The vagaries of the outdoors

It seems like everyone is getting into gardening this year, stuck at home with nowhere to go and worrying about the future of food chains on top of…everything else. Even if it’s just sprouting scallions from a glass of water—which, to be honest, I have never managed to do—people want to grow things, especially food.

Meanwhile, I feel like my gardening skills have, if anything, regressed. None of my pepper seeds sprouted at all, which I’m blaming on the chill spring that seeped through our leaky windows and ensured the seeds moldered in the soil. (Pepper seeds like it hot.) And the only herbs peeking out of the soil are dill and catnip.

In an excess of precaution, I planted around five tomato seeds per pot and, in an excess of viability, nearly all of them sprouted. The “informed gardener” like myself, knows you have to cull all but one, but this year I just couldn’t! I didn’t want to! So then I rationalized that the more seedlings there were, the less likely I would be to snap one when repotting it. (This happened to me one year and I was distraught.) But then I put off repotting the seedlings and they grew longer and leggier and had trailing threads of roots spooling out of the drainage holes and I could see all the little sproutlings fighting each other for light and nutrients and water…

Then, when I finally did get around to repotting them, I didn’t due my due diligence and harden them off. This is when you put the little baby plants outside for short periods of time to get them used to harsh sunlight and whipping winds (my roof-garden is prone to both) and the other vagaries of the outdoors. I did this only once, which meant my poor baby tomato seedlings started to bleach and wither in the sun the day after I put them out. I went into emergency gardening mode, and taped newspaper around the tomato cages to serve as makeshift wind and sun screens. The withering ceased, for the most part.

Of course, then I still had three or four plants per container, which I only got around to trimming back this week. I rationalized that I wanted to make sure at least one took to the soil before culling the rest, but now the plants all look skinny and weak and vulnerable out there by themselves.

Still, we have a long, long summer ahead of us. Plenty of time for the tomatoes to fill out and bear fruit.

Fun insta photo from after I should have culled my tomatoes but long before I actually did it. True story: I briefly considered holding some sort of funeral for the culled seedlings on tiktok but, as with most of my tiktok ideas, it was too much work.

Reading list

It’s been a minute since I regularly included recommended reads in the newsletter, so you’ll forgive me if some of these links are dated.

Portrait of a tree: The oldest known tree is named Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone pine that stands in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of eastern California. Methuselah is nearly 5,000 years old, but as Alex Ross writes in The New Yorker, there could easily be older bristlecone pines. There was an older bristlecone pine, in fact, but the man who measured its age cut the tree down in the process. The felled tree’s name is Prometheus. Ross traces the bristlecone pine’s storied legacy, including its influence on the famous “hockey stick” climate change graph and the “curse of the bristlecone,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

Back from the brink: Can genetic engineering give new life to the American chestnut tree, after fungal blight from imported Japanese trees spread quickly from the Bronx to most of the country’s remaining chestnut forests? Gabriel Popkin reports for The New York Times Magazine on our sci-fi present.

Revelations: “Paleontologists call the rock on top of fossils ‘overburden.’ It's the accumulation that obscures what you wish to see; you have to chip away to get down to what you hope to find,” Riley Black writes in an essay for Sierra Magazine about their personal as well as professional discoveries. “The overburden is almost never easy to remove. Sometimes it takes years to scrape away the stubborn stone.”