Day 93–Gambling With a Garden

Four coloured 6 sided dice arranged in an aest...

Gardening is gambling with dirt.–Mark Twain

I am, typically, not a gambling person. I don’t buy lottery tickets, never been to Vegas, and don’t play bingo. Probably, much of this is because I do not have that “winner’s luck” required to succeed at games of chance. My mother has it. My brother has it in spades. Clearly, it skipped me. But still, I do get “the fever.”

You see, my gambling fever strikes me each year in February (no, not March Madness; my gambling there is with my pride, not with money). In February, we have the onslaught of the commercial seed catalogs. By the late winter months, I have forgotten about the bloodthirsty mosquitoes and the 95% humidity of a North Carolina summer. I have put last year’s gardening behind me and am staring at leafless trees and a brown landscape. Then, I open my mailbox in early February, and see color photos of beautiful, lush gardens, perfect flowers and tomato plants so full of juicy tomatoes that they need heavy-duty staking. It’s seed porn and it has me hooked. I am ready to take the risk. I mean, this could be the year, right? Right?

Betting on the success of our Cinderella garden, we spent the weekend organizing our gardening space to increase the odds of our success. We used the garden planning questions from the Dig In! conference to seriously think about what we have, what we can give and what we need from our little garden. Our garden is not large–just four raised beds–3 are 6′ x 3′ and one is 3′ x 3′. Not so much that we will get overwhelmed, but enough to keep us in the game. Here are some decisions we made using our planning questions.

  1. We know we hate to tote water around the yard. Knowing that watering is a chore in the heat of summer, we moved the raised beds from the scattered patches of sun in the yard to one central area, close to our rain barrels. This was helped greatly by the loss of a huge oak tree last fall. We may be eaten alive by mosquitoes come summer, but at least the sacrifice will be quicker.
  2. We are planting to save money and shopping time. In looking at what fresh items were the most expensive at the store and market, we planted the herbs that we most commonly buy–several kinds of basil, oregano, mint (in pots), lemon balm, rosemary, dill, flat leaf parsley and chives. These are typically pretty expensive and sometimes hard to find. In addition, many of these herbs overwinter here or at least re-seed themselves, so hopefully our investment will be seen over several years.
  3. We know what we want and we want fresh salads. Instead of buying a huge assortment of vegetables that we don’t consume in great quantity, we bought what we like to eat the most–cucumber, several tomato varieties, green peppers and eggplant. I’m betting (!) that we will get out and water in the heat if we know that the goal isn’t just random vegetables, but better salads.
  4. Our garden will be organic. I have never used pesticides other than insecticidal soap and I don’t plan to now. With that in mind, we understand we will need to be extra vigilant for bugs, bunnies and other critters that find our garden as appealing as we do.
  5. We want our garden to look nice. All our beds are now in a side yard that is easily visible to our neighbors. They are terrific neighbors and don’t complain, but we’d like the garden to be attractive for them when they look out their windows. We also want it to be a contemplative space for us. So, we’ll be adding a mulch path, some butterfly friendly flowers and other decorative elements as we go through the spring months.

Maybe our gambling luck is turning in our favor. Hours after filling our beds with compost and planting our initial garden, we had a very scary storm that included hail. “Good grief,” I thought, “you have got to be kidding me.” (Tom can attest that my words were, indeed, stronger than “good grief!”) Lo and behold, the next morning we checked on the garden and not a plant was touched by the hail.

If I were a betting girl, I’d say that was a sign…

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Two of our raised beds in their early stages!

Day 86–Planning Your Garden (from Dig In!)

Produce doesn’t get more local than your own yard or patio. It’s gardening season again–what are your plans?

This week, we are finishing up plans for our vegetable and herb garden. We have made some changes to our gardening to take advantage of our strengths and minimize our challenges (which are many). Our raised beds now make a more cohesive gardening area in our one patch of full sun, and we have plans for a mulched walkway leading to the back yard, which should make our sunny side yard a little more appealing. Although we had hoped to fill our raised beds with compost this weekend, several days of severe thunderstorms and tornado warnings (nature’s way of telling us to watch more basketball) kept us inside. Our goal is to get a LOT of work done over the next two weekends so we can take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and get plants in the ground a bit early. One thing we need to do once we decide the raised beds will stay, is have a water spigot added to that side of the house. In the hot summer, even water from our rain barrels isn’t enough to keep the plants going and hauling a hose from around the house while mosquitoes are attacking me is not my idea of a good time.

Previously, we planted only vegetables in our raised beds, but this year we are adding more herbs to the mix. Not only will the herbs complement the vegetables we receive from our CSA, many of them will overwinter, saving us some work and expense next year. They will also save us a good deal of money this year. Those packets of fresh herbs at the grocery are crazy expensive!

Are you planning a garden this year? We received some wonderful information and support at the Dig In! conference, sponsored by Advocates for Health in Action. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself before you start picking out plants and digging your garden beds.

  1. What do you want from your space? –Do you want flowers for the table? Food for your family? Both? Herbs to season your food? Does the garden need to be decorative?
  2. What are you willing to put in?–This is an important question and my guess is that most gardeners (myself included) don’t confront this question honestly. I swear to myself that I WILL water the garden even when the mosquitoes are as big as horses and coming after me. This, of course, is a lie. Think about what you can really give in terms of time, money, work, effort and space.
  3. What kind of land do you have?–Is your plot of land a balcony? A small farm? A suburban lot? A plot in a community garden? The kind of land you have (and how much) will dictate whether containers, raised beds, or a tractor are in order. Even a small space like a balcony can, with the right sun, be a vegetable garden.
  4. Get your soil tested!–I don’t do this because with our tree roots, we use raised beds. We fill them with certified, composted material and fertilize with fish emulsion and as long as we are watering (read #2 above), we do well.
  5. Know what soil your plants need.–If you like boggy plants (sweet flag, some irises), put in a pond. If you want roses, you will need a richer soil. We like many Mediterranean herbs (oregano, rosemary, basil), and these don’t require rich soil or a great deal of attention, but they also don’t like to be overwatered as their natural climate is hot, dry, with rocky soil. Any good garden center will be able to tell you what your plants need.
  6. Create a friendly space.–If you want to spend time in your garden puttering around or if you have outdoor animals (or small children), don’t plant thorny or toxic plants. This sounds obvious, but some stunningly lovely plants can be toxic if eaten. And if you want your child (as I do) to feel comfortable tasting in the garden, you need to check out your plants!
  7. Consider all the senses.–Consider taste, scent, appearance and texture in the garden. Good plants to start with are swiss chard, lemon balm, rosemary, fig trees and strawberries.
  8. Compost!–We have a rolling composter that is wonderful for using up the many leaves we have in the fall plus the coffee grounds and vegetable trimmings. Homemade compost practically makes itself and is almost like free gold for your garden! If you have a patio garden, there are smaller composters that do not take up much space or you can try worm composting (more on this later).
  9. Use readily available materials.–If you have a patio or container garden, go to your local garden center and ask for larger black pots that shrubs and small trees come in. They may charge you a bit or they may be so happy to find someone to use them that they will be free. Also, if your town does some landscaping, they may have all kinds of pots for you. 
  10. Consider an herb spiral. These spiral shaped gardens use brick, rock or other materials to create a spiral with plants added between the lines of the spiral. See one here from another blogger, The Kale Yard.

Here’s to the optimism of spring, when all gardening miracles are possible! Have fun planning your garden, whether it is a few pots or a few acres!