View Full Version : A Question about some SHORT crops to grow...

Mac H.
04-18-2008, 12:47 PM
Hi everyone,

Wikipedia hasn't been helpful, and my google-fu is failing, so I am after some simple answers.

I have a story set in Holland in World War II. As a bit of background, in the winter of 1944 thousands starved to death in Holland, as the Nazis comandeered the crops for their own under-fed army.

In the story, my MC is a stubbonly independant worman with a tulip farm and is still growing tulips despite their being no market for them - instead of converting the farm to food. Her argument is that the Nazis are simply stealing the crops anyway, so she'd be simply supplying food for the German army. Her tulip fields may be crowded with weeds (due to the lack of labour to tend the fields) but her tulip fields are a very visual 'passive resistance' to the occupiers.

Of course, later we discover that the fields of tulips are just a cover, and that the 'weeds' between the flowers are really the real crops - she is growing potatoes etc - to supply the local town with food while the Nazis starve.

Now the Nazis will realise the truth eventually, but it needs to be at least believable that she'd try this.

While google tells me that Tulips grow 30-40cm high, it is silent on how big Potatoes, carrots etc are.

Basically I need some crops that she would TRY to get away with growing on the sly. (Even if she ultimately fails)

Does anybody who isn't as city-bred as me have some hints ?


04-18-2008, 12:53 PM
The heads of potato plants are pretty big and pretty wide too.
Carrots show up rather less.

Mac H.
04-18-2008, 01:25 PM
Hmm ... would potatoes still grow if the tops were trimmed ?

04-18-2008, 01:33 PM
Chickweed's an edible leafy vegetable that, well, looks like a weed and needs less light than root vegetables, such as carrots, which I suppose would be relevant since the tulips will fight for light. Not sure if that helps... but, tulips are, actually, edible. So...

04-18-2008, 01:38 PM
Hmm ... would potatoes still grow if the tops were trimmed ?
No, they need the tops.

Rather than try to hide the food plants along the tulips, you might try "hiding them in plain sight". Some vegetable plants (especially the tubers) look like any other plants to an untrained eye: potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, lettuce, etc. If they were "scattered about" rather than being put in rows, it's possible they wouldn't be noticed.

04-18-2008, 02:16 PM
What about your crucifious (sp) veges - broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage? I dunno how well they'd grow in Holland, tho.

04-18-2008, 02:20 PM
Cabbage would be pretty obvious.

I still think turnips would be a good choice. I believe they've long been a "desperation crop" in parts of Europe. Didn't Van Gogh do a painting called The Turnip Eaters? It's 5:00 in the morning where I am, my mind may be clouded.

04-18-2008, 04:57 PM
Don't forget that in those days, a lot more people were familiar with what food crops look like, which would make it even harder.

I thought turnips sounded good till I Google Image'd 'turnip crop'. Man, they are bigger than I expected. I wonder if those are modern varieties that are bigger? Is there such a thing as an heirloom turnip variety that grows smaller? Have you tried doing your research in seed catalog sites, come to think of it?

Whatever you choose I'd second the idea of scattering all different plants around. If you want them to look like weeds, they should be growing like weeds - randomly and mixed up, not all the same in a row.

04-18-2008, 06:52 PM
I believe the Dutch did eat tulips during the war. You can eat the whole plant.

Some weeds are edible. You'd need to find out if they're found in Holland, but some examples include dandelions, stinging nettles, clover, wild carrot, burdock and garlic mustard. Some of those plants are taller than tulips, but most people would dismiss them as weeds.

Kathie Freeman
04-18-2008, 07:36 PM
Beets are a good choice. They grow in any climate, any soil and you can trim off the largest leaves. Same with carrots. Some kale doesn't get very big.

04-18-2008, 08:05 PM
Stay away from climbing plants: no tomatoes, no beans, & most squash, gourds, and melons also have huge leaves so these again wouldn't be a good choice to hide. Carrots, parsnips, small turnips, small radishes, & peppers can be 'trained' to grow low.

Tsu Dho Nimh
04-18-2008, 08:15 PM
A: I thought tulips were toxic.

B: Did the Germans give landowners a choice? I thought they ordered them to plant things - at gunpoint.

Tulips die down in the summer, so any crop intended for winter harvest would be exposed. If you cut the main stem of turnips or beets, they tend ot grow flatter.

One "crop" might be willows for baskets and furniture. They were widely planted, and could hide a lot of things.

When and how are these things going to be harvested?

04-18-2008, 08:52 PM
How about spinach?

They are a cool weather crop that is often grown in the spring. They're full of vitamins, iron and protein and can be eaten raw (salad) or cooked. And you pick the leaves as they get big enough and leave the smaller ones to continue to grow. And it doesn't need full sun (since it will be partially shaded by the tulips).

04-18-2008, 08:56 PM
Soybeans might work as well...

04-18-2008, 11:04 PM
A: I thought tulips were toxic.

Tulips are edible. The toxic part is the fungicide used to treat the bulbs. You obviously wouldn't treat them if you were growing them as food.

