Sunday, April 02, 2006

The danger of frost

No doubt there's something profound and quasi-political to be said about the title of this post: something about the difficulties of living and working in uncertainty, and that hindsight is a cheap shot, and all that... but really, I'm just talking about gardening. For the first time in four houses, we have a yard with a sunny patch big enough for more than a couple of pots, so we've activated Plan Vegetable Garden. There are a few things I'd like to say about gardening, and here they are:

  1. I cut my teeth on an oscillating hoe.
  2. Figuring out your soil's composition, chemically and physically, is actually pretty easy if you know a couple of simple tests.
  3. And (a companion piece) figuring out how to correct your soil's composition is just a matter of memorizing a few simple rules, or even just having a decent gardening book handy.
  4. A small but productive vegetable garden can save you money and will certainly provide you with better-tasting food.
  5. Kids love to help in the garden; gardening is a great way to do something together as a family.
  6. Creating a show-worthy garden is less effort than you might think.

I'd like to say these things, but in all honesty I can't... My mother, though she gardened off and on when we were kids, proclaimed her own thumb "purple" and didn't try to draw out our interest - probably because she knew that #5 is a crock. Kids love to garden only if gardening means digging random holes, preferably in already-worked soil (because it's easier), and often "transplanting" picked flowers (dandelions are popular) into the holes, then getting really upset when they're dead the next day. The horticultural company that comes out with a flower that roots itself upon being picked and stuck into dirt will have the undying gratitude of parents everywhere.

To address the other points: As to #2 and #3, soil composition is mostly a closed book to me. When I'm digging in something that feels like reinforced concrete, I can make a pretty good guess that it's either reinforced concrete or clay; when I jump on my spade and sink to my knees I generally conclude I'm in either a pond or sand. But between these extremes, it's anybody's guess, and my solution to whatever I perceive as a "problem" with my soil's texture or chemistry is to add stuff to it that makes it feel and look more like potting soil. Sometimes I take what a good friend of ours terms the Darwinian approach, and figure that whatever can't thrive in the soil as it comes to the table, so to speak, ought by rights to be crowded out by That Which Survives. (This is the approach I've taken with the herb section of my garden this year: I did no soil amendment beyond mixing in the leftover bark mulch that we'd piled on the dirt last year, cut back my woody herbs from last year's pots almost to the ground, yanked them out of said pots and buried them in this year's garden plot, sprinkled on some water, crossed my fingers, and had a beer.)

As to #4, it's vaguely possible that I'll save money on lettuce, if the rabbits don't get to it. (The seven-foot deer fence we're going to have to put up may deter them. Then again, it may not; I've read Peter Cottontail.) But my savings are likely to go toward subsidizing my several attempts at tomatoes, which I've only successfully grown from seed by accident, in our compost heap.

As to #6, I calculated that I moved at least two, probably closer to three cubic yards of soil this weekend - that's somewhere between 54 and 81 cubic feet, or 400-600 gallon jugs' full. (I know that doesn't seem possible, but the conversion factor is 7.48 gallons per cubit foot. It's a conversion drummed into my head in the daily course of seven years of environmental consulting and project work, and I'll probably die with it on my lips.) With a cubic foot of damp soil (thanks to all the Powers That Be not wet soil) weighing in at about 100 pounds, I moved the equivalent of my Sienna with my extended family in it - maybe all that and a Mini Cooper on the roof rack - one spadeful at a time.

I do have a couple of things going for me: that patch of ground had been a garden before, though (again using the Darwinian approach) the daylilies had made it almost their sole turf, so it wasn't as compact as the lawn; seeds in little packets these days are made for the fumble-fingered home gardener rather than for the subsistence farmer whose life depends on their successful nurture; and anything grows in Pennsylvania. (OK, not citrus fruit. And nothing tropical. But "mainstream" veggies? There's a reason the Amish settled here.) Reality in the backyard may never touch my vision, but you gotta dream, right?

No comments: