So, in case you haven’t guessed already by the several book reviews I’ve posted recently in this blog, I am tackling a new writing project. In the past years I’ve really become quite practiced – and, according to my friends and some Internet strangers, quite skilled – at gardening. I’ve made some posts here and there about random strategies and tips for gardeners, but these have all been teasers really. Today – YES, TODAY! – I will start lending my voice to the first real work of nonfiction that I’ve ever written. I’m going to write a ghardening book.s
I’ve left the typos in the last bit up there because, honestly, it’s how I feel about it right now. I’m headbutting a thick wall of Imposter Syndrome. I’m, what, 35?! I’ve been gardening for….well, thanks to my mother it’s honestly been a lifelong interest, but solid actual WORK IN THE DIRT it’s been…..maybe…I want to be generous to myself and say 21 years? On my own in my own space, 8 years. And here I am, about to write a tome that will seek to not only introduce new folks to the joys of gardening and all the different things it entails, but to also change the minds of The Older Folks about certain things they Think are right and actually aren’t. Who the hell am I to do that? What the hell gives me the authority?
Short answer: the dying world and my passion for preserving it not only for future human generations but for future wild generations. There’s a saying my mother shared with me recently: “We are only borrowing this world from the next generation.” But that’s not true. We are the Stewards of this world for the next generation(s) – parenthesis because if we don’t start trying to heal the world then science says there aren’t going to be a lot more generations – AND for the other animals, insects, single- and multi-cellular organisms, plants, bacterium, etc! with which we share this ridiculous marble. We aren’t the only ones here! And we need to stop pretending that we can exist without the other ones that are here.
So I’m gonna write a gardening book. This means Nine Hundred Leagues (my third book in the Civil Dusk series) might be on hold for a little bit, but don’t worry, I am absolutely NOT dropping it forever. I’ve just got something to do first.
Have you ever wanted to grow vegetables in your own backyard? Have you ever wanted to roam a food forest, the surrounding branches loaded with fruit? Have you ever lost an entire crop of lettuce to rabbits, or berries to birds? Do you have a swath of land that isn’t doing anything for anybody? Are your knees and back aching from hours of pulling weeds? Are you a farmer who’s tired of fertilizing and weary of all the damn costs?
PERMACULTURE IS THE ANSWER!!
And hands down THE BEST book to learn about it is “The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture,” by Christopher Shein. Shein makes the lofty principles of permaculture attainable for anyone, from the large-scale farmer to the home grower. Whatever your goal, this book has the tools you need to achieve it. He even shares strategies for off-grid gardeners, because the whole point of permaculture is to grow with the Earth, not against her. If you’re looking for a better way to garden, this is absolutely where you need to start, and likely also where you will finish. And if you’re not looking for a better way to garden, well, you should be! Permaculture cuts down on the work of the gardener by revealing low-maintenance secrets that nature is already using all around us.
Here in zone 8 my blueberry shrubs are loaded with fruit! I have five different shrubs, each a different variety of blueberry and they’re all ripening at different rates! I couldn’t have planned it better. Each morning and evening I pull in a handful or two of delicious berries. Looking at the shrubs I’ll manage this for another month at least!! Delightful.
Gardening, whether in ground or in containers, outdoors or indoors, requires four things to maintain healthy plants: growing medium, light, water, and nutrients. As long as you have those things, you’re on your way to being a gardener!
If you have space constraints, or you’re moving at some point and don’t want to walk away from your work, or if you don’t have an outdoor area with growing medium, or if you want to grow indoors, container gardening might be just the perfect thing for you. I choose to grow primarily in containers because I move every few years and like to take my plants with me. Some people garden with containers in water, which is generally called hydroponics. Others, like me, focus on containers filled with soil, because I primarily grow plants that naturally grow in soil and I think they deserve that natural medium. This is the style of container gardening on which this series will focus.
Perhaps the first thing to consider with container gardening is how much soil you’ll need and what size container is best. For a plant which is currently smaller but will grow larger, start with a smaller container and increase as necessary.
