Raised bed gardening has become all the rage. It is craft gardening that lets you show off your creative side and they’re pretty easy to put together.
To start a raised bed garden, you simply build a cute rectangle, rhombus or clever trapezoid on the space where you want to have a garden (Some experts I’ve read say to use untreated lumber for vegetable gardens, unless you want a heaping helping of vitamin cancer with your produce). After you have your space picked out and the form built up, you line the bottom with a ground barrier (some have suggested concrete is good, others say use newspaper) and then you spread a healthy layer of growing material, compost and store-bought soil, which is where you’ll grow everything.
There are obvious advantages. Store-bought dirt isn’t chock full of whatever your dog buried or weird parasites scientists haven’t identified yet. You won’t have to pull as many weeds, though weeding, like the rise of the sun, is inevitable.
There are other advantages, but that’s what people care about.
I don’t use raised beds. My reasons are simple, practical, but kind of pathetic:
First, I don’t own a pickup truck, nor do I have easy access to one. While it’s possible to haul a bunch of 50 pound bags ripe-smelling dirt in the backseat of a Chevy Impala, it’s not necessarily advisable, not if you’d like to drive with the windows up sometime soon after.
Also, the boards and beams required to construct a reasonably sized raised bed garden won’t easily fit in the aforementioned Impala either and, for some reason, the state police seem to take a dim view of lumber hanging out of car windows, especially when the vehicle is in motion.
Arguably, I could borrow a pickup truck. I know people, but there’s guilt involved. I’ve borrowed it too much already and I hate to be a pest.
Second, raised beds cost money. Materials: lumber, nails, carpentry tools and bags of soil are not free and while some people will scoff and say, “that stuff doesn’t cost that much,” these are people who can afford cable and/or a gas powered tiller, and that’s just not me.
Besides, one of the chief theoretical benefits of growing your own food is it can reduce some of your grocery costs (if you don’t mind eating A LOT of zucchini), so why negate that?
Besides, I took marching band in high school, not woodshop, though I wasn’t particularly good at that either.
So no raised beds for me, though yes, it would be easier and save time, but I suppose if I wanted easier and convenient, I’d just shop at Kroger’s.
I like the effort. There’s something perversely satisfying about pulling weeds and fighting for the food that’s going on your table, even if that food is just a salad.
So my garden is the traditional, dug directly into the ground type of garden; the kind of green space that resembles what your grandparents or great grandparents had back in the good old days back before The Beatles ruined everything with their rock/roll music.
My kind of garden is work. It has to be regularly weeded, babied and fussed over. It requires attention and if you fail to do that, it’s just a dirty pit in the backyard.
So no raised beds for me, though a fence is necessary. You have to do something to keep the deer amused.
Winter involves a lot of indoor work and early darkness. As the days get longer and the air gets warmer, the hard work begins. All those projects delayed in the winter because of bad weather, are now possible with spring. The hard work involved in a garden can be carried into life. Just as a garden takes perseverance and endurance so does life.
I solely owe my endurance in life to persistence. I don’t like to be told that something is too challenging for me. Right out of college I started writing at a newspaper and I was thrown into a confusing fast pace newsroom. The police scanner on in the background, the constant clicking on the computer, voices throughout the room on the phone with sources for stories, and no cubicles or dividers. Reporters could call across the room to tell the editor a story was ready like a cook yelling to the waitress to pick up her order. It was challenging and at times, draining. However it was rewarding and eye-opening because I met a lot of people who spanned the gamut of despicable to amazing, like the 11-year-old Boy Scout who saved his sister by snatching her from her crib in their family’s burning house.
Despite the hard work needed to accomplish anything, the work can be increased by others. People are not always out to help you as I learned the hard way. In college I changed my minor to journalism during my sophomore year. I had an internship the summer of my junior year at a small town newspaper in Ohio. I was a newbie, but I still put out stories and tried my best. One day, out of the blue, the editor told me that I couldn’t write and would never make it in the world of journalism. She told me this with about a month left in my internship. I was hurt. I wanted to tell that editor a few choice words and never come back, but I didn’t. Every day I tried to walk into that newsroom with a positive outlook and gave my best despite her discouraging words. I’m glad I didn’t listen to her because her comment wasn’t really a critique of my writing, but a reflection of her own issues.
