Garden Planning: A Tale of Three Gardens

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Our first garden was an afterthought.

A few years ago the state of the economy – banks crashing, corporations folding and 401K values plummeting – had us more than a little concerned. That coupled with the possibility of continued unseasonable and unpredictable weather started us on a program of home emergency preparedness. We already owned a wood burning stove, though we’d taken it out when our daughter started toddling, and space issues had kept us from ever putting it back in the house (now we own two, and one of them IS in the house). Still, in the spring of 2008 we bought a couple cords of wood. If we needed it, we could always drag the stove back into the house, and if we had to do that, we’d have plenty of fuel for it. Recalling our four days without power after hurricane Isabel, we invested in a generator. After a number of devastating storms beginning with Katrina, FEMA and The Red Cross were advising people to have anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks of food on hand at home at all times. So we began to research what was involved in a long term food storage program. We began to stock our cellar with canned goods and water, with grains and beans in 5 gallon buckets. And then one day, in the midst of all the frenetic and uneasy hoarding, I was standing in my cellar, looking at my number ten cans full of freeze-dried food, and I realized that we were going about this all wrong.

Real abundance lies not in accumulation but in replenishment.

So near the end of June in 2008, pretty much as an afterthought, I planted a small garden.

2008 – The Panic Garden

Using a shovel, I turned over a small rectangle of grass, about 80 square feet, right in the sunny middle of our back yard. I got four tomato plants from a big box store that I thought were Roma tomatoes but which turned out to be something more like oval-shaped cherry tomatoes. They grew to be only about thigh high, and produced pretty well all summer. I had an eggplant. It didn’t make it, of course. I have always had trouble growing eggplants. I had a Black Beauty zucchini from which I harvested a few baseball bat sized fruits before the vine borers got it. I had a small melon patch that produced quite well, and a few pumpkin plants that never got off the ground. I grew a gigantic and gangly okra plant that I could not keep up with harvesting. And that was pretty much it.

No planning went into this garden. No amendments went into the soil. I put some decorative fencing around it to keep the dogs out, and added rabbit guard to that the morning I went out there and caught the rabbits helping themselves to the buffet. I saw a few snakes come and go. That’s the first year we ever saw snakes in our yard. Was it the newly-installed woodpile? The new garden? Climate change? Who knows?

We harvested and ate what was there, and let the weeds grow wild. It was far from beautiful, but it was successful enough to be encouraging. We could do better. We could do more.

So I dug up another 80 square feet or so late that summer and planted a fall garden. It was a little more orderly. A little less crowded. A little less weedy. I had my first amazing taste of freshly picked broccoli and was in love. My cabbages didn’t make it and neither did my cauliflower, but I was harvesting and eating kale well into December.

I was inspired. I was ready to get serious.

That winter I was flipping through a Mother Earth News magazine and saw an advertisement for heirloom tomato plants that was irresistible to me. I ordered them, along with a variety of peppers. I got online and had a few seed catalogs sent to the house. I started making plans.

2009 – The Production Garden

In the spring of 2009, as soon as the weather permitted, I dug up a new garden spot – almost 800 square feet to work with – still with a shovel. I surrounded it with rabbit guard, and set objectives:

1. To produce more food than I had the year before; ideally so much that I was forced to freeze, can or dehydrate food to preserve it.

2. To not make the same mistakes I made the year before – namely overcrowding and weeds.

I planned to grow only things that I felt I had a reasonable assurance would do well, based on my past garden experiences, and the research that I had done over the winter. My plan was for beets, turnips, Daikon radish, banana fingerling potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and yellow squash, green beans, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

Because over-planting (along with failure to thin) had been a big problem for me the year before, I wanted to make sure that all of my plants had enough space. So I decided to plant in a grid pattern, dividing my space into 3-foot-by-3-foot squares, with the goal of having one strong, healthy and heavily-producing plant on a mound in the center of each square; the exception being a few things like the Daikon, turnip and beets, which I knew could be a little closer together, and which ended up being anywhere from 6 to 12 plants per mound.

I had done some reading in the winter about companion planting, and decided to plant marigolds throughout the garden to attract beneficial insects.

I didn’t plant anything until about mid-April, which seems really late to me now. The first thing to go in were about a dozen Marigolds, followed by the beet, turnip and Daikon seeds, and the seed potatoes. A few days later – on an enthusiastic whim – I started some seeds inside. This was a low-tech affair, using the lights from the AeroGarden that I had gotten for Christmas that year. I learned that seeds will actually sprout if you plant them. I learned how they look rising up out of the soil. I learned the difference between first leaves and true leaves. I learned why sprouts get “leggy” and what that looks like.

