An Ecological Mexican American Chica:
Doing all she can to live sustainably in body, soul, and on this planet earth.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lessons from the Dirt

After buying most of our food at the Sustainable Food Center’s Farmers’ Market in Sunset Valley every Saturday morning since October 2010, we were inspired to take “eating local” one step further. Why not eat right from our own backyard? Last spring, we started our first full-blown vegetable garden. In the past, I had grown herbs and native perennials, most of which had the inherent capacity to grow wild with very little water and tending. We had big plans for this next one.

Start of overly ambitious vegetable garden, Spring 2011
We built a 2 x 7 raised garden bed with square foot plots, and we dusted off the six terra cotta pots we’d been storing in the garage. We hauled in sacks of pure organic dirt and compost from The Natural Gardener. By reading their info sheet on effective planting combinations and asking a ton of questions, we decided to get the following seeds: two kinds of carrot, potato, two kinds of chard, corn, melon, two kinds of radish, and bush bean. We also bought various seedlings: two kinds of lettuce, two kinds of pepper, four kinds of tomato, two kinds of lettuce, and two kinds of strawberry.

After reading the directions on the back of the seed packets, we determined that the instructions were meant for much larger plots of land and that we had been too ambitious, both in the quantity and variety of seed. We did the math in our head, liberally scattered the seeds, and wished for good things to grow. Even though one of the experienced vegetable farmers at The Natural Gardener warned us that we “weren’t doing a good job unless we killed a few things,” we were resolved to grow bountiful crops of everything that would not only feed us, but maybe even feed our neighbors and friends, should the end of the world (or the demise of the American dollar) happen upon us.

One of five strawberries harvested, Spring 2011
We built a frame over the garden bed and the pots, and we covered them all with bird netting to keep the cardinals and blue jays away. We carefully sheltered them under a sheet during the recent freezes that snuck back when we were absolutely sure spring was in full season. We watered them once, sometimes twice a day, and hand-picked the bugs off the leaves to avoid using any harmful chemicals. We propped up the lazy plants and spoke kindly to them to give them encouragement.

But we forgot one thing. That life is not perfect, even if you do all the right things and follow all the rules. Learning to garden successfully, just like playing a concerto or running a marathon, takes a lot of time and patience. And as we’d been cautioned, we needed to be willing to fail and make notes from our mistakes.

Measly, stringy carrots, Spring 2011
Because we had planted so many carrot and radish seeds too close together, they resulted in a bunch of scrawny roots when we harvested them. We were too eager to try our potatoes because the instructions said they’d be ready after 60 days, so we dug out one of the plants only to get pecan-sized tubers. The tomatoes and peppers did well because each plant had its own giant pot with plenty of space to take root. The chards didn’t do so badly either – we’d been more frugal with scattering their seed so the plants did not crowd each other out. And close to 90 days after planting them, we dug up another crop of potatoes with much better results since we’d given them more time to grow.

Last fall, we decided to be less ambitious. We narrowed down our crops to chard, kale, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, and carrots. And we waited, and waited, and waited. Maybe the dirt was thirsty and couldn't do much for us, after the historical 10-month drought. But then the rains came early this year, and it rained, and rained, and rained more than we'd seen in a long time.

Carrots, chard, and the "accidental" lettuce, Spring 2012
A bit late in the season, all our fall vegetables have finally come to fruition. Although we lost the kale to the aphids, the cabbage to the caterpillars, and the spinach just never grew, we have more chards than we can eat ourselves, and they're fleshy and savory. Our carrots and broccoli didn't yield much, but they were the most delicious I've ever had, crispy, juicy and sweet. And then, as a complete surprise, we got a massive crop of what we call the "accidental lettuce" - butter head and red sail lettuce from last spring that had re-seeded itself.

From our second attempt at a vegetable garden, we've had enough lettuce to share entire bags of pickings with friends and neighbors. We still can't feed the world, but we're one step closer. And imagine if we all had backyard gardens - just imagine how many people we could feed. All it takes is dirt, water, sun, and a lot of patience, dedication, and love.

Plenty of lettuce to share with friends and neighbors, Spring 2012

1 comment:

  1. You just have to learn trough trial and error what grows well in your location. I've had the same bad luck with strawberries. they want sandy soil. Lettuce is great because its very tolerant. I grow a variety of about 20 heads and just pick a couple leaves from each for non-stop gourmet mixed greens. Asparagus is great too, always pops up like the sun. Just takes 2-3 years to mature to be really good. Sprinkle diatomatous earth to keep the bugs from eating anything. Nat Gardener has it. Keep at it, every year you'll have more and more success.