Recently I read about a guy in a big city who spent more than $10,000 to “buy” himself an urban farm for his yard: tons of imported top soil, seeds and seedlings (when his own failed), a chicken coop and chickens, a rabbit hutch and rabbits.
From the article it was clear he really had no idea what he was doing. His seedlings were light-deprived and leggy. His rabbits suffered maggot infestations and heat stroke. One of his children accidentally injured a duckling so badly that it had to be euthanized. His laying hen ate her own eggs. And that’s just for starters. But he spent a month eating only what he had grown and from that, landed a book contract.
This is an extreme example, and I am so turned off by the gimmick and extravagance — not to mention the suffering he caused his animals because he couldn’t be bothered to learn to care for them properly before purchasing them — that I won’t offer a name or location that might give him any sort of free publicity. But it seems indicative of a trend of “just-add-water” urban farms that has sprung up out of that classic American desire for instant gratification. In the Atlanta area alone I know of two companies who for a few hundred bucks will come to your home or business and install a garden complete with raised beds, lining, irrigation (the garden hose kind, not the recycled rainwater kind), soil, crops, and mulch.
They may be out there in plenty, but I have yet to see a successful installation of this sort. One company dropped some raised beds on the grounds of a new local business recently. They got a very late start in the season, however, and the plants, which are under-mulched, have been stunted by heat and drought. And a neighbor of mine purchased raised bed kits from a similar service, but the soil she received was so unbalanced that most of her summer vegetables didn’t make it.
It’s difficult to superimpose a garden on a place. It’s much easier to cultivate one from the ground up, but it takes longer. You enter into a commitment, an ever-evolving relationship with a piece of land, and you accept that your garden is never “done.” The blueberry bushes you planted five years ago are only now beginning to bear enough fruit to make a pie. The asparagus crowns you buried this year won’t provide harvestable spears until 2012.
Raised beds are a reasonable short-term concept, but you have to pay attention to the soil you put in — its nutrients, its pH — and you have to monitor and maintain it. When I dug out some sod and expanded my own vegetable garden two years ago, I knew that it would be several years before that newly cultivated soil was up to par. But I’m digging in for the long haul, and each year it gets a little better.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I want more people to learn to home garden and to reap its many gifts. But one of those gifts is the pleasure of delayed gratification. Insta-gardens may provide some insta-reward, but it is short-lived. You also learn to receive the gifts you are offered, rather than the ones you expect. This year I started some purple tomatillo seedlings, but they were ravaged by the rat in my shed, so no purple tomatillos for me. But last year I had such an abundance of green tomatillos that they reseeded themselves from the fruits that fell on the ground last year, and this spring I pulled up probably a hundred volunteer tomatillos in my garden, leaving four sturdy plants. And now I have another bumper crop of green tomatillos that I didn’t plan on, but boy is it beautiful, as is my salsa verde.
Another gift is deep knowledge of a single place accumulated over time. Some years are better for some crops than other years, and history gives you a unique understanding of how things grow. This year, because of our rainy spring, was the fruit year. Last year it was tomatoes and tomatillos. I still think longingly back to the summer eight years ago when my basil plants — for reasons I still don’t understand — grew 3 1/2 feet tall. And you learn through the years to watch how your garden changes, and you adjust accordingly. The trees in my neighbors’ yards have finally grown so much that they throw too much shade over my back bed, so this will be the last year for a summer garden back there. It will be a fine spot, however, for some cool season crops to overwinter while the leaves are off the trees.
I realize not everyone will agree with my message here, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from installing raised beds. But I do encourage starting small and simple, seeing it not so much as a finished project but a beginning, and celebrating and building on successes.
Study your plot over time. Be at peace with some failure. Garden for the long haul, for deep knowledge and unexpected gifts.