Good Soil

I realized recently that I never posted much – or anything, really – about our garden this year. Any moments this spring when I might have written about it were instead engulfed in schoolwork, weddings, moving, and traveling.

The garden was part of the initial vision and invitation for this house. When Maggie bought the house, the entire backyard was a big expanse of blacktop, the former parking lot for a business that once used the house for its offices. But Maggie, with her farmer’s heart and a desire to see land restored, saw beyond the blacktop. After she bought the house, she had the pavement broken up and removed and fill dirt trucked in. She built pathways sectioning the garden into four square plots and sectioned off a row in the back for berry bushes.

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Over scones, Maggie and I sketched out ideas for how to divide the space, listed available tools, meticulously wrote out conditions for participating in the garden, and brainstormed a list of friends who might want to garden a piece of the land this first year. She accompanied me to the Kansas City Community Gardens where I picked out an armful of seeds – spinach, lettuce, kale, beets, bush beans, black-eyed peas, zucchini, pumpkins, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, marigolds, and zinnias – and ordered sweet potato, raspberry, and blackberry plants.

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And then Maggie moved to France, leaving the garden and our plans in my hands.

Derek and I spent a chilly Saturday in late April, just weeks after our last snow storm, spreading compost, tilling the garden, and planting the earliest seeds. As my rubber boots squelched in the gray mud, sodden from the rainy spring, and the tiller stuck in the thick clay of the soil, I struggled to imagine how anything could grow in that space. Even so, when our friend Lebeka (now our newest housemate) joined us to help spread compost and plant seeds and as everyone who planned to participate in the garden stopped by during the day to work in their own plots, I felt hopeful about the garden and the relational fruit that might grow from it, even if no vegetables or flowers flourished.

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Despite the initial sense of hopefulness that sprung out of that first planting day and the literal sprouts of vegetables that followed soon after, discouragement soon burgeoned as well as I watched nearly all of what I planted struggle to grow at all in those first couple months. I learned firsthand the importance of good soil as I watched the heavy clay of the soil fall aside in solid chunks whenever I dug into it with my trowel and witnessed the pools of water that settled on the surface around the plants before drying into a solid, impenetrable crust. No matter how much I weeded, watered, and mulched, the plants struggled to thrive. They simple couldn’t. Their delicate roots couldn’t push through the heavy clay and even with the compost we mixed in before we planted (too little, we realized), the plants couldn’t access the nutrients they needed. In those conditions, they quickly began to starve. Many of the sprouts soon withered and yellowed and what remained of our spinach went to seed before it grew even two or three inches high.

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I felt tempted to give up on the garden, to wait and start fresh the next year with more compost or perhaps even with raised beds that bypassed the soil entirely. But instead I began loosening the soil around each row of plants before watering to allow the water to seep deeper down. I sprinkled nitrogen-rich chicken manure fertilizer around my kale, lettuce, and beets to provide more nutrients. I dug out the dirt around all my pepper and tomato plants and replaced it with compost from our compost pile. As I began to give the plants the air, water, and food they needed, slowly they began to revive and grow.

Now, over four months after we first planted the first seeds, I have a bowl full of fresh tomatoes on the counter and a jar of perfectly dried black-eyed peas in the pantry. I have eaten one zucchini (bugs and bacteria consumed the rest of my squashes) and stir fried green beans and gypsy peppers. We have more kale than we can eat and vases of zinnias adorn several rooms in our house. A fall crop of spinach, kale, beets, and arugula is already sprouting and just yesterday I noticed that several of our bell peppers are finally starting to blush red. I have weeded, watered, planted, and harvested in the garden alongside friends and had some hard, stretching conversations about use of the space and tools.

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The garden (and the relationships within it) are still far from perfect, but when I remember the parking lot that covered that space when Maggie first showed me the house less than nine months ago, I can see that life has undoubtedly grown out of that space, with even more restoration to come.

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The Best Laid Plans

Today I met with our neighbor Shiloh and her young daughter to plan our garden. Shiloh brought an armful of seed packets and I printed out a grid of our garden. Together we made a list of everything we wanted to plant.

We decided to try the block gardening method (also known as compact or square-foot gardening). Growing up, we always planted in rows. After doing some research, though, it looks like block (or compact) gardening sounds like the best option for maximizing a small garden space so we’re going to give that a try. We divided our (approximately) 10’x10′ garden into four 4’x4′ plots with walkways between them and put different vegetables in each square foot of garden space, depending on how much space that type of vegetable takes. We planned tomatoes, okra, and zinnias for the north/south sides of the gardens so they won’t shade the rest of the plants and gave the zucchini and sweet potatoes lots of room to spread out. We’ll probably add some pots of herbs, too, that can be moved around.

As of right now, our list of things to plant includes:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers (both sweet and hot)
  • Spinach
  • Beets
  • Zucchini
  • Lettuce
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Bush Beans
  • Onions
  • Okra
  • Greens
  • Cilantro
  • Zinnias

The only things we couldn’t fit were sunflowers and butternut squash. I may still see if I can find a creative way to plant the butternut squash. In late summer we should be able to replace some of the earlier plants with some more cool weather plants (we missed the planting window for some of the spring crops).

