Gardening for the Long Haul

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.

A recently installed raised bed not doing so well.

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.

Unexpected gift 2010: green tomatillos

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.

I picked these figs last week from a tree that has been in my yard longer than the sixteen years I have lived here. The best thing that's ever happened to it was a tree falling on it during Hurricane Opal in 1995. The perfect natural pruning job improved its production.

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.

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6 Comments

Filed under Community and Citizenship, Flockkeeping, Gardening

6 responses to “Gardening for the Long Haul

  1. robster

    hey… nice article. You should hire yourself out as a consultant!! After you left I spent many hours on my hands and knees cleaning out my garden. I can actually tell what’s growing there now, and there is a surprising diversity. Not bad for my first serious time out.

  2. Klondike Yukon

    Thank you for saying something about this. A sustainable trend–and I’m hoping urban homesteading is one of these–needs some preparation and understanding, or else the overall effect tends to be a loss. I am not the world’s best gardener, especially in the heat, but I am in it for the long haul.

  3. Daniel Senie

    We have 3,000 square feet of garden space we’ve fenced off (fence is there for woodchucks primarily, and after a few years of finding all their trick entrances, we seem to be winning that battle). We used to plow the land and grow, but switched to raised beds (now 12 of them) and encourage this approach.

    Raised beds help define the area. We have a lot of runner grasses, and while they have been known to climb in the beds, it’s still easier to control them than when we were growing at ground level.

    Learning from your land and understanding that things will change from year to year is a good lesson. We’ve been cultivating the same space for 16 years. We have short seasons here, but we have found some crops that don’t mind frost, and so we’re getting better at extending the growing season.

    We always enjoy seeing what your garden is producing. Love reading the blog.

  4. Caroline

    Allison – to me, raised bed gardening and insta-gardening do not go together. I know so many people who use raised beds as a method, and as you know it’s been around a long, long time (though not always in the nice boxes). I am grateful for the order of the raised bed, and it has taught me a tremendous amount. Going through it all this year, I have learned very much that raised bed gardening TAKES A LOT OF WORK! :)

    That said, i will never buy the $9 a bag of super soil from the local organic gardening store again. We were had. Not enough nitrogen. I did have success with the square-foot gardening soil mix suggestions.

    I think that people who install raised beds are in for the long haul. I think everyone who tries to raise vegetables has a lifetime of learning ahead of them. And, in our first year, right now we’re at about $70 a tomato. Hoping all the hard work will pay off…

    speaking of, what should I be starting as seedlings for this fall?

    • Thank you for this important clarification, Caroline. Raised beds do not necessarily equal insta-garden. Raised beds are an excellent method, and, as Daniel says above, they help define your garden and keep the crawling invaders out (something I have a problem with in my dug-out beds!).

      What I want to suggest is that any garden superimposed from the top-down (and those tend to be raised beds because they are more straightforward to install) with the expectation that they will render instant success is likely to disappoint. BUT if you see — as I think you certainly have — that installment as a ground-up beginning of a journey rather than a quick means to a destination, then you are in for lifelong rewards.

      For the fall, I’m thinking about starting arugula and salad greens mixes, collards, and broccoli. It’s almost time! Yippee!

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