Monday, August 2, 2010

Urban-ish Garden: 10 Thoughts on Eating Very Local -- Part II

Picking up where we left off with our guest blogger (Part I, if you missed it). The lessons, please, Professor!

...And so my garden grows, with real dirt and real seeds.  I have learned these important lessons along the way:

•    Take pictures.  Your garden is like your child, and it will change overnight.  The daily immediacy of its demands will obscure the big picture and the work that you’ve done, until it is easy to forget where it all started, back then in a sunny patch of dirt.  So take pictures to document the journey. 

•    Keep a record.  I use a wire-bound purple notebook in which I’ve pasted my charts of companion plantings, drafts of my garden plans, scribbled notes on planting and germinating times, and records of which seeds I bought from which company.  Just like with the pictures, I know that next year I will have forgotten what I did when and my garden plans will help me stay organized as I plan next season’s crops.

•    Fork it over for the expensive garden gloves.  My garden has eaten through four pairs of gloves so far, as even the latex-coated fingers get shredded by the work.  On the other hand, save your money on garden ties and scrounge in your sock drawer for old pantyhose, which works great for tying up your crops.

•    Start small, and then expand.  A garden is more work than you think it will be, especially in the beginning.  To make my garden from scratch has been labor-intensive.  I dug the fence-post holes, I built the fence, I cleared the ground, I tilled the soil, I primed, painted and built my garden boxes, I dug up the dirt to make the boxes, I sifted the dirt for rocks and clumps, I mixed in amendments that I lugged back from the store because my dirt was nothing but clay, I planted seeds, I weeded, I tended seedlings, I built a drip irrigation system, I staked, trained, and pruned plants, I built several wood and twine trellises, and I’m still not even close to having my whole garden up and running.  My modus operandi is usually to take a flying dive off the deep end, and then leave half-finished projects in my flailing wake.  This time, for this project, I somehow had the wisdom to work in more bite-sized chunks.  My garden will eventually be 14 4’x6’ boxes, but I’ve started with the materials for 7.  It’s taken 8 months to get my first 4 boxes fully up and running. 

•    Seed catalogs are very tempting in January.  I still haven’t planted all the seeds I bought in my seed-buying exhilaration, as I imagined both the exotic and the mundane for my backyard garden.

•    Grow heirloom.  I always knew my garden was going to be organic, or else defeat its basic purpose of subverting modern industrial farming.  Then the more I learned, the more I knew that my garden, this throwback to a life less rushed, would also only make the most sense if I grew heirloom seeds, which have been cultivated over generations and help save the variety in our food.  Hybrid seeds are too much agribusiness inventions and too little connection to the dirt.  Heirloom seeds restore a sense of purpose in your food when you start to realize that a carrot is not just a carrot, not just an orange root shape in your cellophane bag, but that there are hundreds of types of carrots (and not all of them are even orange).  Plus, although hybrid seeds are more fool-proof (at least for the first round; all they grow are sterile crops), the variety in heirloom seeds enables you to find a type that is already matched to your climate and soil type and gardening ability.

•    Trust the dirt.  Plants want to live, and will go to great lengths to do so.  If you provide the intersection of seed, soil, sun, and water, just step back and watch what nature does with it.  I have tomato plants now thriving that were on the verge of death when I transplanted them.  I have a rogue cucumber growing in my tomato box because that used to be a cucumber box, but when all of my first seedlings died (sub-lesson: hardening your seedlings is not optional), I switched to tomatoes, and that little seed survived the parched spell in the transition and is now wending its way through 3 types of tomatoes.     


•    When they recommend spacing for plants, listen.  I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I didn’t put up cages for my spindly tomatoes.  I was in a rush to get more plants in before the scorch of summer hit, so I planted a jumble of seeds in one box.  Cue to: my tomato jungle, battling with my cucumber jungle.  Cue to: my hedge of peas.  Cue to: my squash plants crowding out my pepper plants.  I suppose there is another sub-lesson here regarding the wisdom of thinning your crops, but I just didn’t have the heart to rip out pea plants which obviously wanted desperately to live.  I didn’t think that my cucumber plants, which started so small, would engage in their own urban sprawl through their own box and into neighboring boxes.  So I’ve installed an aftermarket trellis, in the hopes of just containing them off the walkway, and I’ve learned a lesson about maximizing vertical space as well as horizontal space.        

•    Gardening is as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.  On the one hand, if you just provide that crucial intersection, you are gardening.  On the other hand, you can get an advanced degree in soil chemistry and crop rotation and integrated pest management.  My learning curve has been steep, since I don’t want this to be my full-time job but I do want to make my efforts fruitful, but that has been part of the fun.  It is also like teaching in that there will never be a sense of completion, no time when I have accomplished the job perfectly, because there is always room to learn and fiddle and try and reflect and try over in an effort to make improvements.

•    And the number one, supreme lesson I have learned: be patient.  I’ve found myself taking plants out too soon, or fretting over their lack of progress, only to find that I was merely being impatient.  Gardening is not an instant gratification venture.  On the one hand, your garden is like a child, whose growth spurts happen overnight, right before your eyes.  On the other hand, the period between germination and fruit production is an eternity.  Even watching my tomatoes grow, and grow, but not ripen, has been weeks of waiting.   Patience is what lets me take small steps to get my garden up and running.  Patience is what makes the harvest still tasty even when you’ve been waiting 76 days for it.  A garden forces patience and forces the kind of gentleness that careful cultivation cultivates.  A garden is the opposite of traffic, of texting, of locks and keys, of caffeinated mornings and clock punches.  A garden is a solution, is psychotherapy in the dirt, is ancient and sacred and restorative.   So co-opt the language of imperative motivation, and just do it: grow something and eat it.  You’ll see what I mean.

Guest Blogger Maria Thibodeau grew up on a leafy chunk of glacial detritus and now cultivates her seeds, both literally and metaphorically, in Los Angeles, CA, where she lives with her wife and 3 dogs.

1 comment:

  1. I love reading about and seeing Maria Thibideau's garden. Just a thought to pass on - gardening is a journey, not a destination. It takes two seconds to pick a cucumber and months to grow it. This from the gardener who got her fence up on August 1st having shared most everything planted with the deer!

    Love, Mom