by Judy Spiers
My husband and I originally planned to grow three things in our garden this year: spuds, beans and squash. But we’re having trouble getting started.
Part of our reluctance is that last year at this time, we had already planted out potatoes. However, the spring was so wet they rotted. Our tomatoes didn’t fare much better either, with that historic cold, wet spring.
But we’d had a bumper crop of tomatoes the year before, which we hung inside the house and had fresh tomatoes until December.
Hope is perennial: we’re trying again.
Yes, there are hearty souls who started all their vegetables inside months ago. Not us. We didn’t get going until this yellow-bellied sap sucker came around searching for the best “drum” he could find.
I’m not sure if this bird is the same one that came to our previous home each spring to rap-rap-rap on the stove pipe from our fireplace. All I know is that he woke us recently one morning rapping on our downspout. We aptly dubbed him “Rapper.” After that he toured the neighborhood testing a wide range of “drums” before settling on the satellite dish atop our neighbor’s house. His calls for a mate put us on notice that it was time to start what we call “yardening,” which includes not just gardening but dealing with the maintenance of the whole yard.
In January, we had ten towering fir trees removed from our back yard, and although the men who cut them down cleaned much of the debris, we were totally disheartened by the mess that was left. Even though we’re fully retired and could have started right away, my husband and I could only trudge over to the sliding glass door, take one look at the yard, and without speaking, return to our rocking chairs and the latest books we’d been reading.
But that changed once Rapper came.
Once we got going, we had to be fast if we wanted to work in the sunshine. We placed our shoes, jackets and pruners on the floor right next to the sliding glass door so we could race to the yard before the sun disappeared again.
Surprisingly, we’ve found that our motivation and enthusiasm grows as we make more decisions.
Having fir trees meant previously we could grow nothing but shade plants and flowers. Now, however, with our yard now open to the sun we can grow our own food. We can become more self-reliant.
Still, we had no illusions about being able to do full-scale gardening this year, since, when our neighborhood was developed every handful of top soil was removed. What’s left is about fifty-percent rock with the remainder in sand and clay. Over the past two years we’ve brought in truck loads of topsoil, and we have a good-sized compost bin, but it’s not enough to change the composition of the entire yard overnight.
Nevertheless, we are persevering.
Our back yard fence is at the crest of a hill. Our garden starts there and is terraced with two tiers of concrete block retaining walls, and we planted a row of blueberries along the fence.
When the trees were taken out, the branches were run through a huge grinder to produce a coarse mulch, which we’ve used around the blueberries to keep the weeds down. It works really well to cover the garden walkways, too. No more muddy shoes!
Also, the chain saws left sawdust on our lawn, which was killing the grass. We raked up what we could and are using that also for the walkways, and around our strawberries.
As for strawberries, we want them in our garden but they’re invasive and need to be controlled. As a result, we decided to plant them in the fish pond our daughter gave us a couple years back, which we couldn’t use because of all the dropping needles and cones from the fir trees. The pond was two-tiered, so Mark got out his saws-all and cut them in two. He used a pick bar to carve space in the rock and clay, and set the two halves of the pond in the ground.
We filled them with soil we’d bought from a organic gardener in Eatonville, Requel Roos, and planted the strawberries in them. The ponds are kidney-shaped, and in the triangles around them we replaced bad soil with good. We’ll also do some intensive gardening in these areas using multi-colored carrots—just for fun—and radishes. So, as you can see, we’re at least as enamored with aesthetics as we are with growing the food.
We don’t have a greenhouse to nurse our tomatoes along, but we thought it would be a great idea to plant them against one of the retaining walls as soon as the frosts pass. But then we got to thinking about how much the slugs like hiding between the blocks, and decided to plant our Walla Walla onions there instead. A little Internet research indicated slugs love tomatoes and hate onions, so that should be a good move on our part.
For the onions, we dug a one-foot trench, put in top soil mixed with a special potting mixture, along with some Sound Grow slow-release pellets that Pierce County makes from composting materials at the dump. We finished the preparations just as an enormous black cloud appeared right above us, and we stuck the onions in the ground as hail pelted our heads and backs. Ah, the ground was warmer than the air and emitted a rich, earthy fragrance.
As for the tomatoes, we decided to go with huge, black plastic landscaping tubs. We set them on the highest tier of our garden among the blueberries. The black color attracts heat, and having the tubs above ground means the soil gets heated, too.
A couple years ago, we put shavings in the bottoms of the tubs to make them lighter and to reduce how much potting soil we’d have to buy. We were amazed in the fall when we dug the plants out to discover the tomatoes had converted the shavings into beautiful, organic soil, which the worms love. We know from experience, now, that the tubs will make weeding all but unnecessary, and we have some old mesh-wire fencing we’re going to recycle for tomato supports.
After starting with just four tomato plants, we learned about heirloom “Delicious” tomatoes, so, now, we have eight.
I started seed for Giant Sunflowers yesterday, which we hope to use for feeding the birds. Over the four months of deep winter, they ate 120 pounds of seed – the stellar jays love them. But the real event is when the evening grossbeaks show up here for a few weeks in the spring during their northern migration. One day last year, I counted fourteen of them at our feeder. Their need to refuel gives them voracious appetites, which makes us think it’s at least worth trying to grow some sunflowers.
