So, I consider myself an intellectual and a perpetual student. I love learning about everything. By the end of my life, I’ll the person most likely to know a tremendous amount about everything from the war dances of remote Amazonian tribes to the best places to get a beer in Amsterdam, in a purely literal sense, without ever having physically experienced any of these things. The Greek and I are in a constant competition of street smarts v. book smarts, both of us vying for the supremacy, in life, of our own innate strengths. He struggles through a basic arithmetic problem, whereas some of my oldest friends still find my severe social awkwardness around them both creepy and off-putting.
Naturally, when the Greek and I bought our house and the ability to garden joined my interest in gardening, I found numerous books on the subject, read countless articles online, and generally became quite learned in the subject of gardening. And yet, the Greek still found himself alone outside, mowing, mulching, and seeding. The lilies I posted in this very blog—planted by my mother. My “Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Gardening”—used to look up species when the Greek buys me flowers. Because, as it happens, gardening is hard work. It’s hot, it’s dirty, and there are bugs everywhere…EVERYWHERE. So, for the past two seasons since we bought our home, despite the Greek’s best efforts, his decidedly OCD, severely allergic (I am a book nerd, after all) partner has spent them watching him work from the clean, climate-controlled pleasantness of the living room.
This season, I say, “No more!” and have vowed actually, for real, on hands and knees, with dirty limbs and sweaty brow, to garden. To that end and in my customarily scholarly way, I have taken my first gardening workshop. Furthermore, I have committed my promises in writing and exposed myself to the judgment and ridicule of my friends and family if I do not follow through.
The workshop was called “Starting your own garden” and was offered through my workplace. First, I’d like to point out some undeniably awesome things about the University of Maryland where I work. Not only were they offering a free seminar about organic gardening, sustainable living, and urban renewal, but they were serving salads, vegetables, and other assorted roughage locally sourced from nearby farms. And, when they asked us to fill out a survey at the end of the talk, I noticed that there were two additional boxes in the section where you fill in your gender: “transgender” and “other”. [Nodding approvingly] It’s moments like this where I feel truly proud to work for an organization that is so progressive and forward-thinking. Now, if only we could get the janitor to actually recycle the items we put in the recycling bins. An entire, intricate, and university-wide system for recycling and conservation undone by one person’s laziness… Argh! But I digress…
It was really informative and got me extremely motivated to get out there and do…something. So, here’s the plan:
Container gardening: Quite obviously, this refers to growing your vegetables in containers…any containers, from decorative pots to old coffee cans to Do-It-Yourself self-watering boxes and salad tables. This is ideal primarily for aspiring gardeners who live in small spaces and/or lack a yard, but it is also valuable for novice gardeners and those who don’t want to grow a lot. In my case, I want to grow herbs in containers on my upper deck. This is for two reasons. Because my deck sits directly off my living room and kitchen, it’s quite convenient to step outside for a snip or two of fresh herbs. When planning a garden, the most important thing (aside from sunlight) is convenience; if you have to walk 200 yards across your lawn in the early morning hours while dragging a tangled hose behind you to water your plants every day, then you’ll probably be less likely to stick with it. And secondly, container gardening is the easiest thing to get started, and if I accomplish nothing else this season, I must start growing my own herbs. I only use fresh herbs when I cook, so it really is a crime that I haven’t done something so easy that gives me free access to something I use daily. Instead I buy it at the supermarket (and inevitably end up throwing some of it away. Really, whose brilliant idea was it to sell ALL herbs in the same size bunches? Obviously, this person was from a household where dill was used in the exact same quantities as basil).
Raised beds: Because our house sits on a rather steep slope and because our neighborhood has the best sewer and drainage system that Prince George’s County could offer, we have persistent problems with flooding and erosion. We are one rainy season away from sliding into the crick out back. So, as the Greek painfully learned two summers ago, spending money on the highest quality soil you can find, hauling a dozen 50-lb bags of it from the Lowe’s to your backyard, and spending the entire weekend spreading and seeding it lasts only about 2 or 3 heavy rains until you are doing nothing more than arduously and expensively contaminating the nearby creek and forest with high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. So, raised beds it is. Other benefits include having soil that is not compacted and better aerated since you are not walking on the raised beds and elevating the plants makes it more comfortable to reach and tend to the beds (remember my thing about discomfort…I don’t like it). I intend this for our backyard, one 3’ x 5’ bed, maybe two, and it will contain all the vegetables I can fit in it. And thankfully, all corners of my miniscule backyard can be reached with the hose that sits just outside the sliding glass door of the porch. Ah, convenience, keep me on track!
I plan to use a technique called French Intensive gardening, otherwise known as square foot gardening. This was invented in the 1890’s in Paris. This method involves planting plants much closer together (~6 in apart) than a traditional lined bed and thus maximizing a small space. But it’s so much more than that. Vegetables are planted in a zigzag or triangular pattern alternating plants that complement one another (known as companion planting). This allows for a much higher yield of veggies per square foot, and the higher density of roots in the soil retains moisture better and prevents weeds (boo weeds!). This also deters pests because it means that a pest that eats one type of vegetable will not find another near the one it is already munching on.
Getting back to companion planting, it truly is an ingenious technique. As a component of the French Intensive Method, its reasoning sounds a lot more Zen: plant plants in close proximity that assist one another in growing. The example given to me at the talk was the Three Sisters planting method. This is a Native American technique. The three sisters refer to their three main agricultural crops: maize, squash, and climbing beans. The tall corn stalks give the climbing bean something to grow up (natural trellising); the beans are nitrogen fixers that deposit nitrogen into the soil that the other plants utilize; and, the squash grows along the ground, blocking out the sunlight and preventing weeds, and the prickly hairs of its vine deter pests. The perfect balance of this trio tickles the hippie in me (that’s right folks; beneath this highly organized, fastidious, and ultra-clean exterior beats the heart of a peace-loving hippie), and the discovery and clever implementation of this symbiotic relationship delights the scientist in me (who thinks the hippie in me needs to stop sleeping on her couch and get a job).
Backyard composting: For me, this is a given. I hate waste, Mother Earth hates waste, and this is a fantastic way to turn waste into fuel. It’s economical, it’s environmentally friendly, it makes vegetables big and happy, and about gajillion other reasons. And, if we understand how to compost correctly, it can actually make life easier: less trash to take out, less recycling to take out too (you can compost newspaper!), and less clean up around the house (you can also compost wood chips, sawdust, grass clippings, even your old Christmas tree!). And when the growing season ends, cover your beds with compost; not only is it an incomparable source of nutrients, but when bacteria breaks down organic matter, it produces heat (and water and CO2–> what plants crave), which will help keep your plants warm through the winter.
Hmmm, at this point I fear I have gone on too long. It’s all a lot to take in at once. On the other hand, people have been known to read whole books on this subject, you know. A few of my favorites:
The original and quintessential book on square foot gardening, first published in 1981, was updated most recently in 2006. As an organic gardening method, it teaches you all the techniques for natural pest control, weed management, and water retention.
Rodale Press is a leading publisher of books on organic gardening and healthy living (including the previous book). They are also responsible for “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore and “Eat This, Not That” and numerous magazines including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, and Prevention. Most recently re-published in 2005, this book is a whopping 416 pages of everything you need to know about organic horticulture.
And now, regrettably, it appears I’ve learned all that can possibly be learned at this juncture and must now move to the second phase of my grand plan…implementation (ugh)…where, so I’m told, most of the actual learning actually takes places. Ideally, I would want to get everything planted between mid-April and late May. And, for a person whose daily diet often resembles that of your average bunny rabbit, this project is long overdue. Hopefully you’re suitably motivated as well, and we can share stories and strategies as the season goes on! Alright, off I go…