I also learned to believe in miracles when a seedling pot that I tossed out the back door as a failure was found weeks later with a strong, sturdy zucchini seedling in it.

In a fit of impatience and anxiety I dug one of my seed potatoes back up to see if it was sprouting and what that looked like; then, reassured, I buried it again. I found a place to buy straw and took my first foray into mulching. I learned that eggplants and sweet potatoes bloom. Who knew? I learned to recognize a few common garden pests. By the time I hit mid-June in 2009, the point at which I’d been hastily planting the year before, a productive garden was well on its way.

And produce it did.

I bought and learned how to use a hot water bath canner. I made BBQ sauce, spaghetti sauce, stewed tomatoes, salsa, pickles and relish. By late August I was exhausted. Summer was largely over. I had lost my tomato plants prematurely due to drought. There were still sweet potatoes in the ground, and we were still harvesting peppers. I pulled up the yellow squash plants. The bush beans were spent, the nasturtium was gone, and even a few of the marigolds seemed to be heaving their last breath; victims, I suspect, of a combination of weeds, sweet potato vines, and a few very heavy late summer rains pounding the heck out of them. I was already starting to tend a fall garden – a brand new 800 square feet that we did this time with a tiller, and I’d mixed manure compost and humus into the soil where the root veggies would go.

2009 was characterized not only by the encouragement of success, but also by anxiety over empty ground, by a longing for the lushness of green, by self doubt and insecurity over the newness of it all and the hugeness of the project that I had set for myself.

But it turned out okay. And I begin the 2010 garden with a little more confidence than I had the year before; with a little more faith in the unfamiliar and in what I cannot see.

2010 – An Imperfect Peace

This year is my first experience of a garden having grown first in my mind.

This is partly a function of experience. In 2008 I did not know how a cantaloupe came to be on the vine. I did not know that my little okra seedling would grow like a weed until it towered over me on a stalk so thick and tough that I almost never got it out of there in the fall. In 2008 I had still never witnessed the elegant and sturdy beauty with which a cucurbit unfolds itself from its seed and rises towards the light. I had not yet slaughtered hundreds of beautiful insects because when it came to some particular pieces of food – well – it was them or me.

This year I have a good idea of what to expect; of how much space things will take up; of how much of a challenge any particular crop might be, and I kind of understand the character of those challenges. And among other challenges that I am prepared to meet this year, is that of gardening with a small and eager, stubborn and independent child.

In his essay, “The Garden Tour,” Michael Pollan tells us that “in a path is the beginning of a narrative, that sure and welcoming sign of human presence,” and I guess I probably shared the opening lines of our garden path story with you this past fall. With a small child in the garden, paths are a necessity. You just cannot be too clear about where a little one ought to be stepping and where she should not, and while her imagination is burgeoning and supple, what my daughter imagines is there in front of her in this very moment, and she reacts accordingly. There is little room in her reality – indeed there is little reality for her – in what else might come to be in the place where she sets her foot. For her the garden is now, while for me the garden is what I have learned from the past two years. It is both now, and later – March and June and September – it is already and simultaneously latency, growth and harvest.

But this year’s garden is also raising the stakes in a slightly metaphysical direction. Because this year, in addition to providing us with food, I also envision our garden as a place to be; a place where we will spend time not only on working to maintain it, on coaxing and on harvest, but on appreciation of it; a place to be reminded of all for which we are thankful; a place to meditate; a place for spiritual resuscitation; a place to go to be restored.

And so the paths that I am laying down this year are not only for my daughter.

I’ve used materials that we already had here on the property, and I’ve also hauled in square red stepping stones that my daughter chose herself. The paths are crooked. They buck and dip. But they are solid and they are obvious, and I can’t help but think that as things begin to grow and fill in, as we fill in spaces between the fruits and vegetables with masses of flowers – as I erect the arched trellis that I can’t seem to get out of my mind over one of those paths – that these bare and crooked stones will be transformed beyond utility into lovely surprises. I can’t help but think that what at the moment seems bare and ugly will at some point this summer strike me as beautiful, and that it will take on a life of its own.

The paths are also a gesture of permanency. We will have a garden. Not only this year but next year, and the next and the year after that. We will use the same spaces. This time next year we will not be digging and transforming; this time next year our garden will already have bones. This year we are less anxious; our intentions are less immediate. We are planting strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, most of whose fruits we may not see this year at all. And we are painstakingly putting in paths which were not in the garden that I designed on paper this winter.

That garden – still under the influence of production – was designed for yield and for storage. But as I laid down my first stone a few weeks ago I realized that maps and plans have given way to whimsy. Production has given way to a sense of plenty and an ability to find peace in the garden’s imperfection. And potential has already, this early in the spring, given way to actual joy.