It’s July and, as the song goes, the living is easy. Sure there are little chores to be done — watering, of course; and weeding — but mostly this is an expectant time with bountiful harvest of greens, peas (if you live where it’s not too hot), and fast growing root vegetables. Summer squash are in blossom and maybe setting fruit, corn is knee-high and higher, and winter squash, cucumbers and other vine crops are showing some muscle and starting to take over. There’s the first tomato blossom and is that the first tiny bean forming among all those blossoms?
It’s a good week to spend time with your garden doing nothing but taking stock. How is your garden plan looking now that things are well on their way? What pest problems are you having? How does the weather look for the rest of the month? Mostly, we just like to sit back and look at the fruits of our work. Things are still neat and orderly, everything is robust and green. And then we start thinking deeper (gardens will do that to you). Where did the craft of doing this come into our lives? How is it that with each passing year we learn more and more about raising vegetables? How well are we doing passing our knowledge to children and friends? And how important are those friends and children to what we do and learn?
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Our neighbor, a young lady out of school with no garden plot of her own, put some marigolds in pots last summer and marveled at the results. Once we showed her what deadheading was, she had blooms all summer. Even this, the simplest of advice, shows we all have to start somewhere. This year, she bought several more pots and some long, rectangular wooden boxes and started growing vegetables. She’s out of town this long holiday weekend and asked us if we would water. We were happy to oblige. The task — watering is terribly critical in container growing — gave us a chance to see what she was up to. Some of her mistakes reminded us of the long learning process we went through, and how important mistakes were to the process. As self-help gurus and optimistic sorts frequently tell us: they’re not mistakes; they’re opportunities.
Her beans were well up in the rectangular boxes set against a trellis and the plants had each set several groups of true leaves. But the leaves were all yellow, some of them with brown around the edges, and some apparently attacked by insects (we’re looking at you, Mexican bean beetle). A quick check of her soil and a glance through her gardening supplies suggested the problem. She’d planted them in “composted” cow manure, using nothing else to provide drainage and nutrient balance. Watering left the soil mucky on top. And too much nitrogen was causing the burning. Better to have planted in real compost with only a fraction of the composted manure worked in.
She’d also planted a pot in lettuce using the same cow manure. None of the seeds germinated, a result of too much nitrogen we’ve deduced.
Then there were the pumpkins. She’d bought starts at the nursery and planted them in topsoil that came in a bag. The surface was hard and compacted, and water just collected on its surface when we took the sprinkling can to it. Didn’t matter. The pumpkin plants hadn’t lasted a week. We didn’t see her transplanting them but it was clear she hadn’t done a very good job. Maybe she had tried to remove all the soil from around the roots, maybe she hadn’t loosened up what soil there was around the starts, maybe she’d just tamped too hard after putting the transplants in the lousy soil. The results were the same.
So we’re looking forward to our neighbor girl coming back and giving her some friendly advice about the importance of soil, both its content and its drainage properties. We’re looking forward to discussing real compost and why its good for her plants. And when we do, we’ll plant another container, maybe with greens, maybe some other late-season crop, and prepare it just so with good drainage at the bottom, good soil and good planting technique. Learn by doing. That’s how gardening was taught to us.
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