September 25, 2010
My vegetable gardens are not perfect; what Rudyard Kipling called “the glory of the garden” does not abide in my backyard garden, my porch garden, or my various container gardens. What abides in the back yard are somewhat crooked rows of vegetables, planted in hand-hoed beds that tend slightly toward each other by the time I’ve reached the end of my hoeing. The porch garden is often made up of plants that, as transplants, finally popped up too late to make it into the back yard garden. And the container gardens are planted, for the most part, in a collection of odds-and-ends containers found around the house or purchased on the cheap (unless you count as a matched set the twelve, cut-off, plastic 2-liter pop bottles that will contain this year’s indoor starts). Nevertheless, taken collectively, they feed me and, in doing so, add resiliency to my life.
I make this confession, not because I’m particularly proud of the imperfections, but because when I first decided I needed the extra layer of resilience a garden provides, perfection almost scared me off the project all together. I knew I needed information, but as I combed the internet and the local library, what I found were pages of long and complicated instructions on the perfect soil, the perfect compost heap, the perfect fertilizer mix, the perfect garden climate and picture after picture of perfect gardens with nary a crooked row, yellowed leaf or misshaped vegetable in sight.
Get real! Gardens, especially beginning gardens, rarely look like that. My dad – who grew up on a hard-scrabble farm in southern Oklahoma back in the days when they still plowed with a couple of mules and what they grew was mostly what they had to eat for the year – always kept a garden after he moved to the city, even though he also had a day job. Although we supplemented the home-canned vegetables in our pantry with store-bought, we ate nearly year-round from that garden and we ate well. Nevertheless, he was not a perfect gardener. He was a persistent, curious, observant and, yes, loving gardener. So I am trying to be; so you must try to be.
Since I’m still talking to the Working Poor and you may not have a lot of extra loot to put into a garden, let’s begin by looking at some basics. If you’re lucky enough to already garden, just go do your thing, because this is pretty simple stuff.
What do plants need? Plants need the same things we need – food, water, shelter, warmth and light. If you’ve ever grown a houseplant successfully, you did so by providing the plant with those five things – a pot of good soil to call home, some water, some plant food and a sunny window away from chilling drafts.
Since plants can’t get up and go to the refrigerator when they’re hungry, they’ve very cleverly learned to make their own food, in their leaves, out of nutrients and minerals from the soil and water, and carbon dioxide from the air around them. To do this, they use a substance in their leaves called chlorophyll. To make the chlorophyll, plants need the energy from sunlight. This food-making process is called photosynthesis.
Nature provides these food-making elements for plants in the wild. Whether we grow our gardens in containers (inside or outside) or in the back yard, or both, our job as gardeners is to make sure nature can provide them in our gardens.
These are the basics of gardening. If you’re depending on a garden for food, it doesn’t have to be perfect; it does have to be productive and that comes with experience.
Where do we start? I don’t know about where you live, but around here, fall snuck in the back door while we were looking out the front window. Three days ago, we had temperatures in the high eighties and low nineties. A cold front moved in yesterday and, bam! The forecast for the next week or so is high seventies and, maybe, low eighties. So, unless you live in an area that has outdoor growing weather year round, there are two projects you might start with, now that fall has come. Consider both of them ways to gain some gardening experience. First, try growing a couple of vegetables in containers inside this winter. Second, begin preparing for an outdoor garden next spring.
First project: If your local Walmart hasn’t emptied out its gardening section yet, you might pick up a couple of packets of vegetable seeds, a bag of potting soil, a box of dry plant food (make sure it says “for vegetables”) and try to grow a couple of vegetables you like in containers this winter. You don’t have to buy fancy pots; you can use things you find around the house. They do need to be large enough to hold the plant you decide to grow (think 5 gallon sized container for a tomato plant); they need to be soap-and-water clean; you need to put some drainage holes in the bottom. Fill the clean containers with soil to about an inch or two from the top, water the soil well (put a plate or something under it to keep water from running all over your floor or table). Plant three or four seeds in each container. Keep the containers in a darker area, away from light (you might even cover the containers with a hand towel) until they sprout. Once they sprout, uncover them and move them into a lighter area, but away from direct sunlight until they are about an inch high and have their second set of leaves. Then, move the containers into full sunlight for a couple of hours a day. Once your little plants seem to be growing well, you can remove all but the one that seems to be growing the best and move the containers to where they’ll get full sunlight for at least 6 hours a day. Follow the instructions on the box of fertilizer to feed them. If it’s still warm enough, open the window so they get a little bit of warm breeze. It will help strengthen the stems. Relax and have fun with it; this is a learning project, so learn – even from mistakes.