A garden can reflect the benefits of hard work. It starts as dirt and seeds. Then sunshine, water, and mostly time, all nurture the seed into a vegetable. Every year I see the beauty of hard work through our family’s garden. My husband and I try to plant as early as possible. As I garden I like to visualize each little green sprout as the full grown plant it will become. As we weed and tend to the garden I see how each plant changes. When the plants starts to fruit, they provide a rainbow of different food that I preserve to eat in the winter. So ultimately, our family enjoys the hard work we put into our garden all year round making it well worth the effort we put into it.
Suggestions for our City Girl Transplant? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Right now, there’s not a plant showing in the garden. All the beds have been turned and tilled, but only a quarter of them have been planted. Tiny seeds still underground, or barely peeking above.
Of course, there’s about 200 plants in the front room, just aching to get outside. I’d like to get them out there too, but resisted the urge this past weekend knowing there’s at least one more frost yet to come – maybe two.
I bought a row cover this year (our first) but I’m not sure I trust it. I stretched it out, looked at it, and decided it would be good for early lettuces, but I wasn’t going to trust my heirloom tomatoes to it. And so, in the basement they wait with more plants, along with way too much seed.
We’ve been hoarding seed the past couple of years, and it’s time to flush out the old and replenish the stock with new. So much carrot seed, cabbage seed and all kinds of peppers. One of the main themes of gardening is rotation: rotating crops, seeds, pantry, freezer. Anything that involves the garden has an expiring potency. Older seeds have a lower germination rate, so we plant the seed, knowing we’ll have to figure what to do with the abundance at harvest time.
I know there are gardeners out there who plan the entire growing season, seed to harvest. Some have 20 years or more experience, so I try to be forgiving of our own “organic” (occurring or developing gradually and naturally, without being contrived) approach to “organic” (farm methods not using synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers) gardening.
After five years as gardeners, we’re still learning. But one thing I have learned is that you really can’t plan a garden. Unless you can totally control the environment you grow in, you can never predict the outcome. Some years are good for peppers, others are good years for tomatoes or melons or root crops. Some years are great garden years. Some years are good for nothing.
I once saw a sign in someone’s garden which said, “He who plants beneath the sod, shows he has a faith in God.” A garden is certainly a leap of faith.
A gardener has faith that a tiny seed will not only grow, but will also feed him for the months, sometimes years, ahead. A gardener has faith that a small seed will be nurtured in the darkness of the earth, survive the elements of the sky, avoid serving as lunch or dinner for animals and insects, and become something that will nourish us.
Plant a seed, give it water and warmth of sunshine, and it will become–a fruit, a vegetable, a flower, an herb. But that plant is vulnerable, so it needs a gardener with faith. Faith that the earth is rich with nutrients and enriching minerals. Faith that the rains will be steadily quenching, not pounding and heavy, that the sun will provide an easy warmth, and not a scorching heat. Faith that animals and insects are kept at bay by establishing boundaries, careful planning, and gentle tending.
It takes faith — and a heck of a lot of work!
But I recently heard an experienced gardener speaking of the way his gardens tended him. I had to nod my head in agreement. I was not feeling in a gardening mood this year at all. No inclination whatsoever. But after what seemed like two Februaries in a row? The first sunny weekend, I immediately grabbed a hoe and headed that way. I could not wait to break soil, move around, break a sweat in the sun. And at the end of the day, I felt ten times better, though my muscles ached. After several days, I was falling asleep the minute my head hit the pillows. Some call it Garden Therapy.
Actually, Horticulture Therapy is “the use of plants and gardens for human healing and rehabilitation.” It is an ancient practice, but a rather new profession.
An increasingly large body of research attests to the unique values of gardening as a therapy for people with physical, mental, emotional, and social disabilities. Plants are non-discriminating and non-threatening, so it doesn’t matter how old or intelligent a person is; their race or religion. Plants will respond to anyone providing care. Studies show that success with plants can lead to successes in other aspects of our lives.
