Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Year of the Garden

Last year was the year of Eating Locally. There was so much buzz about it; I was asked to speak to a number of groups. Books were printed, blogs were started. This year even the supermarkets have "Buy Local" stickers on some things. This is good, of course, though the few marked produce items are more of a token than a movement.

For us, Local Food has just become the way we eat. I've loosened our restrictions, but we're still eating probably 85% to 90% local food, more than last year when we had non-local food on hand that I was using. We've become accustomed to beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables, non-feedlot beef, chicken and pork from animals that had a good life scratching and rooting in the open air. The prospect of going back to commodity-based industrial food would be unspeakably dreary.

Someone recently asked me why I supported local foods. I told him that my purposes had enlarged somewhat over the past year. At first, it was mainly the somewhat abstract (though still important) issues of climate change and peak oil. After having eaten this way for a while, I'd have to say the most important issues are:

  • Supporting local farmers and growers, and local small food processors, helping to create a robust local foodshed;

  • Enjoying the best quality food we have ever eaten, at no more cost than industrial commodity and imported food;

  • Eating a far healthier diet: cooking from ingredients rather than eating junk food and fast food; eating more fruits and vegetables and less grain; avoiding pesticides, herbicides, unpronounceable additives, MSG and high-fructose corn sweetener.

Back to my theme: if last year was the year of Eating Locally, this year is the Year of the Garden. People who haven't had a garden in years put one in this year (myself included). You see many more gardens in front yards than ever before. Seed companies are reporting phenomenal sales growth.

In our local food cooperative, produce sales are down somewhat, although we have more selection, and more direct-from-farm offerings this year. Our local CSAs are having more trouble selling their shares. Some is due to the economy, but much is due to people growing their own. When you have a couple of hills of zucchini (or even a couple of plants!) you've GOT zucchini.

It hasn't been an easy year for gardens in northern Colorado. June was unseasonably cold and wet; numerous hailstorms pounded young plants into the dirt, and pounded the replanted gardens two weeks later. On the other hand, we haven't had to water all that much. Tomatoes are slow to get ripe with cool days and cooler nights.

Let me tell you about My Garden. We live a few miles outside town, so the front yard/back yard what-will-the-neighbors-think problem does not bother us. With all the trees and shrubs on our acre, however, the only truly sunny spot was in the front yard. The front yard, nominally in grass lawn, is pretty well filled with clover and heavy pasture grasses, and our soil is clay that turns to brick in the summer sun. And I've got some physical problems that make it difficult for me to do heavy garden work. So I thought all last year about what I would do, and all this spring, and finally, a little late for this season, decided on a plan.

Rototilling the heavy grass (mostly Johnson grass) would make a new plant come up for every little fragment of cut root, so that was out. And I won't use herbicides. I tried raised beds a few years ago, with treated wood (uh-oh, arsenic). The other problem was that the dirt pulled away from the wood, and water just rolled off the soil, down the boards, and away. I'm sure expert gardeners out there are just rolling their eyes now.... But remember, if a solution requires a huge amount of physical labor, it's out for me, no matter how worthy it is.

Ingredients: Last year I made a compost pile using four straw bales for the sides, and filling the center with alternating grass clippings, kitchen scraps, leaves, etc. Then it stewed over the winter. This spring the straw was breaking down too, as it would.
We also had loads of cardboard and heavy paper bags from the food coop distributions. We had some wood chips left over from a previous landscaping effort. And I ordered a pile of mixed dirt and compost from a local landscape service. (I can detect eye-rolling again, but sometimes you have to work with what you can...)

We got cement blocks for the border. We laid out a double layer of cardboard and heavy paper bags, right on the grass (mowed short). The area was about 20 by 22 feet. Then we set the cement blocks, cavity side up, around on the edges of the cardboard (don't want the Johnson grass to come up in the cement blocks either). The north and south sides of the bed were blocks all the way, but on the east and west side I left matching openings (one block wide) to form three paths that you could run a wheelbarrow all the way through. The layout was to have four beds, four feet wide each, with wood-chipped paths between them running from east to west.