Shiloh has some seeds already (include some that she’s started inside). Thursday the Kansas City Community Gardens starts selling the warm weather plants, so I plan on going to pick up some of those, plus whatever other seeds we need (I get ten free packets). Shiloh is going to see if her friend will go pick up a truckload of compost for us from Missouri Organic, too. We may even be able to start planting a few things tomorrow.

This garden is really happening!

Tilled

Do you know what that is?

Yes, it’s dirt. But more importantly, it’s tilled dirt. Tilled dirt in our garden. Finally.

I spent the past month waiting for one thing after another to happen before the plot would be ready to plant. First I waited for the community gardens to call to set up a time to till (I was told their waiting list was pretty long and some people had signed up way back in January). Then, because it rained a lot while I waited, I waited for the maintenance guy to come mow the grass. But he didn’t mow it short enough, so then I waited to find a weed eater I could borrow to cut the grass short enough so it could be tilled (in the meantime, the grass grew again).

Finally on Tuesday, I borrowed a weed eater from one of my coworkers. As soon as I got I home, I spent the last light of dusk chopping down weeds and grass. I cut a space as big as I could while the battery lasted. After I finished, I took my garage sale shovel and tried to turn some of the dirt to see what it looked like. The grass roots resisted the shovel, though, and the dirt was hard with clay. I went inside wondering if they could possibly till that ground and whether anything would ever grow in it.

The next day I called the tilling guy on my lunch break. He came that very afternoon while I was at work still. When I came home, our garden plot was waiting, tilled and ready.

So there it is. A bit bumpy still, with a fair amount of clay. But it’s tilled and can be planted. Maybe this weekend even….

Garden Beginnings

When people hear that I have a whole week off of both school AND work, they typically ask, “Are you going anywhere? Do you have plans to do anything fun and exciting?”

The reality, though, was that my spring break plans contained more homework than anything else. Not exactly fun and exciting. But I did have one fairly big, non-homework plan: start our garden.

Since we first came to look at our apartment last summer, I’ve had my eye on the empty plot next to the building. We asked the landlords if they would be open to us planting a garden there and they responded that as long as we gave them some vegetables, we could do whatever we wanted. So I stared out the window at the open space, envisioning raised beds made out of recycled materials, tended by enthusiastic neighbors.

As February slipped into March, though, and spring edged closer, I realized that if I was going to make the leap from dreaming about a garden to actually starting one, my plans needed to get quite a bit more concrete.

But the space is actually pretty large and the more I looked at it, the more daunting it felt. It looks like there used to be a building there at some point so the space is littered with small stones (I suspect that it may need some compost and TLC to grow things). And dog poop from the neighbor’s dog, who roams free most days (and no, that’s not the kind of compost I had in mind). I knew that I would need to either clean out the stones and till the ground or build raised beds. And either way I would need to figure out some sort of fencing to keep out the dog.

Finally I decided that I just needed to start somewhere and see what solutions I could figure out. And with school and work taking up most of my time, spring break seemed the most likely time to jump into it. So I made a list of goals for the garden, a list of things that I needed to do, a list of materials I needed, and a list plants I wanted to grow (I’m a list person, remember?).

On Thursday I researched fencing options. At first I was looking at fences made from all sorts of recycled materials: old pallets, bed frames, bicycle parts. I found some neat ideas that I would love to try someday, but eventually concluded that for this year, what I really needed was something simple, temporary, and easy to install (since we are just renting and my building skills are pretty limited indeed). Home depot offers some fairly inexpensive options, like chicken wire attached to simple metal posts. I think I can handle that…

 

On Friday I called the landlord to confirm that it was still okay for us to start a garden (she said absolutely, as long as we gave her some vegetables).

On Sunday I made a flyer inviting our neighbor’s to participate in the garden and posted it by the mailboxes and in the laundry room (I haven’t heard back from anyone, but I’m hopeful that once the garden is visibly started, some people will jump in).

On Tuesday Derek and I went to the Kansas City Community Gardens office and signed up for a membership. Because we qualified as low-income, they said they could come and till the garden for us for just $8. We filled out the appropriate forms and left with an official green membership card and renewed hope that this garden thing would actually happen. Now I’m just waiting for them to call to set up a time to come till.

On Wednesday I snagged a shovel, hoe, and trowel for a few dollars from a garage sale down the street. The metal parts are rusty, but they’re still sturdy. And they opened up conversation with the neighbors down the street about the garden (they warned me not to plant watermelons or any of that sweet stuff, because that’s what people like to take around here). That same day, Derek brought home a big ceramic pot from work that I plan to use for herbs.

Now it’s Friday and though the garden is not tilled yet, I feel like I’ve gotten a pretty good start this week. I’ve done enough to assure myself that the garden WILL happen this year at least and the task feels a little more manageable now. This weekend I hope to clear out the rocks from the plot in preparation for tilling and perhaps sketch out a plan of the garden.

Once I finish the homework I put off for most of the week that is….