If I drive about five minutes from my house, there is rolling farmland as far as I can see. It never ends. In the summer months, this fertile land is chock-full of all kinds of edible produce, and it’s not at all uncommon to drive these roads behind a tractor or a lumbering disc tiller. It really is an amazing thing to see, however; my house wasn’t built on such fertile land. That is, unless it was used to farm rocks.
We built our house on layers of red clay and shale, the combination of which is so hard; raindrops bounce off of it with a slight pinging sound. Puddles will lie around for days before they eventually give up and evaporate simply because it takes less effort than being absorbed. Even back in the day, I can’t imagine any farmer having an easy go of tilling the hectares of land that sits underneath our neighborhood. In fact, there is still a boundary fence made of stacked rocks, two feet high and just as thick that starts at my neighbor’s yard, crosses into mine and goes on for miles, a stubborn testament to just how many rocks these farmers dug up. In spite of all this, this could finally be the year I plant a garden.
Even though I know better, I still want to coax edible food out of soil that is so bad, it has forced grass to relocate and grow out of the cracks in the driveway. That’s not to say that my wife and I haven’t planted lots of stuff, but if we had to live off of what we have growing in our yard, they’d find our emaciated bodies next to a clump of hostas, arms outstretched, right where we fought to the end with a group of rowdy slugs for the last green leaf.
The bulk of our yard is stocked with shrubs, pine trees, trees that aren’t pine trees, decorative grasses, flowers, garden gnomes and a two-foot replica of one of those stone heads that’s on Easter Island. I’m still not too sure what the neighbor’s kids think about that stone head. At some point in their future, they’ll probably unhinge a repressed memory of our glowering moai and will either smile nostalgically or curl up into a whimpering ball.
My renewed interest in the idea of a vegetable garden was kick-started last summer when we suddenly had actual food growing on our property. Our once spindly raspberry bushes spread like dandelions and were unexpectedly yielding more berries than we could eat, and our two potted tomato plants were producing plum tomatoes from Memorial Day until Halloween. This got me thinking that even with the lousy soil and the rocks, it couldn’t be all that difficult to grow a few more things.
We already have a fenced-in area that we used for our previous dog that could easily hold a decent sized garden and as a bonus; the fence would keep the deer at bay. It’s on the west side, so it gets lots of sun and there is a hose nearby for easy watering. It’s right off the side of the house, near the kitchen and between two different doors, so the area is close to perfect except for the soil and the drainage, and that problem could be fixed with some topsoil.
Anything that we’ve planted here that is actually growing without audible groans is only doing so because we brought in tons of topsoil when we built the house. And I mean actual tons. For those of you unfamiliar with the various types of dirt, here’s a good rule of thumb: It’s not called dirt if you pay for it. If I were to actually plant a garden, it would involve many more tons of topsoil. This is something that is measured in yards as in, “Hello, is this Dave’s Soil Emporium? I’d like to have many, many yards of topsoil dumped in my driveway so that I might shovel it into a wheelbarrow and trundle it around my property like a nineteenth century coal miner. I’ll just leave my wallet on the front step, so help yourself.”
A yard of topsoil is nothing. Oh sure, it looks like a decent pile in the driveway, but once it’s spread out, it vanishes. If you think you need one yard, you’d better get twenty. By my math, each cucumber will cost about twenty-seven dollars once I get the topsoil, some timbers to make the raised beds, pipes to facilitate drainage, actual seeds and plants, and little tags to remind me what I planted.
Another problem is that I have no idea at all on how to gauge produce quantity. We had so many tomatoes last year that I was putting them in my oatmeal, and I don’t want to go through that with beans or whatever else we decide to grow. If I buy a basket of tomatoes, I know how many there are in the basket, but how do I know how many one plant will yield?
I’m also a little concerned about the location, since it is on the side yard, in full view of any wandering passersby. I’m not sure if I’m that confident in my ability to grow a tidy series of pole beans and while I don’t think my neighbors would be that judgmental, I like to keep things neat. Our backyard, which is traditionally where gardens go, is not only thick with trees and far too shady, but it’s also on an express route for deer. I can often see them commuting off to work at the chew factory, coffee in hand, with a newspaper tucked under their arm. An unprotected garden anywhere near the backyard would be a disaster. I may as well put out trays and a condiment bar and hang an “All You Can Eat Buffet” sign overhead.
That’s why this fenced-in area will be perfect, so with some careful planning, preparation and maintenance, it should be a productive garden and not at all unattractive. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this will be the year I pull the trigger on this project. It’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do.
My parents grew corn and tomatoes, beans and peas, and a few other vegetables, plus berries and fruit in the sandy loam of our backyard, and this wasn’t at all unusual in the 1960s. Everybody had a garden back then. I remember being asked to go out and pick something to go with dinner, and then sitting in an aluminum lawn chair, splitting the pea pods, and sliding the peas into a bowl with my thumb. Maybe a part of me just wants to recreate that feeling in my own yard. You know, hitch up the overalls and go out and harvest a bell pepper for a salad, or pick some beans or maybe a tomato.
I’m also at a point in my life where I want to know what I’m eating. We try to buy organic produce whenever we can and that can get expensive, but let’s be honest about non-organic produce for a second:
As a child of the 1960s, I’m convinced that I’m already at least eighty-five percent chemicals. Heck, the way they spewed things around when we were young, I’m lucky my daughter doesn’t have twelve fingers and a third eye hovering up over her forehead, but I’m more aware now. If somebody asked me if I’d prefer a plain apple or one that has been sprayed with paraquat, kasugamycin, carbamates, pyrethroids, chlorpyrifosthen or glyphosate and then coated with shellac to seal it all in, I’d gladly pay an extra fifteen cents for the plain one. I don’t really care if it shines like a glossy, dent-proof Red Delicious, which is, ironically, not at all delicious. Well, the same thinking applies to my peas and if I can grow these things in my own yard without dousing them with science, why not give it a shot?
So that’s the plan anyway, much to the consternation of my wife. She thinks I’m nuts, and she’s probably right. We already have our daughter’s wedding later this summer and—oh yeah—our eight-year old septic system needs a major repair about twenty years early. That’s going to be a nightmare.
We started to notice problems with that last year, so we had somebody who thinks nothing of crawling around in a leach field as if it’s Hawaiian beach sand, dig some holes and poke around. It seems that the clay soil hardened into pottery and clogged most of the holes in the fancy-schmancy infiltrator chambers, which took almost all of the leach out of leach field. So now the front yard needs to be ripped up, cleaned out, re-piped, re-sanded, filled in and then reseeded. Growing sugar snap peas should be the last thing on my mind, but what can I say? The soil is calling me and as soon as the snow melts and the ground thaws, I’m going to start building the beds. Wish me luck.
This is what the garden area looked like from the kitchen window the morning of March 30, 2014, after twelve inches of wet, thick snow had fallen overnight. Maybe this is where the name “snow peas” came from.
©Rick Garvia 2014. This column and is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited.