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Believing in Tomorrow

November 29, 2014

The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.

                                                                       Gertrude Jekyll

Recent arrivals in both my mailbox and my inbox have infected me with seed catalogue fever. Since my new summer digs have plenty of available yard space, this fever will inevitably develop into the ecstasy of full blown gardening mania. The struggle will then be to keep things from getting out of control, to balance my passion for all things growing with the spirit of keeping things simple.

However until the land is resurrected from under the icy pall of the Prairie winter I will be limited to all planning and very little doing. But gardening is excellent exercise for the imagination, and my brain is rife with ideas, some having lain dormant for years awaiting their time to bloom, and others newly gleaned from a variety of sources, notably Pinterest.

I was lately introduced to that resource by my daughter. The seemingly bottomless online pit is such a wonderful medium for a daydream, a veritable mother lode for the creative mind. In addition to providing welcome inspiration for my planned vegetable and herb potager, and fuelling technicolor dreams of glorious flower beds, Pinterest has been the source of dozens of ingenious budget-friendly renovation ideas—inventive ways to make use of used, rescued, repurposed, and vintage materials scrounged from junkyards, yard sales and thrift stores—that I will incorporate as I work on making the old trailer that will become my summer home “my own”, a reflection of who I am. And recipes! So many delicious amazing recipes! But this gold fever can also be highly addictive. I am too easily hooked into endless quixotic searching for that bigger nugget, that perfect idea, just waiting to be revealed with the next click of the mouse.

I first ventured into the world of raised bed gardening a number of years ago and immediately applied for citizenship. The beds make toilsome soil preparation, even removing existing vegetation, unnecessary. Just build the frame, spread a weed barrier in the bottom (landscape fabric or cardboard) and fill it with suitable garden soil. It is entirely possible to complete a seed-ready bed in a few hours (barring complex frame design). This economy of time and physical effort is perhaps a double-edged sword: going this route will happily free me up to attend to some of the many, many other projects I have on the drawing board, but I would probably profit from some gruntwork after a sedentary winter.

There are several additional perks to raised beds. They provide excellent drainage and prevent soil compaction. The soil warms quickly, allowing earlier planting and resulting in quicker germination, more vigorous growth, larger yields, and earlier harvests. Since my garden will be located in a clearing carved out of poplar bush, raised beds will make it much easier to defend against “the invasion of the sucker shoots”, far more troublesome to a gardener than zombies.

I plan to build my beds deeper this time which will offer some added benefits. The higher sides will entail less bending, allowing me to sit on the edge while working, a great boon to an old back. I intend on building them out of some combination of old pallets (free for the taking from a number of sources) and salvaged corrugated metal (also free I hope). I will orient the beds north-south so my entire garden can benefit from both morning and afternoon sun. Tall plants will be grown at the north end of the beds so they don’t shade their shorter companions. To lessen the volume of soil I will need, I am thinking of putting down a substantial layer of rock as filler. But not yet having weighed that option carefully, as per usual, my plans remain fluid; I will have to see what’s available to this penny-pinching gardener.

To keep vining plants from taking over my beds or spilling onto the lawn, I will construct a cucumber arbor formed from 6”x6” welded wire mesh arching over the walkway between beds, and a pea trellis of stucco wire. Finding many of the cheaper tomato cages too flimsy and the better ones too pricey, I plan to use simple wooden stakes this year. I may get around to making heavier cages for future use. Hot caps fashioned out of plastic milk jugs will help keep my peppers cozy until nighttime temperatures are consistently about 15°C. To save my plants from my times of my forgetfulness, I plan to install an inexpensive drip watering system.

Square foot gardening has grown in popularity over the last few years. Plants are set out in one-foot-square blocks, with 1, 4, 9 or 16 plants per block according to their need for elbowroom. Very large plants such as tomatoes and kale are allotted 4 blocks apiece. This method makes better use of space to provide higher yields, and discourages weeds. I always wondered why if plants could be spaced 3” apart in the row why was it necessary to space rows 2’ or more apart? I have grown vegetables with success in double rows in a traditional garden and crowded them tighter in my raised beds, but square foot gardening is a more consistently intensive approach to planting. So having dipped my toes into the edges of this method, I have decided it’s time to get my feet wet once and for all. I am already in the process of developing my garden block layout keeping companion planting in mind, and have plans for a set of dibbles (for those who aren’t diehard gardeners, a tool for making holes in the ground in which to drop seeds) that will make accurate seed spacing a breeze.

Widely sprawling plants like pumpkins and melons in my opinion are too aggressive to share space in raised beds, so if I manage to shoehorn them into my seed budget I will provide them their own homes in little plots (perhaps also raised beds?) at the edge of the bush. Cucurbits (members if the gourd family) will coexist nicely with the poplars, perhaps even climbing into their branches. I rather look forward to seeing pumpkins hanging overhead like the calabash common to Haiti.

Vegetables aside, I simply cannot do without at least a few flowers to brighten my surroundings. Psychological studies have verified what I have known most of my life: flowers have immediate and long-term positive effects on my mood, calming and uplifting me. As American botanist Luther Burbank, who developed the Shasta daisy and more than 800 other plants, wrote, “Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul.” Their fragrance and radiance are God’s great gifts. But substantial plantings take considerable preparation and will have to wait for future years. I do, however, plan to establish some succulents as soon as possible. I love these winsome little gems that ask so little yet give so much.

Of course bees are essential to gardening (to the survival of man, in fact), and I will do all I can to accommodate them. In fact, I am considering resurrecting a long-archived plan to set up a couple of hives. I will welcome butterflies, those self-propelled flowers, choosing specific plants to attract them, beginning with milkweed, essential to Monarchs. And what is a garden without songbirds? Birdhouses and feeders are on the project list. Although the effectiveness of bat houses is uncertain, I will probably try one of those as well. The prospect of having each resident bat devour up to 1000 mosquitoes in a single hour is well worth the effort.

I will have to be discriminating about what I grow this year, careful not to overreach either my wallet or my available time and stamina. I must not lose sight of the fact that gardening is a marathon, not a sprint. It is far too easy to get so involved with planting roses that there is no time to smell them. My first priority is a few veggies to provide me tasty meals that will reduce my food budget (and hopefully my waistline), mostly old standards common to my past garden incarnations with a few new varieties that have lately captured my interest. What flowers I do grow this year will probably have to be satisfied with spending the summer in containers alongside some herbs and primary salad fixings. I have long wanted to try my hand at making some planting containers out of hypertufa, a mixture of cement, peat moss, perlite and synthetic concrete reinforcing fibers that is relatively lightweight and very easy to mold. Most clearly on my radar is a replica of the stone water troughs that were common on British farms in centuries gone by. It is unlikely that time and weather will allow having my trough ready for use this season, but a few rustic planters will definitely grace my yard this summer.

In anticipation of needing a dedicated place to maintain plants in containers and store the supplies involved, I already have a plan for a very serviceable potting bench built from pallets that can be knocked together in a couple of hours. I have long dreamed of a potting bench but inexplicably never got around to putting one together.

If somehow I can, come spring, expand my available time to fit a fraction of the many projects I envision, I will be doing well. For those I can’t get to, Lord willing, there will be another year. Gardening is always an enterprise built on hope and anticipation, a belief in the miraculous.

 If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

                                                                         Marcus Tullius Cicero

 Obviously a man after my own heart.

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