Friday, December 23, 2011

Yard Farmer

I'm gardening. Yes, I'm gardening in December!

I often suffer from a sort of sadness in the dark winter days, and I expect it will still touch me in the coming months of winter, but it seems a lot less pronounced ever since I've made a bigger effort at gardening. My firt two years attempting to garden were almost utter failures. I think you have to keep trying a little garden at first, adjusting for the mistakes until your black thumb greens a little- that is, until you gain the knowledge that is really experience with your particular location, soil, and personal habits, physical  capacity, and time constraints. I learned how making my garden accessible near the entryway of the house made it something I tended more often because I could do it in little bits as I passed by and having it where I was always looking at it made it easier to keep fresh on my mind to look after.

But then I quickly learned that this precious space by my back door was stiff compacted clay soil in a soggy location. There was no amount of topsoil going to make the worms burrow through what amounted, literally, to unfired brick! So I began to dig. Bit by bit, I made beds. I dug while I was pregnant, and I did it during the toddlers nap time when I had the kids watching a video. I dug often in the spring rain. I dug a little everyday and I mixed in compost, leaves and peat moss. It took me three weeks to make my first 12x10 plot. My husband and his brother dug a trench for drainage, although not as much for my garden, as we were interested in diverting some of the water that floods our basement in the spring thaw. That was my third year and it was an abundant gardening year! It was immensly encouraging and was the point at which I started to consider myself a gardener, which is why I believe that a little sucess will egg you on to bigger things. So this coming year plan to grow basil in a pot or plant lettuce or peas or whatever you can put in. Take a small thing and figure it out. If you fail this year, learn why and try to make changes in 2013 to see if you can improve it. Pretty soon you will want to farm your yard too!

2011 was my 4th year. I tried many new veggies that I had never met in the ground before, only in the grocery store. With some things I had pleasant success. but with most things I had failures. My garden produced more value in veggies than I spent on the seeds and new fencing for the second plot I dug up. But it still felt like a failure. I got many things in the ground too late because of the timing of having a newborn. And it was the wettest year of the 4 yrs that I've been paying attention to things like that (although the 2nd year was also pretty rotten like that too) . The soggyness meant everything tended to rot on the vine. But I found a few things that did well in spite of it and I'll be planting more of those since this area seems to see soggy years pretty regularly.

Raised beds help keep plant feet a little drier. Many places that talk about raised beds show these railroad tie constructions. Wood ain't cheep, and I don't know about you, but I don't have building skills. Sure, I could ask someone for help, but really, it works well enough for me to just hill up the rows into beds in the garden. The valleys dictate where to walk for all my busy little garden helpers, which helps the beds to stay loose and untrampled. On the one hand there is a little erosion of the soil washing down the side of the beds so you have to plan them a little wider than you intend to plant, accounting for the sloping sides, but you also have the option of digging different row widths and changing your garden configuration in any year to different measures of raised rows or beds. Plus, it's cheap and simple for a start up gardener like me.

What I started right away when we moved into the house from the apartment was a compost bin. Even while I was crying over failed gardening attempts, what I didn't realize was how valuable the rich black earth in the bin was going to add up to. Chris made my bin out of four metal posts and some mesh wrapped around. I throw in kitchen veggie scraps and lawn clippings and leafy matter and I don't really aerate it. I gradually turn it by occasionally digging the shovel underneath the sides of the mesh and taking up the well composted dirt and throwing it on top. It keeps down the bugs and any smell (which it doesn't really have too badly)and helps move some of the bugs and bacteria and worms into the fresher additions. Now, every spring I dig out this lush living soil and mix it into my beds. It's doing a wonderful job of transforming that tough clay soil into a very vibrant living soil for plant roots to thrive in. I still have a lot to learn, such as how to collect and use small animal manures and how to observe and address micro-nutrient deficiencies and pH imbalances. But I swear, a newbie gardener really cannot go wrong with adding compost to any soil, sandy, clay, loamy, anything. Bring it back to life. If you eat veggies and grains, you already have everything you need to invigorate your soil- stop sending it to the dump!

Don't be afraid of worms and bugs and everything living in the dirt. It's an amazing complex ecosystem. nurture it, learn about it, respect it. I already can't wait for spring to get into it up to my knees and elbows! I'm already imagining the fresh spring dirt smell!

For now though, I'm contenting myself with seed catalogs and starting to plan the garden in my journal. I'm collecting newspaper to make my homemade seeding starter pots from. I roll little ones and it saves me a lot on those tiny starter pots, which are so wide they take up too much room under my grow lights and too short that they force me to transplant unnecessarily. So I roll my own tall narrow seedling pots that means I don't have to transplant most things to bigger pots and I can even plant them right out into the ground without disturbing their roots since they will grow right through the decomposing newspaper! It's a very nice way to handle seedlings. I use a salt shaker that's cylindrical as my 'mold' and rol the newspaper up around it, then just fold up the bottom of it, which I put a tiny piece of masking tape over, although you can probably get away without that, it helps if I want to rearrange the little seedling pots and not have them come apart later. These held up great.

I bought more herb seeds this year and I saved a lot of my own seeds from the heirlooms so I'm really eager to see how they perform!

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