrun with soldier fly larvae, crowding out (or eating?) the worms.

In 2021 the gardener got ill and stopped working and then quit and also we spent a month of the summer in Texas, getting our first pair of covid vaccinations. Between gig work and all the research and design of our kitchen remodel, I didn’t have time to even think about gardening during the remainder of the year.

2022 was definitely going to be my gardening year at last, especially since our new kitchen was supposed to be finished in April May June August October … okay, maybe not. I gave the replacement gardener some of the leftover Sungold seeds and he repeatedly assured me he was growing the seedlings for eventual transplant. Nothing ever materialized, and I was too busy handling the remodel to chase him down and try to ascertain what happened. (In May 2023, when I first started canvassing the property for garden placement options, I found several dried-out Sungold plants with pea-sized — but still tasty! — fruit buried in weeds scattered around the property, as though he’d simply thrown a few seeds in random places and let them fend for themselves. This was in retrospect but a taste of things to come.)

And here we are in 2023. This time, I was determined to make it happen! Still had a bunch of unused seeds from 2019, but no idea if they were any good or not. Jak was headed to Texas at the end of May, so I had him fill his pockets with brand new 2023 seeds, all open-pollinated: an indeterminate bicolor cherry tomato that is supposed to be very similar to the hybrid Sungolds; a thin-skinned Malaysian red eggplant; a new variety of okra, green velvet, for comparison with the Clemson; Blue Lake green beans (bush so I don’t have to worry about trellises), and spaghetti squash. (Also some fruiting passiflora seeds, but that’s a longer-term project.)

I spent dozens upon dozens of hours researching all the gardening things, trying to figure out the best way to start seeds indoors and what kind of supports and trellises I could cobble together from locally available materials for the tomatoes and eggplant. I tried to keep the project size small for this first attempt, while still having enough to be useful. I drew a color-coded layout plan:

Back to the garden store; this time I purchased plastic cell flats with clear plastic tops, to protect tender seedlings from marauding cats. I’d been convinced by my reading that a soilless mix of perlite, vermiculite, and peat moss would be best for seed starting, so I bought all of that, plus a commercial soil additive (including the earthworm castings I’d been unable to self-generate, sad trombone) for the garden bed itself.

Meanwhile I started our new gardener on the significant work of prepping the actual garden plot, removing rocks and so on. This guy is not as skilled at his job as the last guy was — he has no idea how to compost properly, for example — but he always seemed friendly and inoffensive enough … until this summer, when I actually started asking him to do specific things and giving him directions. And then I found out just exactly how much misogyny is really in play.

have to have his help, because disability: I have permanently denervated shoulder muscles that limit my arm strength substantially. But dealing with this guy is beyond maddening. It’s hard enough to get across what I want in the first place, and some of that is my limited Spanish, but some is also either his mental faculty or his attitude or both. Once I do make myself understood, he usually resists and refuses, so I have to argue and insist. Then I have to keep going out to check that he actually does it, usually followed by another round of insisting he do a better job, or do it the way I actually said, instead of some other thing that I specifically said not to do. Also I repeatedly have to stop him from doing other things for his own purposes that conflict with my plans. He doesn’t ask first, just takes it over. The first time I found him digging up an area, he said he was making a place to grow tomatoes for his wife, and since that particular space didn’t conflict with anything I’m doing this year, I said okay, sure.

That’ll teach me to be generous. Not only did he then repeatedly delay progress on my garden to prioritize his own section, now he seems to think that every part of the lower tract that isn’t my actual current 2.5 by 5 meter plot is free for his own personal use, to dig up and plant any crop he wants. And he gets mad when I tell him no, not there — even to the point of baldly lying about Jak previously giving him permission, as though I can’t go check with my own husband and find out the truth. On Friday he brought in four more papaya saplings, flatly refused to answer me when I asked where he was planning to put them, and then stuck them in a row on the south side of my vegetable garden, where they would both prevent next year’s garden expansion and screw up the current plot with their shade. So tomorrow when he comes in I have to tell him to pull those out and take them away.

It probably won’t go well, because Jak is out of town until tomorrow night. Gardener guy really doesn’t like taking instructions from a woman, and most of the time the only way I can get anywhere with him is by dragging Jak out to back me up. Alone with me, he’s dismissive, shirty, and sometimes even insolent. But oh, once Jak shows up in person, he’s all agreeable and deferent. It’s absolutely enraging.

