In celebration of Mother's Day, this seemed like a good time to check in with an update on our gardening adventures. As I've said before, my mom was the one who instilled in me a love of veggies and diggin' in the dirt. So while I'm more than a bit sad she's not around to witness my latest attempts at green-thumbery, what better way to celebrate this day?
This year we (and by "we" I mean "I") decided it was time to graduate from container plantings to a full-blown garden in the backyard. I was inspired, in part, by First Lady Michelle Obama's awesome efforts to raise the profile of organic gardening by planting a vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House. Hurray! The likes of Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have been advocating this for years, and it's just another sign of positive regime change to see the First Family involved in gardening efforts. (To his credit, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is doing some kickass things to embrace sustainable agriculture, and has planted his own garden right on Ag grounds.) There's been much talk of "Victory Gardens" this year, given the troubled state of the economy and America's higher awareness of the importance of locally-sourced food. And how much more local can you get than your own backyard? The time was right to fully embrace the gardening ethos, and take our efforts to the next level.
Just one problem: our backyard is pretty shady. We love our "secret garden" backyard for the privacy it affords. While the front yard is super-sunny and enjoys afternoon southern exposure, the back is full of tall trees and doesn't get as much sun. Hrm. While there is an interesting movement (see below) that recommends doing away with that All-American pasttime of keeping a high-maintenance, resource-draining green carpet of turf, we weren't quite ready to take the plunge and dig up our front lawn to make way for veggies. So we tried to find a suitable spot in the backyard that would get enough sun to sustain a small patch of salad fixins.
We found a spot, and opted to go with a raised bed. Supposedly raised beds are a more efficient use of space and water, and are the way to go when planting vegetables. So we plotted the dimensions of a possible raised bed, taking into account the odd shape of the yard, several drainage spouts we didn't want to disturb, and the extant foliage. We settled on a very odd shape, and set off to obtain the necessary lumber to make the frame.
The result was affectionately referred to as either the "Trapezoid Garden" (Mark) or "Special Olympics Garden" (me). Yes, the shape is weird. Yes, it's a bit larger than recommended for a raised bed garden. But ya gotta work with what ya got.
In preparation for planting all manner of herbs and vegetables, I decided to try to start a few things from seed. After purchasing a boatload of seeds (rookie gardener syndrome), as well as a few peat starter trays, I planted some tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, rosemary, and a handful of flowers for the front yard. Lacking a proper greenhouse setup, I had to be satisfied with a few sunny windows and plenty of water.
By late March, we'd mulched over the scant remaining grass using newspaper and a combination of grass clippings and compost. Having lugged five big bags of designer dirt home from the garden store, it became obvious we'd need a *lot* more soil for this puppy. Hoo boy.
Meanwhile, the cukes and tomatoes had all succumbed to mysterious malady I eventually identifed as "damping-off disease." This fungus rots the stems at the soil surface, causing them to topple over, shrivel up, and die. Boo-hoo! It's caused by overwatering and poor circulation. I've decided that the peat trays are partially to blame, as it's hard to tell if the plant is sufficiently moist or oversaturated. It was discouraging to lose a whole tray of seedlings, but fortunately the peppers were still in good shape.
At least, until the mercurial DC spring weather got the better of me. I accidentally left the seedlings outside overnight once in April. The daytime temps had been in the mid-70s, so I'd put the plants outside to "harden" a bit in preparation for eventual planting. That worked out great, but that night it plunged to the 40s. Eeeek! The abundant tray of seedlings dwindled down to a few extra-hardy specimens. I was crushed. One glimmer of hope: an errant tomato seedling from last year's crop managed to survive the winter and poke its little head up. I've since been warned that hybrid seedings are not to be trusted, but I'm still proud of this one tough little soldier that made it through the ice and snow. I eagerly await whatever fruit it decides to bear this season.
Gradually, throughout late April and early May, we transformed the bed into something that might actually support vegetative life. This involved many trips to the garden center for bag after bag of dirt, plus some attempts to turn over the existing soil and combine it with the purchased stuff. I transplanted several lettuce varietals that I'd started from seed, as well as scattering some new lettuce seeds directly into the garden. I researched "companion plants" and which veggies played nice with each other, and attempted to plot out the garden schematic. I also attended a workshop co-hosted by The DC Historical Society and Washington Gardener magazine, and geeked out to an afternoon of Q&A by Cindy Brown of Green Spring Gardens. My true geekburger nature shone through as I reveled in the research, the planning, the anecdotal stories from other local gardeners. But at the same time, I was realizing that gardening is really all about trial and error. As with most great hobbies, in gardening one must not be afraid to fail once or twice or three times, in pursuit of that one combination that really works. I don't like to fail (who does?) but when you're talking about a 99-cent pack of seeds or even a $2 plant, happily, the stakes are low. When the cucumbers I started from seeds all croaked from the damping-off fungus, I bought a bunch of seedlings from the garden store and planted those in the garden. When cutworms (or perhaps the insane amounts of rain we've been having lately) got the better of those seedlings, and all but one flopped over, I bought heartier plants at the local farmers market. Hopefully the third time's the charm. Likewise, though I can't seem to keep a tomato seedling alive no matter what I try, a friend has come through with some awesome heirloom plants. Live and learn, and take good notes to prevent the same debacle next time.
Which brings us to the present. As of this weekend, I've planted nearly everything, except the peppers, which require really warm weather to flourish. The multiple varieties of lettuce, which love the cool damp weather, are starting to mature and I've already started incorporate some into our daily salads. A sage plant from the garden center seems to be doing well, alongside a stevia plant that I just couldn't resist. (I have no idea how you make the transformation from green leafy plant to organic sugar substitute, but that's an experiment for another day.) The new cukes are in, fingers crossed. I planted a bunch of herbs from seed, including basil, cilantro, and chives. Several types of heirloom tomatoes (Cherokee Purple, Cherokee Chocolate, and Black from Tula) from our friend's garden are planted alongside some other funky-sounding tomatoes (Nebraska Wedding, Juliet, Pink Beauty, and Green Zebras) sourced from the Falls Church farmers market. The Juliets were purchased from a farmergrrl with a Jack Skellington tattoo. Now *that* is the American dream, friends and neighbors. I also planted a few different types of carrots, beets, and beans, as those were always my favorites to garden with my mom. I think she'd be proud of my efforts. Now, if I can just keep the birds and squirrels from eating everything...
PS. I have discovered that gardeners, in addition to happily sharing their knowledge, are generous with extra plants and clippings. Along with the heirloom tomatoes, in recent weeks I have been the benefactor of rosemary clippings, hostas, and day lillies. I could also have my share of free mulch if only I had a way to transport it from a friend's yard in DC. Much love to my garden peeps, you are a wise and bounteous group of folks!
* Michelle Obama: How Does Your Garden Grow?
* Obamas to Plant Vegetable Garden at White House
* Michelle Obama's Garden
* For Vilsack, the Proof Is in the Planting
* Lawn Reduction and Lawn Substitutes
* Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns