“Mended by Soil” an essay in several parts

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“Everything is mended by the soil.”
― Andrew Crofts, Secrets of the Italian Gardener

Spring Garden I

This weekend I planted the first stage of my spring garden. February 22, 2014, a record early date for me, and a bold challenge to the remainder of winter. Saturday was a lovely day, with clear blue skies and a shirtsleeve 70 degrees. I met my new friends, Bobbi and Ervin, both in their seventies, at the community garden behind our church. Last year at this time the garden was a grown-over field and a vision, and now it’s fenced, divided into approximately seventy 4’ by 20’ plots, and it’s ready to deliver a second year of vegetables and fruit. Bobbi and Ervin and I spent the morning trundling wheelbarrows of mulch over the garden paths, digging out saw-briars, and planting Irish potatoes. When I finished there, I went home and spread horse manure over my backyard garden, mulched and turned the bed, and planted Bibb lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.

Last summer, my garden flourished, blessed by abundant rain and cooler than average temperatures. The year before, though, my gardening-spirit had been broken by depleted soil, drought, and day after day of temperatures that regularly hit 104, 105, sometimes higher. My tomato plants were spindly and stunted, the leaves yellow and diseased looking, burned by the sun, and the few tomatoes that did grow out of the blossoms rotted on the vine before they could put on mass, a sign of nutrient deficiency. Vine borers killed my squash, literally eating the vines from the inside, the cucumbers and green beans were thin and burned on the vine. Even the basil, which for years has grown voluntarily, sprouting from the previous crop’s seed, never germinated. Looking at that garden was so depressing that I quit looking, and long before the end of the season, I let the grass and weeds grow over it and questioned whether I would even bother another year. Growing such a pitiful garden struck me as a crime against the Creation.

But I went at it again, last year, and starting in January, I weeded the thick, dormant Bermuda that never grows quite so well in my lawn as it does in my garden, tested the nutrient level of the soil, and fortified it accordingly. Beginning in early spring, I planted broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, and spinach, plants that tend to do well in cooler weather. I had never grown broccoli or cauliflower before. The plants grew to be enormous, each one two feet high and three feet in diameter, with large leaves of deep green-blue. For weeks the plants grew and grew, but I could not imagine a head of broccoli forming, much less emerging, from those leaves. I paused by the broccoli heads in the Kroger produce section, but I could not make that head match the plants growing in my back yard. The plants themselves, though, were lovely to look at, and from my deck high above the garden, they looked verdant and wholesome.

My spring garden, started on an initial investment of $22 for seed and plant sets, produced ten good sized heads and a mess of florets of broccoli, half as much cauliflower, and so much kale, chard, lettuce, and spinach that my wife and I began carrying plastic shopping bags of produce to our jobs and friends at church. My spirit revived. The best payoff came, however, on the day five of my friends, some of them gardeners as well, helped me move a chicken coop to my back yard. After we set the coop in place and settled in to congratulate ourselves on moving an incredibly heavy and ponderous object—a ritual of male bonding—before going our separate Saturday ways, the gardeners wandered down to my backyard garden, where broccoli, cauliflower, and kale towered thick and high and deep green, and where the lettuce grew in a thick, mixed leaf carpet. Lisa, filled grocery bags with “messes” of lettuce, spinach, and kale, in partial payment for the hour of muscle it had taken to wrestle the coop onto a truck and across town. It was a nice moment. My garden was a thing to be envied.

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