If it were possible to just fire him and hire someone else, I would have done that long before now, but … it’s complicated. So that’s an ongoing problem and gigantic time suck. Still, I slowly made progress, eventually getting the spaghetti squash and bush bean seeds into the ground … and then the monsoon didn’t start on time, so I had to go out every morning the gardener was working and make him water the plot properly, and also go out and do it myself by hand on the four days a week he wasn’t here. Nevertheless, in about a week I had twelve of fourteen bean plants pop up, and both squash. Since I only allotted space for one squash plant (they’re huge), I may have to pull one, though for now I’m trying to keep both, since spaghetti squash is also a favorite of our single full-time neighbor. I’ve also replanted the two failed beans.

Meanwhile, I’ve been learning about indoor seed starting the hard way. I’m on round four or in some cases five; I’ve stopped expecting any single approach to work and have graduated to speedrunning the trial and error cycle by running multiple germination and growth experiments in parallel. I’ve learned that none of the seed from 2019 is still viable except the Clemson okra. Also that for the seeds that need coddling and transplantation (so, everything except beans and squash), getting past the cotyledon stage and onto making true leaves is trickier than mere sprouting.

Without going into tedious detail about my many failures, I’ll just say that I have determined that the internet lied to me on multiple fronts. The soilless perlite-vermiculite-peat moss mix is nearly worthless; plain commercial potting soil works better. Wick watering from the bottom is a terrible idea; better to use a spray bottle to lightly dampen from the top. Germinating seeds in damp paper towels and then planting the sprouts is the way to go. The anti-cat plastic top contributes to humidity problems and rot, and I’m starting to think I might be better off just doing the whole thing on the back porch instead of indoors (since frost is hardly my problem). I’m also belatedly trying okra directly in the ground, but it’s too soon to tell whether that will work better than my transplant attempts.

In between all of that, I’ve also been visiting local nurseries and slowly identifying, researching, and buying ornamental plants for the flowerbeds nearest our house, including the brand new one created by the kitchen remodel. I’ve also started a long-neglected war against wooly aphids, scale insects, and the ants which are industriously farming both on my rosemary and crotons. Along with my other seeds, I’m also trying to get some large-leafed basil seeds going, to put either in pots or in nearby flower beds.

one of my new ornamental acquisitions, a baby oriental hibiscus in sunset colors

In short, June was a lot of work on the plant front, and even though the monsoon has now taken over the watering, it’s also really spurred on the weeds, so I’m actually spending more time working in the garden than ever. (Next year I plan to have a cover crop of microclover going to limit that problem, but this year I have to fight the battle unaided.)

On the up side, I am finally making good on my promise to myself to spend more time outdoors. On the down side, between the garden project and various pieces of non-fiction writing, I haven’t made any real progress on my novel since April.

So of course the next thing that happens — as though my life weren’t busy and complicated enough already — is that the universe presents us with a puppy.

Brace yourselves for cuteness in part three …

Published inGardenMexicoNeurodivergence


    • Karawynn Karawynn

      lol <3. The puppy has taken up all the time and energy that I need to write about the puppy.

  1. Alex Alex

    I wonder if it would be wise to talk to your gardener’s wife (or even mother) about his behavior. Apparently the female-female side channel is often used in patriarchal societies. Admitedly I’m getting that from David Eddings and (perhaps more reliably) Lois Bujold but it rings true. Of course, it won’t help if he dominates them, but it may help.

    They may either be able to advise you how to deal with him, or (if one of them has some influence) get him to see reason – especially if you mention that Jak (really you, but go with it) would eventually fire him if he keeps behaving like this and an alternative turns up.

    The other thing this reminds me of is De Soto’s description of how, in societies where governments can’t be relied on to enforce rights, neighbours have to exert considerable effort to cultivate good standing with their neighbours, as in the case of a boundary dispute (or in extreme cases, squatting on someone else’s property) as without good standing the neighbours will turn a blind eye if someone they prefer does it. You might want to give some attention to acquiring local clout (as opposed to being seen as someone with money but who they otherwise don’t care about)

    • Karawynn Karawynn

      This is all quite reasonable advice (and does fit what I understand of the culture), even if I’m not sure how or even if I could implement it. I do not know his wife, nor have any idea how I might meet her, and I’m not sure I could communicate complicated social concepts correctly with my limited Spanish. (He is elderly himself, so I feel confident his mother is not living, but it would be the same problem even if she were.)

      I will keep it in mind, though, in case an opportunity arises.

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