Many health care researchers and practitioners say that Ecotherapy (aka green therapy, nature therapy, earth-centered therapy), in general, can have regenerative powers, improving mood and easing anxiety, stress, and depression. A walk in the country reduced depression in 71% of participants of one European study. The researchers found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting – whether walking in a park or gardening – improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation.
They say, “gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.” Usually, the cheaper option of any situation requires more work — and the garden is no different. But experienced gardeners know that as they work in the garden, the garden works within them.
You don’t need a huge garden to reap the benefits. You can have a few tomatoes in pots on the porch if you want. There are four great edible plants for containers listed on page 8, pick one or two to care for this summer. Five minutes a day can do you, and the plant, a world of good.
The seed catalogs started coming in just before Christmas. By New Year’s Day, I must have got five or six of them. Seed Savers and Johnny’s Selected Seeds I used last year. The others, I have no idea where they came from, but they all arrived like brightly colored presents to unwrap.
Inside, the pages were dreams of the spring and what could be. I poured through the catalogs like a kid going through a stack of comic books and then I stopped.
Going to the trouble of requesting a paper catalog from a company with an online store, when you think about it, is insane.
Seed Savers, Johnny’s Select, Baker’s Creek and probably every other major seed company in the world all have the same selection online as in print. In fact, online tends to be better in general.
Not constrained by the limitations of physical space, online the seed companies have more to offer, more pictures, better descriptions and you can more easily comparison shop.
Plus going to a website to request a catalog is making extra work for a hobby that looks an awful lot like work to begin with, and is, in fact, actual work in most parts of the world. Part of how some people garden is to avoid a certain amount of unnecessary work. This is why a lot of people buy tillers rather than dig with a shovel, a rake and a hoe.
You go to the website, fill out the online form, the catalog arrives a couple of weeks later. Then you look through that, obsess over it, fill out the order form in the back and then send it back with a check and correct postage. Eventually, the seeds arrive.
The easier, smarter thing to do is order online, pay with a credit card and get it done -move on to the next chore.
But seed catalogs are cool. It’s something you can hold in your hands. The slick paper is reminiscent of a “quality” men’s magazine and you can take it into a public bathroom without people wondering if they should perhaps check with the cops.
Ordering from paper catalogs is also very old school and if you want to grow heirloom vegetables, what’s wrong with doing it in the same vein as your grandparents might have. Grandpa and Grandma didn’t have access to the internet. If they were starting up a little garden they bought their seeds in little packets from the feed store or else picked up a catalog.
Al Gore, Bill Gates or the aliens who crash landed in Roswell, New Mexico hadn’t invented it yet.
Gardening is a crazy hobby. It’s not a dangerous hobby (well, not intentionally anyway), but, like most hobbies, basically unnecessary.
You can get your fruits and vegetables out of the produce section, the freezer case or from the boxes and cans line up on the shelves -and as much as everyone wants to believe that growing your own vegetables saves you a ton of money, for the average gardener, it probably doesn’t.
Money you save on tomatoes or corn goes right back into water, fertilizer, tools (and clever accessories and gadgets) and of course, time spent.
The important thing, I think, is to choose to garden and that starts with your seeds. Where you get them doesn’t really matter.
I still like the paper catalogs, however, even if it seems to me I’m doing it the hard way.
“Every year is a learning year.”
That’s what my father told me halfway through my first growing season, after the deer destroyed my pole beans and insanely devoured peppers so hot they can raise a blister on human skin. He told me this after I’d cultivated an entire row of ragweed. I thought it was okra.
I’m not a very good gardener, but I love it anyway and this gardening column is a journal of my honest attempt to raise a few vegetables for fun and food. I wouldn’t take anything I write too seriously.
My father, a retired high school teacher in northern Michigan, is a serious gardener – always has been. When I was a kid, Dad converted half the back yard into a monstrous vegetable garden. He grew white corn, zuchinni, wax beans, spaghetti and butternut squash and gigantic watermelons.
