Monday, February 25, 2013

the neglectful gardener

I was thinking recently in the shower (where I do most of my thinking) that I am really an expert in being a sucky gardener. I love gardening, but really I should be in jail for vegetable neglect. If I wrote a book about gardening, it would be very, very short. Basically, blog post length. So, here it is. My gardening book. Enjoy!

The Neglectful Gardener: 
Growing Fresh, Organic Veggies in Spite of Yourself
by fawn pea, mediocre knitter and sucky gardener

This year was the first time I've ever had a successful winter garden, and I'm feeling pretty full of myself about it. By "successful," I mean that there's something alive and edible out there. It's a modest success, but certainly the best I've ever had. My chest gets all puffed up when I look out the window in February and see things we could eat for dinner growing in the raised beds. I believe that this modest harvest entitles me to call myself an Expert and write breezy blog posts on gardening.

So, if you want to be modestly successful and somewhat puffed up like me, I encourage you to read on to discover the secrets of successful sucky vegetable gardening. Everything I know is contained right here. Really, everything. So... here are the secrets of being a good Neglectful Gardener:

1. Make friends with really good gardeners.

There are people out there who can grow stuff like artichokes and peaches in their gardens. They know how to keep tomatoes from getting blossom end rot, and they never seem to have trouble with powdery mildew. Make friends with these people. They like to swap seeds. They like to trade stories. They will teach you everything you need to know, or failing that, they will probably have a lot of extra zuchinni to share.

2. Chat up the lady at the farmer's market who sells plants.

I know the lady at the farmer's market who sells plants, because I am very bad at growing things from seed. Every year I read the charming stories of heirloom beans and peppers and melons in the seed catalogs and fantasize wildly about the bounteous, sepia-tinted harvest soon to be filling the kitchen of my not-too-distant future. Then I forget about my seedlings. They all dry out (PATHETIC) or get eaten by caterpillars (DEPRESSING), or just never sprout in the first place (WHY???).

At this point, I used to be very tempted to go to the hardware store for cheap flats of vegetable starts. Unfortunately those industrial vegetables tend to be coddled, weak and poorly-adapted to local conditions. Instead, the lady at the farmer's market has plants that, while a bit more expensive, will actually survive neglectful gardening techniques and thrive in local conditions, putting the "cheap" vegetables to shame. Also, she knows everything there is to know about gardening. She will steer you right.

3. Make compost.

This is the easiest, most basic thing to do for your garden. Feed the dirt. Get a cute little compost bucket for your kitchen counter, and put those eggshells and veggie scraps to work for you. Steal your neighbors' leaf bags from the curb every fall and throw those in, too. And grass clippings... hoo boy!  Most garden plants strip out nutrients and life from the soil. Compost puts it back in. Compost is an absolute requirement. Some cities with composting programs (like Raleigh) let you buy a huge load of compost for next to nothing. Make compost. Make compost. Make compost.

4. Feed the bugs.

Oh my goodness bugs love gardens. They love them! Everything they want to eat is right there! Free for the taking! But we cannot put poisons on our vegetables to kill the bugs, because that is very stupid. Poisons. On our food. Stupid. So you have to feed the bugs to other bugs (and birds and toads). Grow other stuff besides vegetables. Create some habitat. Get some wildflowers going in there. Bushy things. Things with flowers. Habitat is your friend.

5. Grow stuff in the sun.

This may seem totally obvious, but I have seen a lot of people make garden beds in shady or semi-shady spots in their yard and then act all mystified when their tomato plants never make any tomatoes (okay, I have been one of those mystified people). Vegetables need a lot of sun. Don't try to grow them in the shade.

6. Make raised beds

The soil in your backyard, if it hasn't been amended with several years' worth of compost, is probably pretty barren. It may also be rocky, 90% clay (like mine), and contaminated with who-knows-what. Was your neighborhood built on old farmland that was regularly sprayed with arsenic-based pesticides? Did the previous homeowner nuke the grass regularly with Weed'n'Feed? Have lead paint chips landed all over the ground at some point? Don't know the answer to all of these questions? Building raised beds lets you start from scratch with fresh, unadulterated, compost-filled soil. They can be as simple or as elaborate as you want them to be. Just avoid treated lumber. Yes, it lasts a long time, but it also leaches horrible chemicals into your raised beds. Strong, rot-resistant woods like cedar are a much better choice. Or try recycled-plastic "lumber."

7. Pick it and eat it!

If you think it's depressing to throw away a big old container of mixed salad greens from the store because they wilted before you got a chance to eat them, imagine how horrible it is to watch beautiful food that you sweated and toiled to grow yourself rot or dry out or go to seed because you waited around too long to pick it and eat it. There just aren't enough synonyms for "tragic." Case in point: One week in January I had three adorable little white snowball heads of cauliflower in my garden. I remember fondling them and thinking what a delicious dinner they would make when they got really big and impressive. The following week it was 65 degrees and all the caterpillars woke up, and now all I have left are three cauliflower skeletons. Don't fondle the produce and make empty promises. Just pick it and eat it.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed my little foray into the world of garden advice-giving. That will probably be the grand total of it, so maybe read it a second time if it seemed kind of short. Does the sum total of your gardening knowledge fit into a comment? Do share!