Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How Does Your Garden Grow?

With Silver Bells and Cockle Shells and Perhaps Some Sad Looking Cucumbers?

Spring is just around the corner and I’m dreaming about the pleasures of digging in the dirt and watching green shoots sprout from the ground. What will I grow for vegetables this year: tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans and squash? Will sweet corn or pumpkins grow in my garden? Is there a clear path to the ultimate vegetable garden?

A few years ago, when we moved, a plot was tilled up to become my "new garden". Since then I've expanded the fencing, continually added organic material to the soil, built a raised bed for the garlic, tried to learn the pattern of the sun and the shading of the trees to maximize my planting potential, removed buckets of rocks and pebbles, done my best to discourage the weeds, and had good crops and bad, just like my old garden.

My garden is partly shady, has what feels to be miles of leaky hose so I can water every corner, placed on a fairly steep hillside, shaded by several large trees, and has a clay base that is hard as a rock ledge, actually a rock ledge resides under the clay base; in other words, everything my garden is suppose to be for maximum production, mine is not. If I counted up all the ways my garden shouldn't grow I'd just lay down my hoe and cry. I certainly failed at planning the ultimate vegetable garden lay-out, but does that mean my garden can’t be productive? All I know is, whether or not I have bumper crops, my garden always grows something and brings me hours of pleasure.

Here in New England my garden planning starts at the end of the season. The plants have hopefully grown, blossomed, and produced some sort of vegetables. As the days shorten and the temperature drops I plant my
garlic for the next year and put the rest of the garden to bed.

Tools are oiled and stored away, garden gloves and hats are set to rest on closet shelves or in the garage area that serves as my "potting shed". The paths that delineated the tomatoes from the basil, the cucumbers from the squash, the corn from the over-grown weeds, rest under a blanket of whiteness temporarily leveling the planting grounds, and making the fenced in garden area look pristine.

After the busy holiday season has passed and the days begin to lengthen a minute at a time, I continually make mental notes as to what grew well, what faltered, what tasted as good as it looked, and what looked better than it tasted. Then suddenly I realize now is the time to begin to plan again in earnest. How do I know this? Seed catalogs have begun to arrive in the mail. I've been perusing my two favorites: The Natural Gardening Company and Seeds of Change.

The Natural Gardening Company ( is the oldest certified organic nursery in the United States, and Seeds of Change (, also offers 100% certified organic seed. Both can be visited online but to me it is quite not the same as being able to flip through the catalogs.

Because I like to cook as much as I like to garden it is usually herbs and vegetables that I dream about the most. Last season I attempted to grow sweet corn, a dismal failure because of lack of a proper amount of sun, and broccoli rabe, also a failure I believe because of my dense soil, but my tomatoes did well, I'm still pulling from my cache of butternut squash, and the hot Italian peppers were a smashing success, as was the garlic.

So during my lunch break at work, or when dinner is done and the dishes put away, I pick up my seed catalogs and try to decide if I'm going to once again choose the Brandywine for a beefsteak tomato or if I want to try the Big Boy. I read about tomato trusses and lever loops. I worry over what variety of marigolds I'll place in between them to keep away the bugs and I promise myself I'll stake them better so the heavy boughs don't end up on the ground.

I dig for secrets in the description of sweet corn looking for the answer to last year's failed crop. I remind myself to get building that worm farm to be fed with my kitchen scraps, dryer dust, and the ripped up cardboard from toilet paper rolls. Hopefully those red wrigglers will help break up the clay I'm trying to grow on. I wonder if the cucumbers should go next to the squash or should I leave them on the opposite side of the green beans? Do I really want to grow chard or sow some chervil in the herbal area?

The choices are endless; the path to the “ultimate” garden is often unclear and littered with weeds. So what else is there to do but dream our dreams, plant the seeds, and let it grow, let it grow, let it grow.