Sunday, June 7, 2009

Summer and the Garden

In the South, it looks and feels like Summer long before June 21. School gets out before Memorial Day and usually the pools are already open by then. I was trying to decide when I should change my mindset from Spring to Summer, and I decided I would when the temperature reaches 90 degrees. Well, that happened this week. It's Summer.

We planted our first vegetable garden in May. I've always grown herbs - basil and lemon verbena, and now mint, are necessities for me, but I've never had the desire to grow other edibles. For the past three years, I've been part of a CSA which I loved. I was a vegetarian for a long time and I try to avoid toxic stuff in my life for health reasons, so local organic produce is very important to me. Picking up a weekly share of fruit and vegetables changed the way I shopped, cooked, and ate. I realized I love kale and beets, and that the later strawberries and cantaloupes are sweeter than the earlier ones. However, I needed a break this year. I've been sort of overwhelmed lately, and didn't want to add another layer to that mix. I'm sad on Wednesdays when I don't go to pick up my box, but I'm happy not to be throwing rotting vegetables into the compost before we had a chance to eat them. Even though it takes a little more effort, it has been nice to go to the various farmer's markets around town, which is something I never needed to do in addition to my weekly share. It's also been nice supporting many local organic farms this year, instead of primarily just one.

Because someone else isn't growing all of our food, Will and I wanted to grow some ourselves. We decided to be wise and start small this year. We dug up a 4'x7' plot (small enough to reach everything from the edges because you are not supposed to walk on your garden as it compacts the soil), and planted 4 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and basil I got from a local, pesticide-free nursery and two different kinds of okra from seed. I also planted a pear tomato and some basil in front of the office. Basil loves that awful soil and ends up being the size of a large bush by mid-Summer, and I hope the tomato will do just as well. I wanted to make raised beds* for the garden, but we decided not to invest much money in the project this year and didn't have the time to come up with scrap material. We took our compost and spread a thick layer on top of the garden (even though we've never had a garden we've been composting for years to keep organic matter out of the garbage and landfill). Within a few days, we had some unknown sprouts come up out of the compost. We watched them get larger, and realized most of them were tiny mimosa trees. That tree was cut down four years ago, but somehow it still attempts to reproduce all over our yard. A few sprouts were pumpkins, and we left those alone with new dreams of homegrown pumpkin pies and jack-o-lanterns. Soon these pumpkins took over the garden and started to choke out the tomatoes and okra. We also realized they were most likely summer squash or zucchini (which no one really likes very much) instead of the desired pumpkins. We decided to keep the plants and move them to a special new squash-only area near the garden. Apparently, you can't move squash. Squash plants are prone to root disturbance, and need to be left where originally planted from seed. We, of course, found this out only after we replanted when the leaves immediately went limp and stayed that way for days. We gave the plants lots of water, and after a week they seem to have recovered from the shock and growing again in their new home.

(an auctioneer's garden - notice the T posts?)

Every night, the five of us (the dog must come too), go outside and check on the garden's progress. We pull up weeds, and look for new blooms on the tomato plants. Sometimes, we add a new row of twine to the Florida weave that supports the tomatoes. When most of the okra area remained bare, we put new seeds in the ground then hoped and watched for new dark green sprouts. When a cutworm severed my black zebra tomato plant at its base, I put the stalk in water to root and replanted it once the roots seemed long enough. Somehow new leaves grew out of the root end of the severed plant, so now we have two black zebras growing. I planted sunflowers and zinnias at the corners to help keep bad critters away. Taking care of the garden quickly become a lovely Spring and Summer ritual for the family, and we're already talking about next year's tilling, all the new plots we want, an asparagus patch, and brussels sprouts and blueberries and corn. I think the days of small are numbered.

*I attended a workshop on organic gardening in 2006, and I learned raised beds produce the healthiest plants and those plants yield a bigger harvest. Weeds are less and your soil quality is much better because you have more control over the growing environment. Besides the workshop, I relied on these resources for our little garden: Great Garden Companions by Sally Jean Cunningham and The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. Great Garden Companions taught me how to lay out my garden, and gave me the idea of adding flowers on the edges. I love the ideas behind companion gardening and would like to do more with this next year. The Garden Primer taught us how to plant all our tomato plants, herbs, and various seeds, and I think one reason all our plants are doing well is that they got a great start because of this book.