Friday, June 1, 2012

Putting in the Garden, Part 1

Ahhh, the garden. Dirt under my fingernails, the smell of soil, sweat, and sunscreen, and a soreness that lasts for days. It’s a wonder that I love it as much as I do. But I do love it, the whole process, from the time I order my seeds in late winter all the way up until I harvest the final Brussels sprouts around Thanksgiving. It’s my little corner of the world that I can control, to some extent, and beautify; my playtime and therapy all rolled into one.

The key to a healthy garden is of course the soil. When I started gardening twenty years ago after we bought our house, our soil was ok: previously neglected, but not in terrible shape because the yard used to be a horse pasture. Over the years, we’ve added lots of kitchen compost as well as composted cow manure, so the soil is now wonderfully fertile and friable.

Measuring  just fifteen  by nineteen feet, my garden is not very big. Each year when I put it in, the space always feels too small, but as the season progresses I’m amazed at the amount of vegetables it produces. It’s framed on the left by an unruly perennial bed and along the back by a pergola that Chris and I built around ten years ago, using cedar from a row of spindly trees we took down on the property.

Weeping larch and climbing hydrangea grace the pergola, along with a wisteria that has never quite taken off and gives us just a few blooms each year, if we’re lucky. Last year I put in some grapevines whose vigorous stems are now charging up two of the posts. That element of surprise and defied expectations is one of my favorite aspects of gardening.

When I first started a vegetable garden, the summer after we bought our house and several years before I had children, I ambitiously grew all my plants from seed. It was heartening to watch their progress during the sleet storms of March and throughout April’s grayness. But they never had quite enough light and ended up leggy and less than robust. I didn’t want to bother with a lighting system, and as life got busier, growing my own plants was not a top priority. Besides, several nurseries nearby grew strong, lovely organic plants ready for purchase in May, offering me more options and less wasted seeds since I could choose single plants of one variety.

For the past few years, I’ve been getting my plants from New Leaf Organics, an organic nursery and farm just five minutes up the road. They have an excellent variety of healthy, carefully tended plants. We’re also a member of their CSA, so whatever produce I don’t grow on my own we’re able to enjoy by picking it up at their farmstand or at the Bristol Farmers’ Market.

This year, as usual, I planted eight different kinds of tomatoes:  a mix of big, beefy beauties, dense San Marzanos, and cherries and yellow pears. Some time ago I learned about using bamboo poles tied together at the top to train the plants on, and this method has worked well for me. As the tomatoes grow, I loosely attach their stems to the poles, keeping them off the ground and within easy access for harvesting.

I also planted a tomatillo this year, which I haven’t included for several seasons. The last time, it sprawled all over my greens and the tomatillos were abundant but small. I’m hoping that with the warm start this year they’ll grow a little larger. I love their light, tartness in a salsa, or grilling them halved or on kebab skewers.

I can never have enough basil, so I put in eight Genovese plants this year and two purple varieties.

I like having some of the small leaved Globe basil on hand as well, so I’m keeping my eye out for some of these to add. They’re hard to find in the nurseries, but their strong flavor adds pizazz to salads, plus the leaves are easy to harvest and strip from the stems, with no chopping required. Fennel, four varieties of eggplant, two of peppers, Redbor and Lacinato kale, Swiss chard, and Brussels sprouts round out the rest of the plants, representing most of my favorite vegetables.

A few seedlings came up from last year’s garden, cilantro and dill, which I scooped out and nurtured in a pot until the garden was rototilled.

About rototilling, I used to turn over my own dirt, back in my twenties when I first started a garden. I’ve always been in pretty good shape, but even when I was younger my back couldn’t withstand that kind of work. I tried it again recently after my brother in law Bob showed me an easier way, but having battled bouts of tendonitis in my elbows, I’ve now given that up for good and am very happy to have it rototilled every year. The week following my garden planting weekend I’m usually sore enough, with certain muscles that I haven’t felt since the previous summer loudly announcing their presence .

Aside from seeds, which I’ll write about next week, the other thing I planted this year is two rows of shallots.

I put them in beside the Brussels sprouts, imagining roasting the two together in the fall and their warm aroma filling the house.

I bought my shallot bulbs from the The Cook’s Garden, where I also bought all my seeds. I love shallots and use them year round more than any other kind of onion. Roasted, sautéed, or chopped fresh, they impart a subtle onion depth to whatever I add them to. I’m also a big garlic fan and have tried growing my own in the past. But planting in the fall for a harvest the following fall doesn’t work as well for my garden, since I have the whole plot tilled in the spring. Besides I have a fantastic source for fresh, organic garlic, The Last Resort Farm in Monkton, so I feel less of a need to grow my own.

Even though I’m not harvesting anything yet, aside from a sprig of fennel or a few basil or cilantro leaves, the garden is just as rewarding now as it is later in the season. Those neat, straight rows free from weeds hold so much promise of the abundance that lies ahead.


  1. That's really great learning for me, Thanks for share this post with us..

    1. Thank you. I'm glad it was helpful. Right now in Vermont the ground is hard and is covered by a light snow, so spring gardening seems far away!