As What the Ducks! followers already know, I’m not a big fan of Big.* And by Big what I (usually) mean is Big Systems—being basically leery of big explanations,** excuses, boxes, brothers, organizations, data and the unwieldy like. What worries me is not Too Big To Fail but more like Too Little To Succeed. Who gets lost in the speed and scale shuffle? What gets trampled in this rush to gigantitude? Who’s looking out for the little guy, the small business, the beginners, the youngest, the oldest, the weakest, the neediest? What happens when you can’t get enough of what you need to grow?
Now don’t get me wrong. Not all that’s big is bad (it’s good for linebackers– if not so good for jockeys) and not all that’s small is good (certain bacteria and chemicals come to mind). It’s a question of right-sizedness, I think. Not so much moderation (however helpful) but what makes sense for a given situation. Figuring out the right size is much harder than merely pushing for bigness; it requires a sense of balance, compromise, information, experience, and humility. So, forget that! In a world where we’re always encouraged to grow our way out of every problem, right-sizing is just not in our playbook. (Yet?)
That said, it’s completely different with vegetables. (Well, mostly. You can crowd plants to ill effect, too. I rarely have that problem!) To make a sweeping generalization, if someone plants only one seed and intends to get a bumper crop, they must either be an optimist or a fool.*** I mean, even Jack got a coupla magic beans in that seemingly ill-conceived trade. (Talk about your buyer beware kinda market…) (But he scored!) (Yeah, but he almost got squashed by a giant!!) (Yeah, but he scored!) (Right, he scored!)
Meanwhile, back in the real yard, those of us without magical powers need to maximize our chances against the forces of Big Mama Nature, whose minions include Varmints, Bugs, Bad Weather, and other capitalized menaces. And, as in the fairy tale, we’re also required to use not only brawn (although brawn doesn’t hurt, especially when it comes to hauling bags of fertilizer!) but brains. You gotta use some gray matter to constantly devise new ways to outpace the possum and restrict the raccoon or give up and go back to the box store for our all your eatin’ needs.
Considering the potential losses, the tried-and-true method for right-sizing your yield starts with planting too much (over-planting) then thinning out the excess. In other words, planting big, making it smaller and hopefully ending up with just enough (wait, have we moved on to Goldilocks?) Exactly how much you over-plant depends on the species– say, five pumpkin seeds per hill, two beans every four inches, a sprinkling of radishes around the cukes, etc. Now some won’t even germinate, some may get eaten, some may wash away but once the seedlings are established, you pull out the weakest and leave room/nutrition for the hardiest. Darwinian? Yeah. Successful? You betcha! It may seem wasteful but it works. Your investment in time, labor and other inputs far outstrips the cost of a packet of seeds.
Of course, figuring out the best moment to pluck the extras and how much to take out isn’t easy at first. There’s no rule I know that works for all types of veggies–you kinda have to assess the plant and its conditions. In some cases, you won’t have to thin at all; sometimes you only get a few hardy ones and you coddle those babies like nobody’s business. And, yup, this can be tricky (right-sizing always is) but if you follow the seed packet instructions and/or your mother’s advice, you can get a sense of best practices for any given plant, sometimes even the first time out. In later seasons, you’ll add layers of hard-won failure experience on top of theory and further improve your outcomes.
Nevertheless, despite all the heavy mental and physical lifting, your well-tended garden may still be attacked by the dreaded Bad Luck Monster. As they say in Scotland, best-laid schemes “gang aft agley” which means, loosely translated, no matter how smart you are, um, stuff happens. But no use crying over spilt beans! When life takes away your lemons, there’s really only one thing to remember:
If at first you don’t succeed, plant, plant again.
*Not including chocolate–or blog platforms!
**Like this one, natch.
*** Nothing wrong with Fools, mind. Keepin’ us honest.
“A First Treasury of Nursery Stories”; retold by Mary Hoffman; MacMillan Children’s Books; London, UK; 2000.
Copyright 2013, Lori Fontanes