Garden labels, the Belly Acre way

My gardening methods are a unique blend of old, new, and really old. Because I am working ground originally broken and farmed by my father, then left fallow for more than a decade after he died, I never do anything without hearing echoes of my childhood. But I also read a lot about gardening and farming, and I try to put together the best ideas wherever they come from. Sometimes blending methods leads to great results; at other times, it just means I outsmart myself.

One area where the latter has happened is in the labeling of my crops. Dad was never much for labeling what he planted. He tended to plant long, uninterrupted rows of things, he generally planted only one or two varieties of each crop, and he had a good memory.

As far as I can remember, he never marked a row, except for occasionally sticking an empty seed packet under a rock when the seeds ran out mid-row. That way he’d know where to start planting when he came back with more seeds.

Having seen how much effort TV gardeners put into making and erecting attractive and informative signs in their gardens, I once asked Dad if he shouldn’t put labels out in his garden.

He was dismissive. “Why?” was all he said.

“So you’ll know what’s planted there,” was my answer.

“I’ll know when it comes up,” he said.

I thought I had him.

“But what if it doesn’t come up?” I asked, sensing a rare argumentative victory.

“If it doesn’t come up, it doesn’t matter what I planted, does it?” he said, once again defeating my book-learned logic in a sentence or less.

So today I find myself avoiding all those neat labels, even the self-made ones you see in the practical tips section of gardening magazines. When I set out bedding plants, I do transfer the labels from from the trays into the garden. Usually they help me remember which variety I planted where, so when one kind of squash does well, I can buy the same thing the next year.

This year, I planted four different kinds of tomatoes. I figured if one variety outperformed the others, I would consider planting just that kind next year. I put the plants in a nice straight row so I could use the stake-and-twine support system I had seen the commercial growers use.

The row was intended to be next to a row of half-runner beans, which I had planted a few days before. Of course, once the beans came up, it became clear that the row wasn’t exactly where I thought it was. Well, the tomatoes I planted in the beans last year did fine, so this little miscalculation is probably okay.

I had three plants each of my trial varieties of tomatoes. Each set of three had one label. I put the representatives of each variety together, with the label beside the first of each set. That way I would know which plants were which variety without any question.

Last week I harvested my first tomatoes, with examples from each of the four varieties to sample. All were good, although the Carolina Gold examples were not as juicy or tasty as the others. I already knew that, but I had planted them for Mom because they are low acid. Yesterday, when I offered her a nice big Carolina Gold, she said, “Oh, I don’t care for those. They just aren’t as good as the Black Russians.”

Oh, well, that’s one variety off next year’s rotation.

But one of the tomatoes was probably the best I’ve ever tasted — juicy, tart yet sweet, with more complexity of flavor than most tomatoes have. The whole family agreed. Triumphant, I went to the garden the next day to check the label and find the name of this year’s early champion.

Carefully pushing back the lower leaves of the winner, I spotted the label, reached in and pulled it out. And the winner is …

The printing on the labels used by the garden center was not weather proof. What I held in my hand, and what appeared beside the first plant of each variety, was a  blank white plastic plant label, bleached by the sun and washed clean by the rain. There is not even a hint of any printing to be seen.

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