A kind friend came and helped us, and the three of us wheelbarrowed the compost and old straw and spread a four-inch layer over the cardboard. We sprinkled on some old dry chicken manure (saved from the chicks I raised last year). Next, we put two inches of soil, to keep the whole thing from blowing away, and I watered it all well. In further sessions, DH wheelbarrowed up loads of dirt, we built up the four beds another four inches, and I filled in all the little cavities in the cement blocks. Then we spread the wood chips into the paths.

We need to get some more chips, but what we have prevents muddy shoes at least. The beds themselves are nice and fluffy, because you don't need to step on them for any reason. The beds are just four feet wide and you can reach in from both sides.

I got bedding plants: flowers and herbs, some perennial, some annual, whatever I could find in mid-June. Loads of mint, marigold, zinnia, oregano, marjoram, snapdragons, nasturtium, sage, thyme, petunias, basil, carnations, nicotiana, and more. So late in the season, the flowers were on sale at $1/flat of four. I planted them into the cavities, alternating flowers and herbs.

I had started tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, by then somewhat potbound. The day before the garden was ready, our local packrats found the plants hardening off on the back patio and nipped off ALL the little peppers and all but one of the eggplants. Tomatoes don't taste good, so they were safe. I picked the best five tomato seedlings and the slightly chewed eggplant and planted them in one bed. What fun! It's been years since I had the joy of having a garden.

In the second bed I planted one hill each of early watermelon, pattypan squash, Lady Godiva pumpkin (grown for the plentiful soft-shelled seeds), and cucumber. They have plenty of room to ramble.

In the third bed, my failure. I planted green and wax beans, two rows down the entire 20-foot length. Once they got up, some little nibblers came every night and nibbled off all the new shoots (could be rabbits, could be packrats or voles). Finally the plants just gave up under the constant attack and died. Oh well. Next year, maybe some cages or other protective gear...

In mid-July I planted the fourth bed to fall greens: mixed lettuce, upland cress, rainbow chard, Russian kale, and mixed chicories. I covered it all with Reemay cloth (or similar), a non-woven light cloth that shades the worst of the sun, keeps the soil moist, and keeps out the four and six-footed eaters pretty much. You water right through it. By the end of the season it's shredded. I've been thinning the rows, and using the thinnings as mixed salad. We've had three meals off of it so far. The upland cress is very spicy; I've never grown it before.

My very-late-started tomatoes are setting fruit. The pattypan squash has several nice-looking fruits almost ready for harvest. The pumpkin is running uproariously along the bed, setting fruit. The lemon cucumber is setting its first fruit too.

I'm thinking that as the weather gets cold, I can cover the tomatoes (which are on the south end) including the cement blocks, which will help hold the heat through the night. The same for the greens bed, which is on the north end with its own row of blocks.

I water with the hose most days that we don't get a good rain, especially the block cavities which dry out quickly, but it takes only 5-10 minutes. Another five minutes daily to pull out the seedling weeds. I've never had such a trouble-free garden. The flowers and herbs around the bed make it particularly beautiful.

We only used up 2/3rds of the dirt I ordered, and we've got another half-load of cardboard built up, so I am planning to make another smaller bed, with more straw and leaves in it, this fall. Ideally a layered bed like this should be made in the fall, so it can create soil over the winter. I didn't want to wait; I Really wanted a garden this year, so I chose plants that don't need to root deeply.

Next year all that stuff in the middle will be well broken down, and I could even plant potatoes or carrots if I wanted. To keep this garden up, I need to be diligent about pulling weeds, never step on the beds, and be sure to build up the soil over the winter with more organic material. I should never need to rototill. The money invested in setting up the garden will pay back in future years of produce.

Compromises all the way around: money spent, dirt hauled in, cement blocks used (not eco-friendly). On the other hand, I used what I had: sunny area, cardboard and paper, compost, straw and old manure. I avoided problems: aggravating our fussy clay soil, encouraging the Johnson grass and clover, planting in tree-root or shaded areas. And I've got an informal setup for season extension, with the blocks next to the beds.