Second project: Start planning now, for an outdoor garden this spring. If you want to plant an outside garden next spring, this is a good time to decide where you want to plant it and take a look at the quality of soil you have there. Earthworms are a good indication of that general quality. To see how many earthworms you have, turn over a shovel full of dirt in your chosen area into a bucket, gently comb through it and count the number of earthworms you find. You can also make a weak solution of mustard in a container of water. Pour it into the hole where you removed the dirt. It acts as a mild irritant and brings the deep-burrowing earthworms to the surface. Count them, too. Good soil should have15-25 earthworms in a square foot of soil.
This is because, if the soil is home and shelter for your outdoor plants, earthworms are the construction crew. When earthworms tunnel through or burrow into the dirt, they loosen it, allowing access ways for air and water to mix with it more easily and allowing excess water to drain through the soil during heavy rains instead of creating run-off. Earthworms feed on bacteria and fungi that live in dirt. In doing so, they break up and take in bits of dirt and decaying organic matter the bacteria and fungi feed on. All this travels through the worm’s digestive system, and is excreted as “castings”, which is really just little piles of enriched soil. If you have too few earthworms in your soil, now is the time to provide them some “food” to dine on over the winter, so they will make lots of little earthworm babies to keep your garden soil fertile.
Here’s an inexpensive way to do that. Mark out the area where you want your garden, cover the entire area (grass and all) with several layers of newspapers and wet them down well. If you don’t have enough newspapers, any kind of paper or cardboard will do – unless it has been plasticized – used paper towels, magazine pages, junk mail circulars, paper bags, even those slabs of dryer lint you pull off the lint filter. Tear cardboard into smaller pieces. Magazine pages and other “slick” paper are hard to wet. You might soak them in a bucket of water while you’re laying down the more absorbent papers. On top of this layer, put down a four-inch layer of fall leaves. Chopping them up by running the mower over them first will help them break down more easily. (DON’T use leaves from walnut trees. They contain a toxin that can kill some garden plants.) Wet that layer. Next, put down a four-inch layer of dried grass clippings and wet it down. You can add another layer of each, if you have enough materials, but those three will get you started. Moisten the entire covering again if it dries out enough for the wind to catch it. These layers will kill the grass and weeds underneath, so you don’t have to worry about tilling your garden area next spring.
Over the winter, the earthworms will move up through the dead grass and these other layers to dine as bacteria and fungi break the layers down, taking bits of the decaying materials and working them down into your soil. Next spring, you can turn over what’s left into the top layer of soil with a hoe or garden fork. Some people just plant their seeds and transplants right into whatever is left of the layers. Once you do this, repeating the process each fall will increase the earthworm population and help build and maintain good soil for your garden.
It’s a good idea, for both projects, to start a gardening notebook. Here you can keep track of your two projects, how they are going, problems you noticed, how you dealt with them and whether what you did worked. It’s also a good place to jot down what vegetables you want to grow (I wouldn’t waste time in a first garden growing vegetables you and your family don’t like to eat – maybe later, but not in the first one) and draw out a plot of your garden and where you might plant the different vegetables within it next spring.
If you’re reading this, you have access to the internet and a world of information on gardening. Spend some time, this winter, reading about the different vegetables and vegetable gardening in general. A good place to start is the website of your state university. Most have a horticultural or agriculture department where they have lots of information on growing different vegetables in your area. One of the first things I did when I started gardening here was print out a vegetable planting chart from MU that listed the planting times and other information about vegetables for each growing region in Missouri. For example, my area is atop the Ozark Plateau. The higher elevation means our spring frosts last later and our fall frosts come earlier than the rest of southern Missouri, so we plant according to the times for northern Missouri – a good thing to know.
I’m going to start a new section here, labeled Garden Information, up at the top of the blog. I’ll put down information I’ve gleaned over the last few years, along with links to gardening sites, ideas for making inexpensive things you can use instead of having to buy expensive commercial items and so forth. It should be up and running in a day or two and I’ll keep adding information as I find it.
A garden is a living system, full of the complexities, aggravations and joys of any living system. It will never be “perfect”. Just as with your family, neighborhood, church or job, there will be members you just don’t like, those you’ve learned to love and days your not sure if you can tell the difference between the two anymore. But if you learn to work with your garden rather than on your garden, give its various peculiar members the same respect and affection you would your slightly kooky Aunt Martha or your nerdy neighbor, Marvin, your garden will love you back and reward you with food for body, mind and spirit. Gardens are also a great way to build community resilience and I’ll be jotting down ideas and listing sites dealing with that in the Garden Information section, too.
In the mean time, whether you’re looking for inexpensive ways to survive what seems to be a long, hard economic slog ahead for us working stiffs or preparing for collapse, being able to provide food beyond the just-in-time delivery system will add another layer of resilience to your food supply and your life.
Next week we’ll begin a look at shelter and warmth (for you, not the garden).