Two things I’ve been reading about lately: gardening and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Both are related to the economic woes we’re experiencing. Typically, food bills wouldn’t be the bulk of our budget, and not the logical place to cut back. But since we’ve started really trying to focus on organic, local and sustainably-grown vegetables, it’s taking a bigger chunk. Not that I’m really seeing that as a problem. I figure I need to factor the future tax cost of pesticide clean-up and pollution from transportation fuels into the price of non-organics. When you do that, organic produce looks like a bargain.
It was Easter’s experience with peas that made me think I needed to step up the program to grow more of our own. A friend brought over a huge grocery bag of fresh, young peas. By the time they were shelled, we had about a spoonful for each of the ten guests. Which puts the price of peas, as with most baby vegetables, at about the same price as Krugerands. Basically, you can buy a pound of fresh, organic vegetables or a pound of gold. Same price. (But if you’d tasted these peas, you might have thought the price was worth it!)
So here’s where The New Deal comes in. I’ve been reading from several sources that, rather than a calculated, carefully mapped out program, The New Deal came about from the Presidential equivalent of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Apparently, FDR’s genius with The New Deal was that he combed the country for all the experts in every sort of economic recovery program and started implementing EVERYTHING. Then he evaluated to the Nth degree and, after a reasonable trial period, fiercely and unemotionally pulled the plug on anything that wasn’t working. In short order, he had a successful and integrated system.
Let’s just say, I’m gardening the FDR way.
With zero experience in gardening and a deplorable record with houseplants, I’ve started by getting every book I can on gardening. That’s not as easy as you would imagine. Most gardening books seem to be written by Brits or by New Englanders. With all their talk about cold frames, hard frosts and maximizing short growing seasons, they don’t have much I can take away for a semi-arid Sonoma garden. In desperation, I’ve started haunting the Internet. So far my best source has been Sonoma Master Gardeners (part of University of California’s excellent agriculture extension program). I’ve supplemented their advice with visits to various California gardening bloggers such as Maybelline’s Garden and A Sonoma Garden. Although I do get some good tips from them, by and large, these gardeners are too advanced for my level of ignorance. However, sometimes in the depths of failure, I just need to know that something is growing for someone somewhere fairly nearby.
So I’m stumbling along in my New Deal Gardening mode. Checking with the experts, trying everything, and ruthlessly walking away from anything that doesn’t work. I’d say, at this point, I’ve done a lot more learning than I have actual producing.
I’m sure FDR felt like that sometimes.
So here’s what I’ve learned and what I’m throwing out:
1. I had an incredible streak of beginners’ luck last year with my first gardening foray. I bought some tomato, pepper, melon and cucumber starts and shoved them in the raised beds. They all produced bumper crops. I didn’t do much more than set the timer on the drip irrigation system.
2. Gardening books never assume you are as clueless as you really may be. Nothing is explained at the “For Dummies” level. Case in point, every gardening book told me I’d know when my fava crop had “fixed” nitrogen in the soil “when the root nodules turn pink”. Huh? What is a nodule, where is it? How pink? Needless to say, I’ve been ripping up fava plants for the last six weeks trying to locate pink nodules.
3. Seeds suck. Well, they do if you are a rank gardening amateur. I grabbed up a bunch of packets of seeds only to be confronted today with the harsh realization that I should have started them weeks ago indoors, then thinned them and transplanted them. Life’s too short for that. It’s starts only for me now. Even I can’t mess that up. (See point 1 above.)
4. Addendum to the “seeds suck” point above: the only seeds worth planting are big, big, big ones. Like fava beans or corn. When you put one of those in the ground, you really feel like you are planting. Tomato seeds? Absolutely head-of-a-pin tiny. I could barely get them off my finger and into the ground. If you are an amateur, use only seeds that give you a feeling of planting. Not the futile feeling that you are merely sprinkling a few grains of fairy dust.
5. Thinning, pinching, mulching in and other techniques for ensuring stronger plants are things I’ll have to work up the courage to do. After watching my tomatoes grow last year, I couldn’t bear to keep pinching out new shoots. It felt like amputating limbs on family pets. I stopped. My tomatoes grew into giant bushes. The tomatoes were fine. Today I sacrificed a fava bean crop that I was intending to grow only to fix nitrogen back in the soil. Chopping down my plants and plowing them back into the soil felt like orchestrating ethnic cleansing. Favas must die so tomatoes can thrive!
6. Never for a moment think gardening is easy. I had no pest problems last year. Suddenly, my remaining favas are positively infested with aphids. An army of purchased lady bugs are standing by to be deployed.
6. Critters that you might otherwise think are somewhat icky become wonderfully beautiful when you think they might eat something bad in your garden. I saw a small snake, a toad and some lizards hanging around my raised beds licking their lips. I rolled out the mulch equivalent of a Welcome Mat. (Such critters are even more beautiful when you pay a premium for them at the garden store.)
There you go. Like FDR, I’m throwing a load of shit at the problem. Let’s see what sticks.