04-19-2008, 07:19 AM
Tulips are an early spring plant and they would have died back long before any crop would have had the chance to develop under them.

Salad radishes are the fastest growers, but they need more warmth to germinate and so you couldn't plant them until the tulips were fading and I don't think they would grow big enough to eat before becoming obvious.

Soy beans varieties might not have been able to grow in Holland in WWII. I think it's only the much more modern hybrid versions which can take the lower summer temps.

There was a perpetual spinach plant and some good weeds that were edible. I'd think you might be safer looking at edible weeds growing amongst the tulips. They could be called weeds and not pulled out because there's no help, no man power etc. Then people could come to weed the field and actually be picking food to take home.

04-19-2008, 08:42 AM
Tulips are an early spring plant and they would have died back long before any crop would have had the chance to develop under them.

That's why I suggested spinach. Here (in Upstate South Carolina), it's recommended that spinach (seed) be planted between mid-Feb. and mid-March. The Clemson University site says they should be ready to start harvesting in '37-45 days'. (Note: these might be modern cultivars.) That means you could (conceivably) start harvesting by the end of March. It's now mid-April and tulips are blooming.

Also, since this is during war time, the tulips themselves wouldn't be picked (lack of manpower). The leaves would take awhile to die back and could disguise the spinach for probably several more weeks.

There was a perpetual spinach plant...

That's a new one on me. Are you saying that it doesn't bolt in hot weather? Is it a new variety or just one I've never heard of?

04-19-2008, 10:37 AM
Oh, yes, it's an old variety we call New Zealand spinach and it doesn't bolt and grows all year. It is a perennial and I believe you can find it in England too.

I wonder if Germans would recognise spinach growing? But not edible weeds?

Edible weeds which look like food, Mac H? Wild onions, any of the rocket, salet, mustard type salad greens, wood strawberries, wild garlic, garlic-mustard, comfrey...there's a huge list!

04-19-2008, 12:02 PM
Obviously I'm being American, but why not imported peanut plants? They would be easy to get ahold of, and would be foreign enough that they would seem like weeds.

Tumbleweeds would be another good plant; they actually come from Russia (so they could have gotten there on the soles of German boots and in the digestive tracts). Also, weren't there a lot of pine trees in Germany? That translates to pine nuts.

Weird...Part of the issue is that you need to bear in mind that a lot of plants are edible; a lot of the problem is that a lot of plants that we consider weeds now are edible, we just don't see them as such....


04-19-2008, 05:27 PM
Ordinary onions would be a very inconspicious veggie to grow between the tulips, very nutritious too. Black salsify


could be planted at the edges of the field. The plants grow rather high, but are covered in beautiful yellow flowers and are considered a weed by many. The roots are not only edible, though; they are delicious. In Sweden they are known as the poor man's asparagus.

Once the tulips are bloomed out, they are left in the field to wither while a new bulb grows below. These are harvested in late summer. That leaves time enough for other crops.

Kohlrabi and turnips are very popular veggies in Europe and is far less conspicious than other cabbages. They would be a logical choice because you can eat the whole plant, leaves and roots. Other veggies could be radishes and carrots.

04-19-2008, 07:57 PM
We grow veggies in our backyard garden (in an area with a short growing season). You couldn't grow cauliflower or cabbage those are huge plants. But certain greens ones that you can cut down when they are small and have them grow back, might work.

Swiss chard is a good one. Turnip GREENS would work, too. These plants are hardy so if a frost came and the tulips died off, the greens would still be there, looking healthy.

04-19-2008, 08:08 PM
Check Holland's agricultural information as to what they actually grew. Dutch historians should be able to help you with what they DID grow during that era (in case their crops shifted after the war.) Their climate, soil characteristics, farming techniques, etc., will dictate what she CAN grow and what Netherlanders DID grow. Also, for realism, during a war, her resources may be limited and so her capabilities may be limited. In fact, her farming/seed limitations because of rationing may be a key part of her struggles in the story.

04-21-2008, 04:38 AM
purslane is a weed AND an edible crop.

Rolling Thunder
04-21-2008, 04:54 AM
You might have a plot problem already, Mac:

Like all industries, the bulb industry too was greatly affected by WW I, the Great Depression and WW II. There was little demand for bulbs and plants resulting in no income at times but continuing costs. During WW II, Vanhof & Blokker and its employees survived by growing vegetables, tobacco, making flour from crocus and tulip bulbs and syrup from sugar beets. After the war the exporting of bulbs basically had to start from scratch again but many aspects of it quickly got better and even more efficient than before.

Mac H.
04-21-2008, 05:58 AM
That's a good reference!

But that actually just emphasises what she is doing.

We have a confirmed pacifist who is doing it, KNOWING that it is a stupid, impractical gesture. Every other farm knows that she is loony.

She knows that there is no market for them.
She knows that nobody will buy them.

But she doesn't care. She is making the point that sometimes soul is more important than survival.

