Tuesday, June 12, 2012

you have to start somewhere

Myself and two other volunteers checking out the site of the future community garden last september

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Beginning gardening, like beginning anything is never easy.  Not because gardening is so difficult, but because beginning something new is difficult.

There are a lot of people beginning gardening right now- and a lot of bad advice on how to do it.  There's a book that apparently claims that the cost to produce a tomato in your home garden is $64.  I haven't read it, mostly because I don't have time to read things that I really want to read and am not going to waste my time on that sort of crap.  I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn't cost anywhere near $64 to grow a tomato in my yard, and probably shouldn't in yours either.

another prospective site- but not the one
I can tell you that starting a community garden is difficult, and also that I had no idea what was involved in doing so would involve one year ago.  I started the project because I thought there was a need- but had no idea what sort of effort it would require.  I had no idea that we'd be dealing with cancer in the family over that year and no idea what sort of obstacles would be thrown in our way by people who are ostensibly public servants.

The good news is that we got the green light- in the middle of last week- from the powers that be to grow our tomatoes on land owned- ostensibly- by the people of Minnesota.  It took two weeks of wrangling and clearing of bureaucratic roadblocks- past the time when they verbally agreed to let use garden- to get to that point.  Being people, and also Minnesotans, I never would have thought it would be so difficult to get permission to use our land.  But it was.

And the fight may not  even be over.  They've left the door open, so we'll see what comes through it.

Regardless, we had a work day (or days) this last weekend, and the change was amazing.  The lot went from a bleak patch of grass to a real garden, with wood chip paths, piles of compost and running water in two days.  It was amazing to see what a couple dozen determined gardeners were able to do, even in extremely hot (*for early June, in Minnesota) weather.

Here is a video of what was accomplished in two frenetic days. I will post pictures soon. 

I went out to work my own plot this evening (forgetting to bring the camera) after spending long days Saturday and Sunday organizing the volunteer work, tilling plots and installing the water distribution system.  It was good to start working my own plot with a digging fork and a rake- but difficult.  Someone had given the top layer of one half a shallow till, so I was able to get most of the grass out quickly.   I was only able to work the soil down 3 to 5 inches, and it seemed to be an almost impenetrable hardpan below that.  Some gardeners have gotten deeper with repeated tilling, but I didn't have that at my disposal this evening, so on the lightly tilled half I did what I could with what I had.

That gave me an idea for an experiment- which will be the subject of a later post.

That's not what I want to get at this week though.  I want to talk about the mechanics of turning the ground and getting food out of it- whether it be in a community garden, a backyard, or a random vacant lot.  I've had a lot of people ask me about how to get started gardening, and thought I'd just write a little bit about it- and how simple it really can be- and how unnecessary it is to spend $64 growing a tomato.

'sparkle' strawberries
Really, all you need is land, water, seeds, and some tools to make the three work together 

Let's look at the elements in order:

I could say that anything works, and it'd be partially true.  Land can be a backyard, a roof with some planters, an apartment deck, or an abandoned lot grown up with weeds.    What makes up the land- soil -is an incredibly complex thing, that I continue to learn more about and which becomes more fascinating the more I learn.  It's also easy to become intimidated by books which claim that your soil must have just the right pH, amount of organic matter, parent material or whatever.  Wrong.  Most soil will grow plants.  If it grows grass or weeds, it will most likely grow other green things which can become food for you.

The key thing to know, with any piece of land, is what kind of soil you are starting with.  Testing the soil is key- and is kind of a difficult thing to get around to if you've never done it.  Fortunately, the process is cheap and fairly easy, at least if you live in Minnesota, and similar soil labs exist in other states with land-grant universities.

This link will take you to the U of M soil lab, where a basic soil test that tells you the pH of the soil (the level of acidity or alkalinity) texture of the soil, and levels of the three most important nutrients will cost you $15.  A salt or lead test will cost $10 or $15 extra each.  They'll give you recommendations on how much chemical fertilizer to use, which you can feel free to ignore, but which will give you an idea of what nutrients your soil is most in need of.  The work you need to do consists of gathering a few handfuls of dirt from the top few inches of your future garden in a bag and mailing it to the soil lab.  Not hard work, but very few people actually get around to doing it.

 Rain is water, and in most places will fall in amounts great enough to grow most or all vegetables and fruits, but a little help may be required to direct it to where it's needed most, then keep it there, near the roots of the plants.

The best way that I've found is to incorporate a lot of compost and other organic matter into the soil to hold the water where it's needed- near the roots of the plants.  Organic matter adds volume to the soil and acts as a sponge that absorbs water during rainfall or watering and re-releases it slowly.  It's much better than the synthetic gelatinous stuff that you can pay a lot of money for to do the same thing.

new compost bin under construction, old one in the background
You can also install a rain barrel to capture rain water off of your roof, and save it for watering your garden later.  I've had some success with a rain barrel, but find that it does take some management to keep the mosquitoes out, and the water used up before the next rain comes.

Of course, you can spray drinking water all over your garden too- and I do that as well- sometimes in July and August when the sky is being awfully generous with sun but not quite so much with the moisture.

If you've read any previous posts, you know I'm a big fan of Fedco seeds of Maine, not because they send me payola (I should be so fortunate) but because they're a good company- a co-op of growers, mostly organic, never GMO, that don't treat their seeds with fungicides and reasonably priced.  What's not to like?

