I’ve loved gardening from the time I was old enough to watch my father work in his garden. On a warm spring afternoon, nothing compared to spending time with him in the garden. I recall running around barefooted to feel the cold earth between my small toes.
When my playful ways unintentionally messed up the rows, my father often handed me the trivial duty of mounding up “hills” to plant watermelons. This call-to-action was a fairly simple task for a young boy; however, I was thrilled for the opportunity. With the handle of a garden hoe swaying above my head, I mounded each hill with diligence. My ultimate goal was to please my father and show him I was big enough to help him, but, even at a young age, I knew a reward for my labor would come in months.
On a hot summer afternoon, my father sliced into a ripe melon with his pocket knife as I knelt beside to taste the actual fruit of our labor. He cut sections out of the chosen watermelon’s heart for us to sample. These childhood memories are partly why I enjoy gardening so today.
Of course, now, as an adult, I can better understand my father’s passion for getting his hands dirty and, after long work days, spending his evenings arranging parallel rows and proudly bringing home his harvest. I always was amazed at how my father preferred working in his garden over a comfortable recliner. His line of work as a diesel mechanic certainly warranted him relaxation after a hard workday, but, to him, gardening offered comfort. Perhaps it was a comfort more suiting to his mind and spirit than his body, but he never was the type to sit still. Fortunately, his tendencies were passed to me, and today I grasp his appreciation for gardening.
Now, here at Beane Farm, I’m more limited in garden space than the expansive flat and fertile ground of my childhood. I live just south of the Mississippi Delta where the Loess bluffs along the Mississippi River create an almost mountainous terrain, minus the rocks. The wind-deposited soils of the hills lack the fertility of the nutrient-rich Delta soils, and I lack a suitable flat spot for my garden. So, I’ve settled for a smaller garden and work a little harder to amend my soils. In addition, the complexities are compounded by having 70 chickens running around and more deer per square mile than anywhere I’ve lived, I’ve had to exclude both from my garden. I’ll admit to keeping the deer herd thinned out with my archery equipment when hunting season permits; however, the attraction of a green, lush garden space to whitetail deer is undeniable and will attract them from miles around. To battle that demon, I use an electric fence to keep them at bay.
To tackle the poultry concern, I use black plastic netting inside my electric fence to keep chickens from invading and eating my young plants. From time to time, I let a few chickens in the garden to thin out bug densities, particularly pesky aphids, but only after the plants are hearty enough to endure chickens in the rows. And now that Beane Farm is raising heritage pigs, I can barely contain the excitement of feeding them weeds and scrap produce from the garden that normally would go to the compost heap.
For me, backyard gardening requires two tricks. The first is to create deeply tilled soils. I force my tiller to pull its weight. Once the ground is well broken up, I amend my less-than-ideal garden soils with composted soils — created primarily from yard waste and kitchen scraps — to improve the organic content. In addition to compost, I supplement dried chicken manure as it’s readily available and is an excellent fertilizer. Both compost and manure are tilled into the soil each spring.
The second trick is to create deep and wide rows (up to 1 foot deep and 3 feet wide) instead of the single rows most gardeners use. The purpose of deep and wide rows is to ensure ample room for root development of plantings, and, more importantly, to grow more plants. Incorporating wide rows has made me more efficient at gardening in my limited space, planting more per unit area — less weeding and watering.
In my first two years of gardening, I used traditionally spaced rows, and, now that I’ve started using the wide-row method, I’ll never go back. The only vegetable I grow using traditional narrow rows is corn — due to the tall, spreading growth-form and the outcompeting of other garden plants. For all other vegetables, I use 3-foot-wide rows and leave about a foot for walking space. I can reach every part of the wider rows when weeding and can fit more plants in each row by staggering them. For example, I stagger squash and zucchini plants along the center of one of my wide rows, placing shorter statured and smaller plants, such as greens, onions, broccoli or carrots, along the perimeter. The possibilities are endless. Part of the fun is figuring out where to place what vegetables for maximum yield and cohesiveness with everything else growing around it.
Regardless of space — a few containerized tomato and pepper plants or a small spot for a raised bed garden or even a large area to try out wide-row gardening — I just say grow something. Gardening is a fun adventure, and I believe it’s a practice that’s good for the soul. It definitely provides a sense of pride and excitement to bite into garden-fresh, homegrown produce.
Before you know it, you’ll be as carried away as I am; growing your own herbs for tea, grilling fresh squash and zucchini and canning greens and beans for winter. One of my favorite garden products each year is salsa. I grow onions and garlic year-round, and each late summer, as tomatoes ripen and jalapenos are ready for picking, so begins the salsa-making. The only product added that doesn’t derive directly from the garden is a can of tomato paste, which thickens the salsa to a consistency I prefer over typical fresh garden salsa. All the ingredients are blended and added to a large pot to be heated. Periodic taste-testing and additions of spice and onion or garlic help reach that perfect taste.
For questions about how to start your own gardening journey, email me at [email protected] Life’s a garden. Dig it!