Maybe I read too many Little House on the Prairie books as a girl, but I have discovered that I have surprising affinity toward the agrarian self-sufficiency virtues of Jeffersonian democracy, however impractical they might be on my 1/6 acre urban lot. I do not come from farming stock–whenever my people left the land, they didn’t look back and tell fond stories about the past. I was raised in suburban California in new subdivisions where the builders scraped off the topsoil, then sold it to people who bagged it up who sold it back to the new home-owners. We bought fresh vegetables from the Japanese-owned market stands, and I can remember the scent of orange blossoms in the evening air before the remaining groves were bulldozed for yet another cul-de-sac. But my people didn’t grow anything except grass.
In college, I studied resource and especially energy policy, and in the midst of the stridency, I remember being impressed by the pragmatic recommendations in Rosalind Creasy’s book The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, which had some ideas about integrating food production into the picture-perfect suburban landscape. I bought my copy used a long time ago, and was shocked to see that Amazon’s
selling it today for $59!.
When we bought our very urban palace in 1993, there was a bit of a garden patch, with a few tomatoes. We enlarged it, improved the soil, and I’ve used it as my personal experiment station, although R insists on a certain number of tomato plants regardless of my other projects. One year, I wanted to learn the flowers of all the vegetables (note to self, do not let lettuce or arugula plants go to seed again), another year we tried 8 kinds of basil. The columnar apples were pretty, but not very productive (maybe 5 apples in 5 years). If you let two or three radishes go to seed, you can harvest the pods for salads. Last year’s garden paid a heavy toll in weeds for our travel schedule. We had plenty of tomatoes, but other than that it was a jungle of despair.
This spring, I vowed to do better. First, we installed the raised beds. Actually, our soil was already raised and friable, so the wood borders simply added some structure, and the gravel eliminated mud and weeds in the path. At the same time, I started reading again. How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits by John Jeavons comes out of the California stream of thinking about organic farming and highly intensive plots to mitigate the problems of over-population. The recommendations are daunting, and I’ll never live up to their standards as a composter. However, the book has some very useful charts about planting densities and crop yields that I haven’t found anywhere else. The book that really inspired me was Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest. The revision of the garden beds took too long to try out his spring planting ideas, but I am sold on the idea that the garden can be productive almost 12 months a year. I already have my seeds for the August planting, and I’m wondering how soon I can dig up those tomato plants. It’s quite a different mind-set than my old strategy of keeping the summer bounty going as long as possible, then shutting the door on the garden until March. If I’m always harvesting and planting, I can do lots of experiments, and move on quickly if they don’t work out (I planted potatoes over the asparagus crowns when they didn’t sprout). I have been raising little seedlings since April almost non-stop, popping them into the place of things I’m harvesting. I spend maybe an hour or two a week now that the system is rolling, and I’m thinking of adding another three beds for next year, so we can have corn, strawberries and/or melons.
There isn’t a ton of information on intermountain gardening on the web, and in Utah we have some unique challenges to our season that make eastern varieties and practices suspect. It’s not just the aridity, although not everything does well under irrigation. The transition from cool spring to hot summer is about 10 minutes, so most of the spring cool weather crops struggle. I found USU’s Recommendationed Varieties for Utah on-line, and by trying the Sugar Snaps instead of my usual Sugar Sprint variety, for the first time in 10 years, got a decent crop of peas before the heat took them out. You might think “Sprint” would mean they’d grow fast and beat the heat, and that would be wrong. (I just noticed USU’s Planting Chart by season, which looks quite handy.)
Right now, we are eating lettuce, perpetual chard, ruby chard, radishes, carrots, peas and herbs. We are starting over with the beets, I have no idea what went wrong, and I didn’t care for the mustard greens I grew. The potatoes should give up some fresh spuds soon, and our first tomato is turning red. I’m trying parsnips and Brussels Sprouts for fall, and we actually have several peppers hanging off the plants, a first in the palace potager.
I’m grateful we don’t have to live off of what I can produce, but I am enjoying the challenge of seeing how much I can grow in 200 sq ft. The tactile sensation of soil, dew, even prickly dandelions is immediate, real, rewarding. And the tomatoes really are that good.