After years of battling clay, gophers, and deer carrying tin snips and jet packs, I finally built a friggin’ fortress: New fence, eight 3-by-6-foot raised beds clad in 1/2-inch hardware cloth, and a combination of compost from the local horse ranch and some pricey organic hand-stirred soil from cows raised on boutique-grown grass. You can get a glimpse of it in the photo above.
I planned a 12-month planting cycle (here in my corner of Northern California, we can grow some stuff year-round), and gathered seeds and seedlings from friends and nearby nurseries. Many of the seed packets contained instructions in tiny little print, and my friends warned me about annoying details like planting times, distances and other stuff that I was certain would not apply to me. After all, I was gopher-free, deer-proof and armed with the super soil of the century. My garden would be invincible! I would be neck-deep in delicious produce. I would share with friends, donate to the food bank, host charming farm-to-table dinners … perhaps even give lectures to share my wisdom!
OK, it didn’t quite turn out like that.
My first foray in gardening had some successes and some epic failures, and as a result, here are a few things I’ll be working on this year:
1. Plant one—and only one—bare-root plant in each spot.
The bare-root strawberries I bought last year came in clumps of three or four, and by the time I realized it, my garden bed was a mass of interwoven runners and roots as dense as a doormat. I had planted onions in the strawberry bed, as well, and those few that struggled through the strawberry force field were thin and sad, like onion versions of Munch’s “The Scream.”
2. Plant three times as much kale and stevia.
Kale was an awesome crop. Harvesting by cutting leaves instead of whole plants meant the seeds I planted last April are still producing in January. Delicious! I roast it; crush it up raw with garlic, olive oil, lemon and Parmesan for salad; make kale chips … but we had to curtail our kale intake to avoid wiping out the whole crop. Stevia was a great surprise: We used it to sweeten tea and as a party trick for farm visitors (“Here! Taste this!”). In 2015, I’ll plant loads more and dry it.
3. Scatter plant only when appropriate.
Scattering seeds is great for crops like kale, chard, arugula and lettuce. The thinnings make great salad. I plant ’em thick, and thin the leaves as they grow, eventually shaping the crops into neater rows. Winner! Beets, radishes and other root veggies, on the other hand: not so much. Next time, I’ll get my glasses out and read the tiny print on the seed packs.
4. If friends give you seeds, be prepared for surprises.
This is not a sugar pumpkin, and I’ll tell you why …
My pal Martha gave me a bunch of sugar pumpkin seeds, along with a ton of peppermint seedlings. I love sugar pumpkins: My mind immediately leapt to visions of pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie and adorable pumpkin bowls!
However, my dreams were crushed.
The pumpkins I got were big, white and lumpy, with a few weird oblong orange blobs thrown in for good measure. Clearly, the sugar pumpkin seeds Martha started with were hybrids, and the seeds she saved produced unpredictable pumpkin madness. Next year, I’m buying sugar pumpkin seeds to make sure all my pumpkin dreams come true. Thanks anyway, Martha. The mint worked out just fine … in fact, it may be taking over the world any day now.