Let the gardening begin

It began inauspiciously.

Every year, the Cape Cod Organic Gardeners, who patiently tolerate our presence on their roster, put in a bulk supplies offer through NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association. The order consists of several thousand pounds of soil, seed starter, compost, fertilizer, and various other supplies.

So far, just about all we’ve brought to the table as club members is a taste-test of cornbread made from chicken feed (more on that later), so we figured it was time we made a more substantial contribution. We volunteered our truck, trailer, and labor for the pick-up (which is about 30 miles off-Cape) and distribution.

We were joined in this effort by long-time club members Frank and Judy, who brought along the venerable Jean Iversen, the farmer at the helm of the CCOG.

Jean, who coaxes an astonishing amount of organic produce out of the two-thirds of an acre that is Kelly Farm, is almost 90 years old and almost five feet tall. She’s a lovely human being with a grandmotherly manner that masks a will of iron.

The five of us drove out to East Freetown and loaded the order, which almost maxed out our two trucks and one trailer. We drove it back to the Cape and unloaded it at the designated pick-up spot where CCOG members would come to claim it.

Things went smoothly, and we were early. Since Frank and Judy are getting chickens this spring and planning their coop, we took a quick run over to our house to show them ours. Jean came along.

As we were walking up the little hill to the chicken coop, we pointed out our strawberry beds, fig tree, garden, and hoophouse. Jean took it all in, and I saw a shadow of concern fall across her face.

Then, as we got to the coop, she turned back to take another look at the garden. She looked down, to see what kind of dirt was under her feet. Then she took my husband aside. “Kevin,” she said, in a tone that clearly indicated she was trying to break some bad news as gently as she could, “You don’t have very good soil here.”

Was it so very obvious?

That was the cloud under which we began our gardening in earnest today. We tilled lime, composted chicken poop, and a little greensand into the soil in the hoophouse, and planted about 80 onions in one corner. Ideally, we’d have been able to leave some time for the soil to absorb the nutrients, but we wanted to get the onions in early enough that we’d be able to re-use the spot later in the summer.

Will the amendments be metabolized by the soil in time? Or will the onions die a slow, agonizing death from malnutrition? This is what passes for drama at our house.

I also started arugula and broccoli rabe seeds in the house. Those two crops, along with a couple of kinds of kale, are what we’re planning for our hydroponic system. (The clearer it becomes that our soil is crappy, the better hydroponics are looking.) Unfortunately, there seems to have been a run on kale seeds on Cape Cod; I haven’t seen them anywhere.

Despite the Carver Coarse Sand that passes for soil around here, and Jean’s judgment of it, I go into gardening season with a sense of optimism. I don’t know that I’ll ever cease being amazed by the fact that plants – plants you can eat – grow right out of the ground.

Some of what we plant will undoubtedly die. Some will fail to thrive. We won’t get the harvest that a skilled gardener working with good material would get. But we will get more, much more, than nothing, which is what our ground would yield if we weren’t here, giving it the old college try.

Gardening is worthwhile, if for no other reason than it is impossible to put a seed in the ground without optimism.  You cover that seed with soil, give it a little water, and you can’t help but look forward to growth and life, sunshine and vegetables.

10 people are having a conversation about “Let the gardening begin

  1. I once had the life-changing experience of being able to bicycle tour through The Netherlands during spring. The bulb fields should be on everyone’s “must visit” list, they should however only do it by bicycle.

    My fabulous wife and I stopped to watch workers among rows and rows of beautiful tulips. The rows were mounded up, and made of what I would basically describe as not much past grey sand. I’ve never forgotten that thought – how do you grow such fantastic flowers in sand, especially only a few hundreds of metres from the north sea?! But it was there, right in front of my eyes. And while I might curse my clay-infested subsoil, I also know that if you’re prepared to work at it, you can fix just about anything.

    The workers were moving along the rows of firey-orange blooms pulling the petals off. I guess this was something to help the bulbs, but a bit disturbing all the same.

  2. I’m so pleased that I’m not the only one amazed that you plant things in the soil, and a few weeks later there is a plant there, a fully grown plant mind you, and why its full of tomatoes and you can eat them! Eat them I tell you! It never fails to amaze me (I think I am too easily amazed but I take it as a good thing).

