Narratives from 3 Apronites who are getting started on (what hopes to be) a bountiful garden season.
Caitlin’s Raised Box of Zen
I’ve been a hobby gardener ever since I got my first solo apartment in Ottawa seven years ago. It was on the third floor of an old Victorian. It felt like a tree-house. I called the fire escape outside the kitchen window my “balcony” and I planted tomatoes and herbs and impatiens in clay pots. In the years since then, I’ve planted and harvested container crops on the stairways and driveways of various apartments. Two years ago I bought my first house and, ever since, I have been both thrilled and overwhelmed by the prospect of a whole backyard to grow on.
Gardening’s all about trial and error. Some plants will be wildly successful (cherry tomatoes never steer me wrong, nor do easy, pretty echinacea flowers), others will wither on the vine and make you curse and cry (they are usually the ones you spent the most money on at the church plant sale). When it comes to growing veggies, my greatest challenge has been figuring out where to start: What I thought was the sunniest possible corner of my yard last year turned out not to be sunny enough, and I’ve had to rejig my plans.
This spring, I decided to give square foot, raised bed planting a try. I read Mel Bartholomew‘s excellent primer, All New Squarefoot Gardening, and bought a 3×3’ raised bed from Canadian Tire. I had the bed assembled in about ten minutes and followed Mel’s soil mix recipe to fill it up. I carefully re-read the part of the book on how much of what to plant in each square foot of space, agonized over the seedlings I’d purchased. Then I said “F**K it!” and threw them all into the dirt in what cannot be described as a methodical operation. So far, so good. The square foot method really does cut down on the weeds, and I loved the fact that I could capitalize on planting in the true sunny hotspot.
I’ve also supplemented my new raised bed with some pots and planters–old habits die hard, and I’m a container gardener at heart. I also love floral planters; nothing will improve the quality of your life quite like pansies in the window box outside the kitchen window, I promise you. I’ve got containers of lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, and basil on the go, some started from seed, some from seedlings. I find that lettuce and spinach do really well in pots, and you can continue to re-seed all summer long. I’m also going to do potatoes and squash for the first time–both are allegedly easy to grow, but I’m trying not to get my hopes up TOO much. And really, that’s what gardening comes down to for me: it’s really about being zen, grateful for the plants that do survive, accepting about the ones that don’t. You won’t be in charge of this plot of land forever, but you are for now, and you might as well make the best of it.
- All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew
- The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch
- Favourite Plants by the staff at Canadian Gardening Magazine, edited by Liz Primeau (this one touches on plants and flowers rather than fruits and veggies but is an incredible resource on what grows where and when.)
Jodi’s “Just Eat It” Garden
My desire for fresh, backyard produce and my inherent black thumb battle it out, year after year. Last summer, because of the veritable drought and my tendency toward water conservation (and laziness), I didn’t receive such a wonderful bounty from my veggie garden. This year, I am resigned to the fact that I may have to employ the hose if Mother Nature does not provide me with the rain I need, and I hope that I’ll be hauling in baskets full of produce.
Besides the pleasure of reaping the fruits and veggies of my own labour, I also like to have a vegetable garden to help convince my 5-year-old to expand his taste buds. Right now, the only vegetables he will voluntarily eat are peas and corn. A bit limited. And at 1½, his sister seems to be following in his footsteps. I’m hoping the thrill of planting the seeds, seeing them grow, and picking the veggies themselves will inspire them to want to actually eat them. So, I assigned my extremely helpful little assistant to the task of ‘Garden Seed Bomb 2013.’
Because the soil in our area is very sandy, and we are surrounded by evergreens (adding acidity to the soil), we decided to build raised beds when we moved in a few years ago. We just dug out the ground a bit, ripped the planks off a leftover section of fence, and nailed them together into two 2’ x 7’ boxes (with 8” pieces of leftover post in the corners for reinforcement). We then put them in the dug-out part of the ground, so that about 2” was “underground” and filled the boxes with soil. Et voila – garden boxes at the ready!
My helper and I went to our local bulk food store, which actually has a “garden centre” for a couple of weeks and also sells seeds. We chose cucumber and cherry tomato seedlings (Caitlin, I agree – they are virtually indestructible), as well as carrot, green bean, and pea seeds. I decided to forgo the red peppers that we’d attempted to grow years previous, because they always took up so much space and the yield was pathetic. As well, we had romaine lettuce and cucumber plants that I was re-growing in a bowl of water, inside, from leftover stumps (ha! grocery stores, your grip over me is loosening).
First, we threw on our topsoil (it was pretty soaked from a recent rainstorm, so 4 bags were HEAVY). Then we raked it evenly over the beds, got out our spades and got busy planting. My garden slightly resembles Fort Knox, because I need to keep out two types of predators – the animal kind and the 1 ½-year-old kind. We cut and laid out some chicken wire atop the garden so the animals wouldn’t dig, and put a cheap little, garden fence around it so the baby wouldn’t climb in (hopefully). And now we just wait, water, and keep our fingers crossed.
Dana’s Dirty Little Suggestions
I grew up with a world class gardener grandfather, but I was far more interested in eating his prize broccoli crowns and garlic scapes than spending my summer days pruning them. Through the years, with each plant I manage to murder, I curse my adolescent choices to suntan with a Seventeen mag over helping Gramps in the garden. I’m 31 now, still have no idea ‘what my style says about me’ and am stuck learning to garden on my own. Damn you, Seventeen magazine!
As Caitlin mentions above, a healthy garden is really all about trial and error. I’m on my 3rd year with our above-ground, square-foot garden and doing things differently (again) this year. Mainly, cutting back on the tomato plants that dominated last year’s garden and focusing on simple, reliable flavour-enhancers like herbs, hot peppers, lettuce, and SOME early girl tomatoes that I can easily grab through the season, rather than excitingly trying to grow a pantry’s worth in my backyard.
I’ve always liked the saying, “The more I learn, the less I seem to know”, it certainly applies to my relationship with the garden. Each season has taught me a lot, and I realize there is so much more for me to learn, but I do have some advice to pass along thus far, at least to the first-time gardeners:
Know where the sun hits throughout the day, most fruit and veg require loads of sunshine. That shadow cast by a birch tree from noon to 3 pm could ruin it all.
Look at a calendar and do the math. Vegetable plants take anywhere from 4 to 30 days to germinate, try to create a garden that has something to offer throughout the season. Radishes and beets are great to start with, move into your peppers and beans, and round out a plentiful summer with loads of tomatoes and squash(es).
It’s OK to start from plants. Seeds are cheaper and some are really simple to grow but I personally prefer to have my tomato and eggplant started by a local farmer.
Research. Research Research. Find out how big your final plant will (hopefully) grow to, you may require fencing for it to grow up onto and you may need to avoid planting anything else close to it. Some plants quickly take over a garden. For example, zucchini will suffocate anything it can wrap itself around and mint, well, mint is the cockroach of the herb family – nothing kills it and it will spread everywhere. Always plant mint in a container (trust me!).
Jodi’s Fort Knox scenario is brilliant. I’m also dealing with a league of curious kids and a battle with the bunnies. Those f*cking bunnies. Those sweet little fur balls will wait for weeks as you nurture your garden to perfect health, and just as your beans began to flourish they will ravage your hard work through the night. The first time it happened, the Buddhist in me thought, “Well, at least I just fed a family of rabbits for a week.” And then I discovered the massacre of beans spread across my lawn – barely touched. Those f*cking rabbits.
My greatest advice is to simply enjoy yourself in the garden. Involve the whole family, bring out the stereo, discard any real pressure to succeed and have fun getting dirty.