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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reflections of First Time Gardeners

Last year I was a doe-eyed eager first-time gardener. And to complicate things, I was learning to garden in the South, after spending my whole life in the Midwest. The climate and soil and waterfall were all different. I tried to learn what I could, and in my typical fashion I probably even went a bit overboard trying to learn everything about gardening. And then, at some point, I just took a leap of faith and agreed to learn the old fashioned way: by trying, by doing, and by making some mistakes.

I learned that it will take me a lifetime to learn everything about gardening, and it may even take me a few years before I really know anything about it. I learned that variety is the friend of a novice: lots of things can and will go wrong, but variety means you haven't put all your eggs (or tomatoes) in one basket. I learned that I would never get all the weeds. I learned that I over-planned and under-planned but it mostly worked out fine anyway. I learned that you have to be able to let some things go, and learn when to call it quits. I learned that if you live in the South, you will do yourself a great favor if you grow some okra and sweet potatoes, because they grow like crazy down here!

Mostly, I learned a profound gratitude for the farmers who help ensure that I have fresh produce to feed my family; their job is exceedingly difficult. Without farmers, I am pretty sure I would never be able to eat broccoli again, because I sure couldn't get it to grow.

And I learned that so much of what comes out of my soil depends on what is in my soil. Not the seeds I put in, but the nutrients and composition of the soil itself. Soil remains a mystery to me even still, but now it is something of a revered mystery. I realize how important it is, and I have the sense that earthworms and beneficial bacteria and decomposing kitchen scraps are all part of that mystery.

Fellow Nashvillian first-time gardener Ariana added, "I think my most important tip would be to start with great soil. Since our neighborhood is old, the soil tends to be depleted of the good nutrients it would have if it were fallow for a long time. I bought a great soil mix and my tomatoes and cucumbers grew like gangbusters!"

By the end of the summer I had tomato vines sprawling up over their cages, back down to the ground, and then creeping along the ground and out of the raised beds onto my lawn. And because my tomatoes were plagued with a blight, the first 10 feet of those vines were totally denuded of leaves or fruit, but the last three feet were bursting with the promise of cherry tomatoes.

My squash mostly got killed by squash bugs before it had a chance to get truly out of hand, but the sweet potato vines. Wow. The square foot gardening book told me to trust it, and trust it I did. But by the end of the summer those sprawling vines had completely filled the ground of the four foot by four foot garden patch. It was a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that as the sweet potato vines crept along the soil, they would from time to time put down roots along the length of that vine. So when I went to dig up the vines at the end of the season, I didn't just have sweet potatoes where I had first planted the slips, I had them everywhere! Mountains and piles and pounds of huge home-grown sweet potatoes.

I wasn't the only one overwhelmed by the garden sprawl. Ariana mentions, "One more thing I found when it came to the square foot gardening idea...My vine plants took up WAY more than a square foot and almost half of my side yard! I had to be careful to watch my watermelons and cantaloupes because their sneaky little climbing tendrils would strangle my bigger plants (tomatoes) if not kept in check."

I found gardening a strangely therapeutic experience. There was a meditative quality to going outside in the first early minutes of morning, when the day still smells and sounds young, and focusing on a simple, earthy task. I pulled weeds as best I could and along the way learned how not to sweat the weeds I didn't get, or the new weeds I would find tomorrow.

I learned how to scrape squash bugs and eggs off of my leaves, and how to let go when it became obvious that I was not going to win that battle, no matter how diligent I was.

I wasn't the only Nashville mother to feel a strangely emotional, almost spiritual pull of the garden. My dear friend Alice shares her experience bonding with the garden for the first time...

"I stood over my garden in mid-spring after building raised beds, hauling way more dirt in than I knew I'd have to and marveled at the little seedlings I just planted. I prayed, "God, make good things grow here." Even then I felt a stirring that the space I'd prepared in my backyard was going to be significant, not only as a source of food for our family, but as a source of food for my soul.

"One night early on, I had to go outside after dark because I'd remembered it was trash night and I hadn't moved the can to the alley. The little starter leaves were all standing straight up, reaching for the sky. Later, I read that plants sleep like that. It was peaceful and beautiful to take in.

"When my lettuces started to come in, I was mesmerized at how quickly they grew after thinning and enjoying. The seed packet said "enjoy small salads with the early thinnings" and I trusted that instruction as I plucked and pulled out tiny plants to eat and enjoy. When they got bitter and went to seed, it didn't occur to me to save those seeds until later at a gathering of our monthly Garden Club someone showed me how to save lettuce seeds.

"I over planted. I didn't water quite often enough during this hot, hot, dry summer. I didn't notice the decimation caused by squash bugs until my pumpkins, cucumbers and zucchini were all done for. But, even those crops bore much fruit before their time was done.

"The okra, heat and drought resistant, with gorgeous blossoms produced one fruit per plant about every two days all summer and grew nearly 7 feet tall. My mom called this, the year of the okra and gave me a painted okra angel to hang on our Christmas tree to mark the start of my home garden. We also enjoyed harvests of fairytale eggplant, swiss chard, a bell pepper variety and jalapenos.

"And now, at the close of my first season as a gardener, I have three huge bowls of what I thought were chocolate cherry green tomatoes but now realize are black plum that I'm allowing to ripen in their time and enjoying immensely. I also have a handful of green but when ripe, the most beautiful and delicious pineapple tomatoes that I'm thinking of frying up.

"As I type, I think my fall crops of lettuce, swiss chard, red & green cabbage & broccoli are likely sleeping away while my red onions and garlic start to feel at home in their new spots. Good things indeed!"

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