  3. I’m reading about a couple of tricks that may help your gardening cause. One is called ‘fertigation’ and it was coined by Steve Solomon, who is the guy who started Territorial Seed, and has written a couple of books. The short version: use a five gallon bucket with a hole drilled on the side down at the bottom of the bucket. Use a manure or compost tea, or even urine. On sandy soil, do 2.5 gals every ten days. Fish emulsion can also be used a 1:100 ratio to water. Fertigation is what I’ll be using on my Brussels sprouts and cabbage this summer, which are heavy feeders and which I’ll be growing in unimproved clay soil, which is crap. Actually, crap would be better than the soil I have. Solomon also recommends foliar feeding, which you spray on the leaves of your plants (not sure I’d do this with lettuces though) using a mixture of fish emulsion and kelp tea, sprayed once a week. He also noted that for stressed plants, the Indians have discovered that a 50/50 mix of cola and water helps, which he surmised is a good source of phosphorous and sugar. Foliar feeds need to be filtered beforehand so they don’t clog your sprayer. And then from my archives, there’s always a nettle purin, which is a fermentation of nettles in rainwater. (Chlorine will prevent fermentation.) Purins have to be diluted, and the first source I encountered said that you can either drench plants, or dilute it further and foliar spray it on them; in either case, the purin does wonders for fighting stuff off, including insects, because it strengthens plants so well. See instructions (in English!) here: http://www.frenchgardening.com/tech.html?pid=309088884143 Everything I’ve read about nettle (or comfrey, which is a another good fertilizer herb) purins is that they stink to high heaven, so you’ve been warned.

    The other thing I was thinking of by way of an experiment to improve your soil (as opposed to fertilizing the hell out of your plants) is to buy some clay, make a slip, and try pouring it into your soil and turning it in. Just an experiment to see if adding clay can help.

    Good luck with this year’s garden.

  4. Margaret Fisher says:

    Tamar, for 50 years I have never failed to feel the soul of the land work it’s way into my being every spring. The miracle of a tiny seed growing into something beautiful and useful has never left me. I am busy planning and gathering those elements that will make this year’s garden. My plot in the community garden has no soil – it, like all the rest, has been emptied and is awaiting new soil, a result of the very poor growth in all plots last year, the first year of the garden. But my new 5′ tall cloche is ready to go when soil is brought in. Our spring frosts are wicked here. The growing year may be good or bad, the replacement soil may be beautifully amended or not, and the garden-robbing critters here in our neighborhood may lay waste to the plots, but no matter. Spring brings warm earth and longer days, and new life, and hope.

  5. Kingsley — The world is full of encouraging stories of people who turned sand or clay into something in which something else will grow. I’m taking your tulips to heart.

    Javier — I wish your blog were in English so I could understand it. You summed up my feelings precisely — and I think it is indeed a good thing to be easily amazed. You get a great deal out of life that way, and so what if you feel like an idiot every now and then.

    Paula — Damn are you full of interesting tidbits. While I don’t have nettle or comfrey, I certainly have compost and urine! Now that we’ve amended the hoophouse, we’ll see how that goes, but we’ll need other strategies for the main garden. We’re figuring out how we want to do hydroponics — essentially fertigation — and so we may be going in big for that technique.

    Margaret — I know it’s a cliche, but I just can’t help myself. It’s a miracle every time. Good luck with your plot!

  6. Yes, the satisfaction of the first sprout is great. Our garden is located in a clay field and we are getting some sand to till into it along with other organics to help break it up. LMK if you try the slip suggestion by Paula and it works – we can trade dirt! 😀

    • I’ve also been trying to build up my sandy Cape Cod soil with compost and horse manure. While working in the garden this year I’ve noticed a huge increase in vole/mole activity. They’ve dug little burrows under the raised beds and every once in a while I’ll find one dead on the grass near the garden.

      I’d like to get rid of them. I read somewhere that a wooden box with a hole in the corner and mouse traps inside should be placed near their holes. You bait the traps with fruit pieces.

      Has anyone had success trapping them?

  7. Handful — Frustrating to know that my sand and your clay, if we could combine them, would make better soil than either of us has!

    Rick — I think a lot of people feel that way about Jean. She makes us all want to be better gardeners. Better people, even.

    Dave — I’m not sure I would know a vole from a mole without extensive Googling. But I haven’t found anything that resembles either, so I’m going to assume I don’t have that problem. (Hooray! A problem I don’t have!) If I did, though, I’d definitely try the trapping trick — what do you ahve to lose except a few fruit pieces?

  8. My husband has a job offer in NH and it just occured to me that soil type is an important question for me to ask before committing!

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