I hated almost all of it. The corn was too sweet, too hairy and the wrong color. The squash looked scary and I’ve never been a fan of watermelons. (It’s OK. I understand I’m weird.)
My father gardened and I was at best a disappointing assistant. He wanted to spend his Saturday mornings prying rocks out of the ground and pressing seeds into the earth with his thumbs. I wanted to watch cartoons.
Still, I measured this experience as a kind of training in how to grow things. I thought maybe I’d picked up a few things on the way and from time to time, over the years, I dabbled. I put out a few tomato plants, planted some zucchini and when they failed to thrive, I blamed my busy schedule: a new job, a new child or a television show that had become my latest obsession.
I knew nothing.
A little over a year ago, I moved to a little place not quite out in the country, but close enough. The little house came with almost an acre of land that got plenty of light and had decent drainage. I decided I wanted to be a gardener. So I went to my local library, loaded up on books then bought a bunch of heirloom seeds.
I wanted stuff that sounded impressive or at least looked odd: Black Krim and Japanese Trifele Black tomatoes, Joe’s round peppers and eggplant that was the wrong shape and the wrong color.
I tried a lot of different things. I planted beets, carrots, spinach and red leaf lettuce at the end of February (probably too early).
The carrots were a disappointment, I didn’t plant enough beets, but the greens came out all right. I ate salads from the end of April to nearly the end of June and the lettuce was the best I’d ever had.
I grew tomatoes (too few), zucchinis and pumpkins (too many) and even managed to rally my mortally wounded ghost peppers, which returned with a vengeance.
Once they turned bright red, the deer lost interest in eating them for some reason.
I succeeded. I failed. I tried to figure out what I did right and where I went wrong.
I don’t pretend to be a very good gardener, but I’m learning, and if nothing else you can read this and laugh at the guy who knows less than you.
Every year is a learning year.
Everyone knows that our Eastern Chipmunk disappears when the cold winter winds blow. Did you ever wonder how a chipmunk’s life could be compared to those of the human race? The chipmunk hibernates during the winter months but it is not a period of continuous inactivity. Things are happening down there; below the frost line.
Our little furry friend builds a burrow system that contains food storage chambers, a bathroom chamber and a sleeping chamber. The entrance to the burrow is plugged with leaves for insulation and camouflage from passing weasels. Life goes on down there in that tiny little apartment throughout the winter.
The chipmunk’s body temperature lowers to that of the air temperature in the burrow. Usually this temperature is around 40 degrees and the little mammal begins to take long naps. Unlike the bear which stores body fat for the winter; the chipmunk awakens from time to time to consume calories from its pantry.
The chipmunk has a unique ability to raise its body temperature. Every few days it raises its body temperature to around 94 degrees; gets up, visits the bathroom chamber, snacks and goes back to sleep. If it happens to feel a warm breeze coming through the burrow; it may pop its head out of the burrow entrance and soak up a few rays from the sun. This cycle is repeated over and over throughout the winter months.
By now you are wondering how this applies to humans. I myself have no love of the winter season. I’ve had enough of it by the time the New Year rolls in. There are always those who proclaim their love of winter.
They always get me wondering; do they love the frigid temperatures, the icy roads, winds blowing the stinging icy snow pellets sideways, zero visibility, frozen fingers or seeing the antennae on their vehicle grow to the size of a shovel handle; maybe they love the thrill of sliding down the road uncontrollably, just hoping to stop.
No, they love winter; two days after the storm has passed. They love to clear blue skies that follow and the fluffy white snow. They love traveling on the clear dry roads on which over the previous two days workers have risked life and limb to clear for them. They love going to the grocery store and talking about that last storm they endured; while they watched through their picture window.
Yes, they love winter just as the chipmunk loves winter. It isn’t too bad if you’re not out there in it. The little chipmunk doesn’t have to worry about hawks, foxes or house cats or anything else; while locked in the safety of its burrow. Myself; I’m waiting on spring green and am not in any way afflicted with the chipmunk syndrome. Thinking of Spring!
Visit Randy online at highvirginiaoutdoors.blogspot.com.