I’ve heard the term “gentlemen farmers” before, which refers to those who aren’t really getting into the sweat and dirt of genuine farm life. I grew up on a farm where perspiration went naturally with growing food for a family of eight. So, I guess that means that our “beginners’ garden for two” makes us “gentlemen gardeners.”
Even so, our intentions to start with beans, potatoes and squash fell behind our emerging ambitions to raise other things, too: raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and rhubarb; along with cauliflower, garlic and onions, and tomatoes, of course. We also want Swiss chard, spinach and lettuce.
We won’t have a lot of any one thing, but by trying a little of many things this year will give us experience. I guess if we end up with more vegetables than garden space, well, we do have a big lawn we could convert, if, that is, I can get used to going out in public with dirt under my fingernails.
Actually, that concern is fading. At first, when we’d go to the store I’d apologetically explain that we’d just come straight from working in the garden. But it seems everyone I talk to is growing a garden this year. It’s like being a member of a special club, though not one of us ever attended a meeting. Everybody wants to talk about their gardens. With tomatoes crossing the $3.50 a pound mark, a lot of us are raising our own food in an effort to get off the grocery-store-produce-grid.
My dad grew up in the Great Depression and lived to 80. He never went one year without raising a garden – even when he worked all week in Oregon and drove home to Shelton to take care of it. As we plant more things in the ground, I hear his voice over my shoulder saying, “So long as this family has land where we can grow our own food, this family will never go hungry.”
It’s a very pleasant memory.
© 2011 Judy Spiers
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Great article Judy. I liked the informative examples and especially the idea about onions along the wall and tomatoes in large pots. Good ideas.
You might look into how to replenish your soil. A book I just read: “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades,” by Steve Solomon….available at Amazon. It is very informative about the soil in this area and the need to balance it due to all the rain we get. Keep the info coming. Thanks
Thanks for the praise! And for the tip on the book. I’ll have to look into that one.
Oh, how I remember the days of gardening!! As a stay at home mom with 6 children, gardens were a must, along with raising our beef, chickens (somtimes) plus ponies for the kids to ride and 4H participations. Our garden plot was fenced as we purchased two weiner pigs each year when the garden was finished. Those little buggers ate all the leavings plus plowed up and fertilized the ground for next years crop. They tasted good too, all grown up and in the freezer. One year we had volunteer tomatoes all over our back yard, I wondered how they got there. Birds maybe?? One tomato vine was over 6 feet tall. I canned 118 quarts of green beans that year and didn’t like green beans for years after that. I even canned zuchinni as we couldn’t eat them all or give them all away. They actually turned out pretty good, at least the kids ate them with tomatos and oinions added. We always pulled the tomato vines up in the fall and hung them in the shed. We had tomatos for several months as they gradually ripened. We grew red potatos and one year they lasted almost until the next garden was planted.
Now we have deer roaming around eating any good tasting flowers we are follish enough to put in the ground. The kids are all gone, of course, but one daughter in law brings me sqash and tomatos. We are retired from vedgetable gardening but love the Farmer’s Markets and Tacoma Boys!
I’m still trying to figure out how this comment section works. I think if I hit the “Reply” button on you comment, my comments will attach to yours. Wow! It seems to me that this could be a discussion forum.
Anyway, your recollections bring back wonderful memories of living on the farm. So many people I talk with have this largess of experiences to share while the newer generations have had little or no experience with farming, gardening, canning and the rest. Let’s hope more people will jump in here and share their experiences, too. I loved the part about the piglings. Thanks for sharing.
Lovely article to see first thing this morning, MUCH more refreshing than the usual mayhem that clutters the screen..thank you Judy, Paula and Claudia…just great! The one other thing I might add is that the long range forecast I found said it will be a drier, cooler summer than usual, which has me wondering if I want to grow food that takes forever to ripen, tomatoes etc……And of course I too can relate to all the issues around the soil in these parts . I think I am going to go with containers for the most part this year then at least I have some flexibility and can move them around/cover easily, if need be
On the ‘up’ side, maybe I can have peas all summer if it’s cooler and of course lots of lettuce and spinach which will take longer to “bolt”. One of the ways I have been successful with potatoes, is to grow them in mounds and keep building on the mound as the new growth emerges. This eliminates the ‘rot’ factor since it allows adequate drainage regardless of the elements and of course makes harvesting a breeze since there is very little digging involved..helps save my back too!
I don’t see your last name here, so I don’t know if you’re a Wendy I already know or not. No matter.
I hadn’t heard that it’s supposed to be cooler this summer. Maybe it’s not too late to plant some peas. We thought the pots would work great for our tomatoes because we have no idea where the shade from fences and walls will fall before the sun starts heading the other direction again. We want to be able to move ours around, too.
And thanks for the tip on mounding potatoes. And I love the idea that it makes harvesting easy.
Has anyone else got any good tips to offer? This is a great place to share.
Thanks for the praise! And thanks, too, for the tip on the book. I’ll have to look into that one.