Backyard gardens: Antidotes to the frenzies

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Hold on again. There's too much going on. We need to step back from the frenzy for a moment and contemplate the deeper mysteries. Yes, I'm talking mainly to you out there in the great suburban strip, but right in town too and maybe even some of you in the country who have lost the enchanted bond.

First, the news. This week I planted my first seeds -- two weeks earlier than normal, so you still have time to do it too. I plant spinach, lettuce and radishes in a row about three paces long, throw some old wire baskets on it upside down for a frame (although anything will do), and pull a plastic sheet over the whole thing. Those seeds can freeze and thaw endlessly. It's magic. By mid-May, the crop is grown even before it's time to plant the rest of the stuff. I've been doing this for 35 years, on schedule, one time even digging through a foot of hard snow and planting in chunks of frozen ground.

But here's the bigger news. For the rural cognoscenti, it's parsnip time. Let me explain. You may have bought parsnips at the store. Not a hit, right? Tasted a bit like flour and water. The secret is that they have to stay in the ground all winter, where they pick up the essence of Earth. Pluck one at this time and give it a sniff and it's like Mother Earth giving you a dirty little thrill. Then you cut it crossways in slices two loonies thick, cover with oil and give it a quick fry or bake for 20 minutes. Again, bingo.

Grow them. It's easy. They're slow to germinate, but bugs don't bother them and they just grow, then lie there all winter. Do it for next year if you want to catch the idea before it gets popular. Any day now, I expect some giant food conglomerate with a billion-dollar research budget to discover this and next thing we'll have deep-fried winter parsnips at McDonald's.

By the way, this is not a lecture about saving the world with organic food, or getting on the slow-food bandwagon or all the other issues around agriculture, although those are implied. Above all, it's about superior stuff, about your psychic well-being and about the roots of greater things. "When tillage begins, other arts follow," said Daniel Webster, of dictionary fame.

But before getting into that, here's some more advice. City backyards, if the sun gets to them, are marvellous places for gardens because they trap heat. Beans (small plantings several weeks apart from late May until late July), tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, lettuce, green peppers and leeks, for instance, are very productive in small spaces and bugs mostly leave them alone. The point is the freshness. It can become addictive. Even your local farmers' market, for all its undoubted value, can't match grabbing the stuff from the ground and plunking it into the pot, and getting your before-dinner stroll in the bargain.

Then there's the other end of the season where you can have hardy green stuff for the picking until mid-January. That would be brussels sprouts. I've shovelled snow to get at them, sometimes with a flashlight when it's dark at five o'clock. Get them already started as bedding plants. The plants are large and productive, no bugs, little care and they don't mind frost. They also freeze very well -- three minutes in boiling water and pop them in the freezer.

And there's broccoli, one crop of bedding plants and a second one of direct seed in the ground. The second one will keep growing until Christmas as long as you keep picking it. Broccoli can freeze solid for a week, then keep growing when it thaws. Bugs though -- cabbage worms. You'll need rotenone powder, the standard organic pesticide.

So there, if you're really gardening, you're into it gently year-round, taking maybe February off, unless there's a thaw and you get into the parsnips and go into ecstasy.

And what does it all mean? "Agriculture is our wisest pursuit because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness," said Thomas Jefferson at the beginning of the American republic. I've never been sure what Americans mean by happiness, but a backyard garden is a great stress reliever. Slowing , even momentarily, to the mysterious and imperceptible pace of plant life is the ultimate antidote to the Internet, news in 10-second clips, office and family stress, commuter traffic and what have you. Everything may seem to be coming apart, but if the cucumbers have just miraculously blossomed in your backyard, it reminds you that everything is still intact.

Next week: Back to the frenzy.

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