Except that later we find that she wasn't as crazy as we thought.

That's the plan though ..


04-21-2008, 01:33 PM
Some weeds are edible.... but some examples include dandelions, stinging nettles,

Have you ever picked stinging nettles with your bare hands? Even if you follow the appropriate method, which reduces pricking, you're screwed. Ay yi yi

Keyboard Hound
04-21-2008, 04:35 PM
I have picked stinging nettles with my hands--not knowing they were stinging nettles. It's like being stung by a dozen bees at once. Little white welts pop up all over the skin. Most people wouldn't do it on purpose but one time.

Purslane is abundant in growth, but very cold sensitive. Around here tulips bloom in spring when it's pretty cold outside, often surviving freezes. Purslane would melt in those temperatures. It might grow during the period when the tulip leaves are browning out, but I don't think it would survive while tulips are in active growth.

04-22-2008, 12:21 AM
Daylilies are also edible, can be ground into flour, or cooked and mashed like potatoes.

Soccer Mom
04-22-2008, 12:35 AM
I'm another vote for onions. very inconspicuous. Garlic is also easy to hide. She can grow crocus bulbs and grind them for flour. Radishes stay small. Spinach can be kept small as can some other green leafy veggies. She would have to be very watchful and keep them picked down.

04-22-2008, 06:58 AM
Jerusalem artichoke -- sorry I don't have growing habits, but I knew I heard somewhere that it fell out of favour in France because in WWII it was the only vegie around to eat. Meant to be easy to grow. http://www.metro.ca/conseil-expert/jardinier/panier-legumes/legumes-tubercules/topinambour.en.html I'm sure there are better references somewhere.

Oops. Looked at picture. I doubt this brazen sunflower would be inconspicuous.

04-22-2008, 08:53 PM
But perhaps it would be look like it was being grown for the flower.

Depends on whether it was familiar as a food crop whether that trick would work, of course.

(Between this and the museum-robbing thread, this has just been the best forum on the board lately.)

04-23-2008, 05:33 AM
Go for edible weeds. Germans are fond of gardening and could spot an edible crop a mile away if it were anything they'd be planting at home. I'm an urban gardener, and I can spot familiar plants from the road no problem. Being an enthusiastic gardener, I am constantly scanning for plants wherever I go. There is an enthusiastic gardener or three on every city block.

There are tons of survival guides out there that list (and illustrate) edible wild plants. Shepherd's purse, for instance, is constantly tugged out by gardeners, but is a high quality cooking green. Every part of the burdock plant is edible, but it would be far too big for a tulip field. Dandelions and purslane would be good choices.

Join a gardening forum and ask questions. Garden Webs is the biggest and has even more forums than AW. You will find knowledgeable people from all over the world who could help you with this.

But seriously, dump the standard food crop idea. It won't fly. She wouldn't fool anybody.

Research the tulip industry while you're at it. Tulips grow best in rather sandy soil that preferably goes mostly dry in the summer, pretty much the opposite of the conditions needed by the vast majority of food crops. If she irrigates for the food crop, she'd be rotting out her tulips and attracting suspicion. Another reason why weeds would be the best way to go.

Mac H.
04-23-2008, 06:43 AM
Yeah - I know I'm fighting the obvious.

Edible weeds are the sensible choice.

The problem is that this is a screenplay, so we need it to be visual. When the bad guy pulls up one of the 'weeds' the audience need to instantly see the truth ... if he pulled up a bunch of carrots it would do nicely.

Simply explaining verbally that some weeds are edible, etc, etc would be more realistic, but rob us of the 'Ah ha!' experience when we see the truth at the same time as the bad guy.

It also takes away from the audacity of her plan. Of course being SENSIBLE is more sensible .. but not as good for the story.

If the story was about sensible people doing sensible things, then it wouldn't be a screenplay !

Perhaps I'll compromise. Have it largely edible weeds with some carrots and turnips thrown in for good measure ?

That tip about irrigation is great ... it will be a clue that gives the bad guy a way of figuring out the truth. The bad guy is, of course, smarter and more observant than the rest of the Nazis.

(And yes, the subterfuge will be spotted with bad results for our heroine)

(PS: I can justify it a bit historically - we know that the exact farm where this story is set wasn't searched even when the Nazis were looking for enemy soldiers in the area. Part of its advantage was the fact that it was so remote .. and, to be honest, this story is set in the part of the war when the Nazis were running short of fuel and were basically getting their butts kicked from every direction. Although I conveniently won't mention that. Fighting an enemy that is going to lose even if you do nothing isn't as dramatic ...)

04-23-2008, 07:13 AM
Nothing like getting tugged in several directions at once, eh?

I would double-check on the irrigation, if I were you because I'm not an expert. I am assuming this from what I know of good growing conditions for tulips, not from an indepth knowledge of the industry. And it has happened - gasp - when I was wrong when I thought I was right.

04-23-2008, 03:18 PM
I think you'd better go for salad radishes which are visual, or the small wild strawberry.