It has come to my attention this spring how important it is to let annual vegetable plants flower and go to seed. It’s a common habit among kitchen gardeners to remove plants after produce has been harvested, that is, before the plants flower and set seed. The reason being that most of us have limited space in our kitchen gardens and would rather see the precious space devoted to new planting (which represents new yields), as opposed to ‘unproductive plants’ that are past their best.
I write this post with one of mine and Richie’s own kitchen garden beds in mind – the one closest the back door. Because Richie and I weren’t here to harvest the plants during peak productivity this particular bed of mixed lettuce, broccoli, bok choi, kale and rocket has gone to flower.
It has been three weeks now since we returned from England. Every day I wake thinking that today will be the day I remove the flowering plants, add them to the compost heap and sew some new vegetable seeds in their place: radish, lettuce, carrot, fennel and basil all do well at this time of year.
But when I step outside and lay eyes on the blossoming tumble-down brassica plants I invariably can’t bring myself to do it. Why? Because the plants are literally humming with bees. Hundreds of them! European honeybees (Apis mellifera) as well as Australian native bees (Tetragonula – previously called Trigona). It’s such a joy to see and hear them at work that so far I have stayed my hand, allowing the plants (and bees) to keep on doing what they’re doing. At various time throughout the day I pause in my work to watch the native bees queuing at the entrance to the yellow broccoli flowers, one waiting for another to exit before making its own way inside.
What harm will it do, I ask, to leave the bed another couple of weeks until the flowers have faded and the seed heads – which have already formed – go crisp, brown and mature? Normally I’d make some attempt to save the seeds, but Richie tells me brassicas cross-pollinate promiscuously, so I’m reluctant to save seeds that might not grow true to type. What bastard children might these inter-species brassica unions beget?
Which brings me back to the ethics of the matter. Is it best to replant the flowering brassica-bed ASAP? This would ensure a steady supply of garden produce and would mean we don’t have to succumb to buying produce off the supermarket shelf. Or, should I leave the bed in question alone until all the plants in it have flowered and are dead? Perhaps I could go part-way, removing, say, half of the flowering plants, thereby freeing-up half the space in the bed for new plantings?
When I find myself in one of my more compassionate moods I wonder if removing plants before they’ve reached the natural conclusion of their lives is ‘right’ under any circumstances? Is killing a plant mid-cycle in any way similar to slaughtering an underage animal – a yearling cow or a calf raised for veal? And just as importantly, don’t we have an obligation, as gardeners, as human-animals, to share our garden produce with other non-human animals once we’ve received our ‘fair share’ of the produce – with bees for instance?
I suppose what I am saying is that I don’t rightly know the answer to any of these pesky questions. But more than ever, I feel there should be a place in Richie’s and my garden for vegetables that are flowering and setting seed – for them to stay in the ground until they effectively ‘die’.
The more wrinkles I get and the more grey hairs appear on my head the more I think it’s artificial (dare I say ‘unnatural’) to see a garden full of plants in their prime – no ‘unsightly’ or ‘old’ plants in view. To me, it’s the garden-equivalent of going to a party or a club where over-thirties aren’t permitted entry. What fun is that?
In the name of diversity, I reckon it’s nice to nurture garden beds where babies, adolescents and geriatrics are crammed in together: creating pleasing variations in texture, colour, size. Inclusive multi-generational gardens serve a spiritual as well as an ecological function – seeing plants growing old and dying reminds me in a gentle way that I too will gradually stiffen, grow old and die. My body, like the bodies of the elderly plants in my garden, will return eventually to the soil, replenishing the earth, providing fertility for something else to grow.
Personally, I think it’s time to live in the presence of visual evidence of death and dying, and to celebrate the entire life-cycle of plants, human-animals and non-human animals from birth to death, start to finish, AND that we should grow food not only for ourselves but for other beings who have lives and minds and bodies of their own to sustain, for instance, bees. Which is why the flowering lettuce, rocket, broccoli and kale plants persist in our garden and are flowering right now as I write, and why the bees continue to be their favourite customers.