Friday, February 15, 2013

Minesweeper: Gardening by Trial

It's getting close to that time of year again. My home gardening exploits give me fresh produce in the summer, and eggs almost all year, but most importantly, it keeps me honing my agricultural skills. It seems like the average suburbanite doesn't seem to have any agricultural skills at all, and they completely take for granted the fact that there is more to making food grow than simply planting seeds and putting water on it (at least, if you intend to be effective anyway).

My first garden attempt, as a teenager, was a complete failure; It looked good and I had a good location, with nice raised rows, but I had no clue what I was doing. The most valuable asset in my gardening experiences has been that I've become more observant of the patterns in our climate, so I can effectively weigh out risks and benefits when I plan out my garden. For example, my first garden attempt was in the middle of a hot June and in soil that had very little to offer. I watered in at the worst times of the day and produced absolutely nothing. Most of what I learned from that point forward was by continuing trial, error and getting bits of information from people around me who grew things.

At the time, my main adviser was my mother, it took years for me to realize how clueless we both were. She had lots of experience growing flowers and landscaping, but very little making produce. I'm the one giving out the advice now, just last year I had to explain why a small greenhouse and pots on her southern deck would not be sufficient for strawberries due to their intolerance of heat, whereas tomatoes would love an environment like that... Which reminds me of my second year, when she rightfully directed me to plant some tomatoes against a wall so that they could get more heat and light reflection, but the wall she suggested was on the Southeast side of the house rather than the Southwest, giving the advantage of morning light, but too much afternoon shade. I had huge tomatoes, but only half of them ripened before the frost came that year.

The point of saying that is that transitioning from knowing about the theory of gardening and applying it succesfully are very different. I'm humbled yearly by experiences which show me how complex and different many plants can be. I've become very good at growing some, but still need to fine-tune countless others.
Other than my tomato problem, my second garden was made primarily of nursery bought plants, and combined with the good fortune of a hot summer, I was able to grow a lot of produce. Like many first gardening attempts, however, I can see now (with humility) that the things which made it work, such as a good location and the right starting time were based in nothing more than sheer luck on my part.
My years in an apartment left me unable to plant anything, but when we got our first house, a well-positioned garden with a fence and raised beds gave us the inspiration to try again. I had already learned that some plants needed to be started indoors in our state, and had gained a good base of knowledge from my experience at my parents house.

The main problem with the garden at our first house is that we forgot it too frequently, because, while it's position was great for growing, it was behind our garage and also great for forgetting. We managed to hold it together the first year, but by the second we were too busy and ventured behind the garage too infrequently. The heat sensitive plants died and the tolerant plants lived, but with only just enough to pull together some tiny ears (of the most delicious) corn and some fantastic sugar beets (it's hard to kill beets).
The third growing season for our house, I was commuting to work in Seattle and we were preparing to sell and move to a new home, so we missed our opportunity entirely, though gardening had been part of our reason for buying that house in the first place. By the next season I bought a tiller, some garden tools and picked a spot which would be out of the way and offer the most sunlight that my yard could give. After several years of partial failures, I was finally able to select a good location based on experience and understanding and even more importantly, I knew which foods I could grow there and which would have to be potted and placed in another location.

I chose a location at the top of my hillside where I got m more light than any other spot, the hillside would offer good drainage (but I would have to improve the soil) it was far enough from the house to get the advantage of late evening sunlight, the only kind in Washington which is intense enough to keep corn happy... I painstakingly tilled the ground, pulling out hundreds of rocks left there by the county as part of an unrelated project, I composted for months in advance, spreading mulch and adding nutrients to soil that was a little sandy, I planted as soon as the frost was certainly gone and I was blessed with an unusually steady spring, summer and early fall; I weeded and watered faithfully and I harvested bounties of corn, cucumbers, lettuce, carrots, beets and cucumbers (I even expanded my original tilled garden in the first year to make more room), but ultimately, half of what I tried to grow died or never produced.

I couldn't say that I was crushed, not with as much delicious food that I was able to make succesfully, but such staggering losses showed me that I had a lot more to learn. That was when my paradigm began to shift and I realized that conventional wisdom came from places with 120 - 140 days of viable growing weather, where March truly marks the coming of spring and where you could lose an early plantation of corn, with plenty of time to start over and try again... Those of us in the Northwest have to hone our skills further and pay more attention to our trials if we want more success...

I have developed a relatively succesful system now, whereby I plant sections at different intervals according to the preferences of what I plan to grow, I have to become more intimate with the plants and get to know their preferences if I want success. Some of them start outside and tolerate the cold-wet spring, some have to be sprouted indoors and some of them can be planted in July, when others are done producing for the season. The main point is that I try to limit my attempts at new introductions to one or two per year, knowing that my first year may result in failure, but that my second year will yield more success. I can never say that I'll be entirely confident in my ability to produce any one type of plant with certainty, even the ones which are usually hardy and successful.

When new gardeners ask me for advice in a specific area, it only takes a few seconds before their glossy eyes show that I've tried to give them details which they will only learn through experience as I did. Instead, it's easier to say that the the key to successful gardening in the Pacific Northwest stems from nothing more than making the least amount of mistakes possible in any given year, and trying to make less the next.

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