Monday, May 16, 2011

How does your garden grow?

Spring is in the air. Along with an uptick in twittering birds, rampant pollen, and raging hormones, spring also brings on the gardening itch. You know what I'm talking about, readers: the irresistible desire to pick up entirely too many tomato seedlings at the farmers' market, the aimless wandering around hardware stores, the fantasizing about harvesting fresh herbs from your yard as you begin making dinner. "Ah, a little fresh thyme is just what this sauce needs." There is nothing quite like scampering out back to harvest something that you grew with your own two hands, that you'll be eating moments later. Ahhh.

My own backyard plot is quite small, and the soil is -- how shall I say it? -- not the greatest. Okay, fine, it's basically a pile of clay with hard rock about a foot down. At least there's no lead contamination. I had some success with green beans, an endless supply of green tomatoes, and a softball-sized watermelon last summer. Not bad for a little space started in mid-July.

Somehow -- maybe the lush foliage of my overwintered carrots, or the tall greenery of my heirloom garlic taking over out back -- I have managed to become something of an informal garden consultant these days. How did that happen? Well, it all started last summer when my friend Mike asked me to help him plan out his first garden out back. I insisted that I had worked with a lot of organic farmers, but I was far from one myself. Even so, we compiled our seed collection, mapped out the sunny and shaded areas and where we thought each crop would flourish, dug up the grass and weeds along the fenceline, tilled in sand and compost, and got planting. I should say that the first season didn't yield a ton of food, but the lettuce, kale, and chard that overwintered have been lovely. The garlic should be ready by late summer. (The beets and fennel were no-shows.) This spring we've expanded into a fenced-in area and planted a few varieties of tomatoes, more fennel and beets (eternal optimists, we are), spring onions, broccoli, beans, sunflowers, nasturtiums, melons, and corn. Mike's also recruited two garden assistants, so we've got help with the compost system and the endless watering and weeding that organic gardening demands. An impromptu community garden, why not?

One day, not too long ago, mom and dad started asking me about building a few raised beds at their place. As per his assignment, dad picked up the untreated planks and hardware and some bags of soil, and a few days later we got cracking. Bam! Within two hours -- an hour of which involved my brother and I digging up grass, leveling the ground, and hauling wheelbarrowfuls of compost up the steep backyard slope -- mom had two brand new 4'x4' beds. (Dad and I are determined to make a third, smaller planter out of the red wheelbarrow, which kid brother and I deemed "otherwise pretty useless." I just hope good ol' dad doesn't hurt anyone when he attempts to drill through the 1/4"-thick solid steel.) Not long afterwards, I showed dad how to plant garlic, which had already sprouted by the time, a few weeks later, we brought mom some tomato seedlings and marigolds for Mother's Day.

Next thing I know, my next-door neighbor Henry is asking me to help him build a raised bed. Yeah, I've built one of those. Henry and I decided on a sunny spot for it and got working on a frame:

An hour later, Henry had his work cut out for him. Yep, digging up the grass. (Hey, I'm a consultant, he's doing the digging.)

Now, I don't want you all thinking I'm some kind of one-trick pony here. I can do other things. Like, you know, potted vegetable gardens. When my friend Joe met me at the farmers' market last weekend, he left with a tray of tomatoes, herbs, peppers, and cucumbers after I told him I would help him start a container garden on his front steps. (I can't help myself these days when people ask for garden help. All this unused urban space just asking for things to be grown in it!) Well, we wound up using the back deck, which had much better sun and, conveniently located near the hammock, was a place significantly less likely for plants to be neglected.

I had planned to only stay for half an hour, but... Two hours later, Joe was set up with a full-fledged garden lining the perimeter of the deck.

Oooh, I can't wait to see those vines climbing up the trellis out back. I'll be sure to keep an eye out when I stop by for a snooze in the hammock.

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