Monday, April 23, 2012

Tough Love in the Garden

The miracle of the seed and the soil is not available by affirmation; it is only available by labor.  
~Jim Rohn

It is utterly forbidden to be half-hearted about gardening.  You have got to love your garden whether you like it or not. 
~W.C. Sellar & R.J. Yeatman, Garden Rubbish, 1936

On April 10 around sunset,  I walked out of the garden, secured the fence, and turned around to take one final look. I sighed with relief as I took in the 20 lovely (if not entirely straight or level) planting beds surrounded by hay-covered walking paths. I was exhausted. Beat. Sore. And I hadn't yet planted a single thing.

Just a few weeks after getting settled into our new home last fall, I began working on converting the largest bit of yard on our property into a garden plot. First, I cut and laid over the grass the cardboard boxes that had carried our stuff here from Ohio. Then I asked our neighbor, Tom, to bring in some composted cow manure to put on top of it, and finally, sowed winter rye seeds in the compost to provide a nitrogen-fixing, weed-inhibiting cover crop. Then I let it sit . . . and sit . . . and sit.  As the rye took root, the cardboard decomposed, and the earthworms munched, I perused seed catalogs and dreamed of eating homegrown tomatoes and bush beans.

This February I began to do the real work of preparing the plot for planting. It turned out to be harder than I thought to till the rye, compost and cardboard into the clay soil that lay beneath it. I started out using only my mattock, and had worked about a third of the way through the 1250 square-foot plot by the time my husband, G-P, came out to lecture me on the silliness of rejecting modern conveniences and to insist that we put to work the motorized tiller my twin sister had loaned us. So we finished the plot in style--and boy, was it easier! Little did I know that I had just gotten started.

Gardening is a matter of your enthusiasm holding up until your back gets used to it.   
~Author Unknown

I soon realized that the tiller had just barely scraped the surface of the clay, and that I therefore needed to dig a good bit deeper. So we called Tom again, and one afternoon while the girls and I were at the library, he brought over his tractor and plowed it up. Once again, I'd assumed that this would do the trick. But when we got back, I saw that the plowing had left behind a plethora of small, large and HUGE clumps of clay soil--many of them as hard as rocks. Seriously--they were as hard as rocks. I know all you native North Carolinians out there are laughing. But I was stunned. And beginning to get discouraged.

Back I went, mattock in hand again. It took me another several afternoons of work to get the large clumps and huge clumps broken into smaller clumps and to smooth everything out to some resemblance of level. But it still didn't look anything close to arable.

So we ordered 8 more yards of compost. They hauled it in on a Sunday afternoon. After another week of labor (and some help from G-P and the girls), I had the compost spread and worked in. Thankfully, G-P was kind enough to take charge of deciphering and installing the portable electric fence we'd ordered. After it was in place, the girls and I spent several hours measuring and demarcating the 20 planting beds. (I decided not to make framed raised beds but rather informal ones that I could later shift if I needed to--which, of course, didn't stop G-P from pointing out that gardeners back in Nigeria never measure their beds at all, and the plants grow just fine.) A couple more of afternoons of raking and spreading hay, and they were all ready. It was done. I was finally ready to plant.

If all this sounds as ridiculous to you as it sometimes seemed to me, you might consider this fact--endlessly repeated in nearly all the literature on organic gardening: soil preparation is the most important step to creating a healthy, productive garden.  As Marion Cran put it, "If I want to have a happy garden, I must ally myself with my soil; study and help it to the utmost, untiringly. Always, the soil must come first." Rich organic soil attracts beneficial insects and discourages pests; provides long-term nourishment without the need for expensive (and potentially harmful) fertilizers; and produces vegetables and herbs with higher levels of vitamins and minerals than conventional, chemical-infused farming. (I have to admit that keeping all this in mind was about the only thing that got me through a few of those afternoons.)

After all the soil prep, planting has seemed like a stroll in the park! So far the girls and I have put in (as transplants we grew indoors, or as seeds):
Bell peppers
Bush beans

 Soon to follow in their footsteps will:
Habanero peppers
Bush beans
Cayenne peppers
Pole beans
Several different kinds of flowers

In parenting, I have come to think of true "tough love" not as a kind of love that is hard on the child, but the kind of love that challenges the parent to reach deep inside herself and find those reserves of strength and patience that will allow her to accept and nurture instead of spurn and demean. It is often very tough indeed. And humbling. Perhaps loving our gardens is also an adventure in tough love; goodness knows it is humbling. But (again, like parenting) it is beautifully--and often surprisingly--rewarding, too. Even though the only fruit of our labor we've enjoyed so far is seeing the broccoli plants gain a half-inch in height and the first bits of green poke their heads out of the spinach and lettuce beds, it has already been worth all the work. That's how it is with labors of love.

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