Organic Gardening Lessons: My Growing Path With a Pastime I Love

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A small-scale farmer with a wooden box full of ripe vegetables heads for the wash room.
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A raised-bed garden in Morgan Valley Road, Pennsylvania.
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Beets, carrots and radishes for sale at the Farmers' Market in Santa Barbara, California.

I’ve been a closet farmer since I was old enough to sell packages of Victory Garden seeds during World War II. Teachers handed out the gray-green boxes to us in first grade: We were to sell the seeds, give the money to the military, and live on the produce from the garden. Inside those seeds packages, little miracles of life were locked up in colorfully painted packets of radishes, lettuce and flowers; not much to live on in those lean times, but a sure promise of survival to a 5-year-old. I don’t recall ever actually seeing a Victory Garden, but the idea of it stuck with me for life.

Our first introduction to a “real” garden came by way of our father, the doctor, who often accepted chickens, oil paintings or produce as payment for medical services. Two of his elderly patients owned a 20-acre farm outside of our Midwestern college town and were getting sufficiently on in age to make the actual labor difficult. They had no children — enter the Elliotts. In short order, my mother, sister and I were indoctrinated into the art of harvesting strawberries, peas, corn and lima beans. If this sounds exciting or glamorous, do not be fooled: Picking a quarter acre of lima beans in the hot sun for two entire days is backbreaking, knee-aching work to city girls. Shelling 10 or 15 bushels of them is even worse. Our fingers were sore for days.

Of course, the work was not finished with the shelling. Then it was time to freeze the produce; we formed a production line that included the four of us washing, blanching, cooling and packing. In the middle of each day, we feasted on real farm food — homemade noodles in the broth of home-butchered beef, and home-baked berry pies. At the end of each crop’s season, we took home baskets of food for our own freezer.

All summer we complained from sunup to sundown, and all winter we gloated as we shared the wonderful produce. For at least 10 years, gardening permeated my blood. I had sold my soul to the dirt devil.

The art of gardening

The first garden of my young married adulthood was a 2-by-2-foot square dug with a hand trowel and hoe. The most recent was a half acre, plowed by the farmer down the road. Our first house had very little yard, so I convinced the elderly couple next door to “loan” us the small square. They had a beautiful vegetable garden in the lot between our houses. Having had no amendments, our 4 square feet of soil were poor. We produced one tomato that summer, while the neighbor gave his away to people who were not fortunate enough to have a garden — like us.

With four children arriving in three years, we began to feel the urge for land, so we bought our own little “farm” — a couple of undeveloped acres outside of town. We built a house, bought a horse and pony (isn’t that what you do?), and settled in. Our acreage consisted of dirt and wild morning glories. After some perfunctory landscaping, we turned our first garden by hand (we did graduate from trowel to spade), added fertilizer, and enjoyed our first tomatoes, peppers and zucchini. By the end of the next year, we hired a farmer to plow us a real garden. I was right back where I had started: Harvesting, canning and freezing.

Going organic

At about that time in Ohio, a lack of environmental regulations combined with runoff and industrial waste contributed to significant amounts of pollution in regional waterways. The Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire multiple times during the 1950s and ’60s, and at other times in history. Ecology was becoming a household word. I began to read about organic gardening, the gist of which was to use no insecticides or synthetic fertilizers, and to purchase some “good” bugs to get rid of the bad. The magazines in those days said, “just plant enough for both you and the critters. You’ll have plenty.” They were right. I cannot remember a happier time in my life than when I was walking in the garden at daybreak, scaring up pheasants, scurrying off quail and their hatchlings, and awaiting the arrival of a pair of bobolinks to serenade the day.

We went organic. The horse and pony fertilized, and we didn’t have to purchase praying mantis egg cases, as they were plentiful around the neighborhood. The children collected them — and put several in their sock drawer. When you are busy with the garden, you don’t notice such things. However, one morning as I was putting away laundry, I spotted a long thread hanging down from the sock drawer. The minuscule little mantises had made a chain and were, I’m sure, soon going to make their way downstairs and out to the garden. I helped them. From that time on, no matter where I was, if I encountered a mantis, I figured it was mine and took it home. Life seemed simple and complete.

Changes in life

Work caused us to gravitate toward large cities. There were no gardens there, and we had no time for them anyway. We moved … I moved … and suddenly I found myself in a condominium with a concrete patio and an 8-foot-tall fence for a view. It wasn’t long before my longing for the soil came back. I bought planter boxes and built brick planters around the patio’s perimeter. It wasn’t enough, though, and I started house hunting.

“I need a garden,” I told my students. I became a land junkie, always wanting more than I could afford. The more I looked out at the 8-foot fence, the more discouraged I became. That spring, my students presented me with a shrimp-colored rose called Cherish, along with a note that said, “We know you will soon find a place for Cherish to put down roots.” Not long after that, I found my house. It was impeccably landscaped. There was a large hill, grown to wilderness, honeysuckle along the fencerow, camellias, and a yard that would take maybe half an hour to mow. I nearly destroyed it all the first year.

Cherish moved in before I did, and resides today in the first soil I disturbed in the yard. I followed quickly, filling my now empty nest with dogs, cats and birds, none of them avid gardeners. During that first summer, I was able to keep up with the yard, but once school and my 18-hour days started, things went to ruin. I felt guilty for losing any of the carefully planned landscaping. I began to wonder whether I had taken on more than I could handle. Maybe I was just trying to relive old dreams of happiness. Within a year, everything began to look overgrown, and there was still no garden. I mentioned this to the woman from whom I had bought the house, and she said, “I just stuck stuff in the ground. It’s not important to me now. This is your land. Do with it what you want.”

I tore out honeysuckle and planted grapes and raspberries. I built redwood boxes for vegetables and fruits, and put up an old-fashioned fence to keep Chappie the Australian Shepherd from his particular form of gardening — burying hats and bones. Now the boxes are filled with rich soil from the river, along with plenty of cow manure. The composter is always full, and I have worms, spiders and butterflies. My tomatoes and roses are 10 feet tall, and I provide half the school with peppers. I must admit that the first year, I was more excited about produce than about method. Wanting to harvest enough to preserve, I bought a jar of Miracle Grow, the kind you attach to your garden hose and use to spray the plants. All summer I sprayed, and by fall I had a rich and bountiful harvest. The next spring, I opened the sprayer to refill it, only to discover that I had never taken the foil off of the jar. I had been spraying with water all summer. That decided it: organic methods would do just fine.

I still have had little luck in importing good insects. This year I bought a praying mantis egg case and a little net bag of ladybugs. Two minutes after I carefully tucked the egg case into a twig in the garden, a scrub jay picked it up, banged it open on the roof, and consumed the little mantises — and Chappie ate the ladybugs. No matter. There is plenty for all of us. I have a garage shelf full of shiny new canning tools, I am rich with the fruits of my labors, the garden is in, and I am at peace. Lately though, I’ve been looking in the classifieds to see if anyone might have a little piece of land they would like to rent. It would be nice to have a little orchard, maybe a couple of chickens and some corn.  

Interested in more on gardening? Homesteader extraordinaire Harvey Ussery shares his advice for gardening with low-tech tools.

Lee Elliot is a full-time writer wannabe farmer in Dover, Ohio. She is a retired high school theatre and writing teacher. She grows all of her own vegetables, along with berries, grapes and more. Lee does most of her gardening in containers, since she lives in a flood plain.