I guess I should stop talking about them too much because they're starting to be sold out of the seed I really like- like Piracicaba broccoli. 

The truth is, however, that you can get good seeds just about anywhere.  The seeds at the hardware store or the depot of homes will grow just as well.  I've picked up seeds from the hardware store when I can't get what I need from Fedco or some others I order from.  Of course, the morels that used to pop up in our yard have also gone away.  An effect of the fungicide on the hardware store seeds?  I can suspect it, but not prove it, so that remains unknown.  Most people don't have morels in their yard, so it's not an issue.  But the mycelial networks that help plants grow and survive drought are also fungi and sensitive to fungicide.  So plant what seeds you have- but plant the ones without fungicide if you can.

As far as what to plant- plant what you like to eat!  I personally also like to plant the things that are expensive to buy at the grocery store.  Basil is incredibly expensive - $3-$4 per ounce in the winter, but if I sow it in a sunny spot in the garden I'll have pounds of it, more than I know what to do with in August.  It feels like an unbelievable luxury to throw it in everything we eat in September, and the pesto we make from it can be frozen then thawed out for some fresh garden flavor in January.

the backyard veggie plot- now with leaf mulch!
In our household, we eat a lot of south Asian vegetables, as Gita is from Nepal, and likes a lot of veggies that are hard to find in most grocery stores here.  Daikon radish, yellow cucumbers, sacred basil, bitter melon and fava beans all make it into our garden.    Of course we grow tomatoes too, and peas, carrots, spinach and other greens that are common to both our cultures.  We plant what we eat and it makes the garden more interesting.

Of course, if you have the space, and are able to commit to using the space for more than a season, planting fruit trees, or plants like strawberries, rhubarb or asparagus is definitely worth the while, but if you're truly just starting, I'd try to master the annual plants first and work up to it.

A good shovel, not too heavy, with a wooden handle and a strong blade is worth its weight in gold.  If the food stops showing up on the grocery shelves, as it did in the last days of the Soviet Union, your shovel will be worth many of the krugerrands hidden in the mattresses of the paranoid.

I have a shovel that I've owned for about 12 or 13 years now- with a handle worn smooth and polished by hard work, and a blade that's rusty and worn, but still sharp.  It's one of the possessions I've had the longest.  I bought it when I didn't have much money to spare, and I thought about it a lot while in the hardware store- should I buy the better quality Ames shovel, or the cheaper one?  I bought the good one.  I now have another, newer heavier shovel in the garage for digging up rocks and other dirty jobs, but the old shovel is always the one I reach for first.

So a good quality shovel is worthwhile, and not so expensive in the grand scheme of things.  A garden rake, a set of pruners, and maybe a hoe is all the other equipment you'll really need.  In my garage I have a bow saw, pickaxe, digging fork and lopper, all of which are useful, but not absolute necessities.

There's more to gardening that that, of course, but that's the sort of thing that you learn by doing, not by reading about $64 tomatoes.   Starting is the most important part.  Everything else will flow from that.


  1. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and ideas. I also started gardening from this year. I have to tell, it feels very good.

  2. Great post! Sort of a primer for those balancing on the edge, ready to dive in, but not quite sure.

    As to having land: I do not own my own dirt and the landlord is not cool with me digging up the lawn he has someone else meticulously tend, so I container garden - which is fun, but not all that productive of most things aside from some lettuce, a few radishes, a number of tomatoes and, yes, lots of basil.

    So I volunteer a few hours per week at a local community garden that provides fresh produce to a food bank. Gets my hands dirty (I'm the compost guy), works my body a bit and I get to partake of any surplus after harvest for the good cause. Couldn't be better!

  3. $64 tomatoes sounds like propaganda concocted in some marketeering house on contract to Cargill, Archers Daniel Midland or Monsanto, by some hipster who never got dirt under his fingernails. As to tools, I would feel lost without my garden fork.

  4. Nice work, by the way. A great service to the community.

  5. I've thumbed through "The $64 Tomato", it's a quite amusing narrative. It's really more about the folly of following conventional gardening experts and all the advice the glossy marketing brochures offer.

    I wish I could remember who gave the advice for starting a landscaping business: "First buy a wheelbarrow and a shovel. Everything else, buy out of the profits of your previous jobs." Martin, I think container gardening is an excellent way to start, and kudos on volunteering at a local community garden.

  6. Anonymous- thanks for the encouragement! And keep gardening!

    Martin- good for you for gardening where space is available. Herbs can do really well in containers, but vegetables not so much, so I'd put more energy into herbs. If you are in the Twin Cities, get on the Merriam Station waitlist for next year. We will be adding expansion plots.

    Hunter- I like the garden fork too- but the shovel is like an old friend. I had to break up a lot of hardpan at my plot at the Merriam Station Garden and even though it was the best tool for the job, it just somehow felt wrong. I used it anyway, but the next time I went out, it was with the old shovel.

    John and Hunter- I guess that's what I get for panning a book I didn't actually read. Maybe I'm agreeing with "The 64 Dollar Tomato" more than disagreeing. I guess I'm reacting more to the TV and radio 'experts' that try to make gardening seem more complex than it really is in order to sell dubious products and make themselves look good. I think they turn more people away from gardening than they turn on to it. I hope to do the opposite, and I think both of you are as well.