When I was growing up, one of the last things I wanted to do was work in the garden.
For decades now, my parents have planted an annual garden, filled with lettuces, radishes, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, onions, garlic, corn, kohlrabi and the like, in addition to the fruit bushes laden with raspberries, red currants, strawberries, figs and more. Since I moved away, they have added apple, nectarine and pear trees, all of which can thrive in the Louisville, Ky., climate.
But the idea of digging up earth to plant seeds or, worse, to weed around the tender young shoots was, as a city kid, my idea of torture. I loved the food, mind you, especially those white icicle radishes with their lively bite and the salads made of oak leaf lettuce; I just never wanted to have to work for it.
I certainly didn’t want to get my hands filthy from all that mud. Who knew was crawling in all that dirt! I was never one to play with earthworms or bugs beyond the lightning bugs that sparkled each summer evening.
Times change, and people change.
Over the past few years, I have been planting more and more herbs in pots. Basil, thyme, sorrel, rosemary, chives, lovage – you name it. Last year, I added peppers and tomatoes to the mix, but everything was largely in pots. Why?
Pots are easy. If a plant dies, you just pull it out of the dirt and start all over.
And many of my plants don’t make it. Friends claim I have a black thumb. I prefer to think of myself as a Darwinian farmer. I’ve taken the time to plant the plant, but if it doesn’t survive on its own, then that the plant’s fault.
Last year, I began to change my mind. I was going figure out ways to make my plants healthier. I gave them compost plus rich soil that worked into the clay. I also learned when to water many of them. Some, like the sorrel, got water sometimes twice a day in the nasty heat; others got water every other day.
Yet I want to go further.
This weekend, I dug up a chunk of my backyard and dug in both hands to work through some of the muddy clumps. I rejoiced in the sight of all the worms and crawly things in the rich soil under the layer of grass that died in last year’s scorching heat. Digging up the soil didn’t break my back and I was finished a lot quicker than I thought I would be. Of course, my MP3 player helped.
Planting seeds has changed somewhat since I was a kid. Ferry-Morse seed company now offers something called planting strips. Forgive me if I am as out-of-date on these things as George H.W. Bush was when he first encountered a bar code scanner, but I had no idea you could by seeds already spaced out and placed inside a strip. Simply plant the strip in the soil as deep as the package says and wait. The lettuce strips should sprout within seven to 10 days, the package promises.
But I didn’t stop there.
I had to plant some old-fashioned seeds, which were for arugula and radishes, the latter of which remains a favorite food and one that is better when just picked.
I also picked up some tomato plants, not to plant in the soil but to do something the Bexar County Master Gardener Hotline calls “potting up.”
“Do you believe homegrown tomatoes are superior to store bought?” David Rodriguez, Texas Agrilife Extension service horticulturist for the county, writes in a handout I picked up at the stock show recently. “If so, February is the time for you to ‘pot up’ your spring tomatoes.”
What is this exactly? “Planting tomato transplants into containers to take advantage of growth and still be able to protect them from cold weather,” Rodriguez explains. “Until mid-March or the first of April when the weather stabilizes enough to place the transplants in the vegetable garden or plant them in large containers with a 16- to 20-inch diameter.” (Think of the forecast that it will drop below freezing on Tuesday.)
For more information on potting up or starting your own garden, call the Master Gardener Hotline at (210) 467-6575 or click here. And don’t be as silly as I was all these years. Yes, I now have a speck or two of dirt under my nails, but that will disappear with the help of a nail file. But it’s worth price to get my own fresh vegetables.
Get your kids involved, too. They may not thank you now, but they should eventually.