This plant is a young (1st year) blackberry plant that I started from a root cutting off a larger shrub. It is, consequently, in a smaller container than its parent plant (3 years old).
There they are next to each other. If you give a smaller plant a larger container straight off, its roots will never reach the water that will pond in the soil at the bottom of the pot. This can cause all sorts of problems from rot to bad fungus to insect infestation. As your plant grows, increase its pot size once a year or when you see the ends of the roots peaking through the drain holes. Repot to a container roughly a half size bigger than the current container, or no more than twice as big. You want enough room and fresh soil for the roots to spread and delve, but not too much room that you’ll have lingering water.
Yesterday I sowed 16 Eastern redbud seeds in these containers. I scarified and stratified them and this is the final step. Last year I sowed them in March, so I’ve tried them in February this year to see if they benefit from the last throes of winter. Fingers crossed that I haven’t wrecked the whole group!
So, yes, this year is CES Jr’s fourth winter, I think. Something like that. I potted her up this past season so she’s got plenty of space for roots and insulating soil. And yes, last winter I kept her in the garage. And this winter I figured she’d probably grown enough to be okay outdoors.
And then I got scared. Tonight’s forecasted low in my area is 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and where CES Jr currently sits is shaded by the house for most of the warming afternoon sunlight time. This means it will probably get cooler there than the forecasted low, and let’s be honest how accurate are those ever, really. So I figured there will probably be some frost around or on her in the morning. But I still wanted to keep her outdoors this winter. Sooooo…….
I put a translucent plastic bag over her, container and all. In theory this should provide a greenhouse-like effect. And then, because maybe I was panicking a little, this happened.
This container holds the bonus blackberry plant that split from the larger shrub’s rootmass when I potted up all of my berries last week. I also grow blueberries and blackberries, you know. But that’s a different story. Check out my Instagram page if you want to see more about that. https://www.instagram.com/nicolerordway/?hl=en
Anyhow, I also covered up the wee bonus blackberry. You’ll notice it’s next to, but not in, my cold frame. This is because the container area I had set aside within for this winter is already full to capacity. I wanted to grow plenty of kale. Looks like, in exchange, I might have compromised some tiny plants in containers. But hopefully it’ll survive. Blackberries are notoriously good at surviving.
…literally! If you have a garden in the ground or in raised beds you should consider sowing a restorative ground cover or layering the surface with thick mulch for the seasons in which your garden is dormant. For example, this year I grew acorn squash, which choked out the turf over which the vines grew. This was actually a desired effect so that I had less grass to mow. Now that the harvest is complete and the vines removed to the compost pile, there are bare patches of earth in my yard.
Bare patches of earth are bad for the microbiome in the soil and are dead zones for the precipitation cycle. They can also allow for a greater chance of disease or pests when it comes time to sow next year’s garden. Plus they’re ugly! In order to restore the depleted soil and maintain a healthy microbiome, you can apply a thick layer of mulch or, my preference, plant a beneficial cover crop.
I did the latter, and the cover crop I chose is Dutch mini white clover. Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, which is a nutrient that squash (and all plants) consume a ton of while they’re growing. I chose the engineered “mini” clover because it will never grow tall enough to want mowing, and if you’ve noticed there’s a trend in my gardening style which is to eventually never need to mow my yard ever again.
My clover has started to germinate and it is developing very well!
I made a mistake when sowing and watered before I had pressed the seeds into the soil. This caused some of them to wash off the big bare patch of hard, dry earth and collect at the edge of the turf. But that’s okay! That just means I get to sow more clover seed!
You can leave your cover crop for just the winter if you want and then dig or till it into the soil when you plant. Gardens love clover though! It helps to prevent the soil from drying out between your other plants, and like I mentioned it fixes nitrogen. This means it draws nitrogen from the air and the minerals of the earth and makes it available for consumption in the soil. All plants need nitrogen but few fix it, which makes clover extra special. Next time you see some clover in your yard, thank it!