The Evolution of a Garden(er)
Gardens – they’ve been a part of my life since I was a child. I remember my grandparents’ huge gardens and the frequent trips we made to their farm to help with harvest. I can still picture my grandmother, along with my mother and aunts, gathered around the kitchen table breaking beans or husking corn. Back in the city, my mother tended the large garden on our one-acre plot and we girls were required to help with weeding. I don’t recall that as a pleasant memory, but then I was small and pesky mosquitos and sweltering humidity seemed abundant in that garden. While I was exposed to these gardens, I didn’t pursue the development of my own until I had my own family. So, while I began to yearn for my own garden, I wasn’t sure where to begin. I discovered that finding inspiration from others was a place to begin.
In my computer files I keep a folder with home decorating and gardening ideas I’ve gathered off the internet. That’s how I came across the picture of my ideal garden.
Since I do this work alone, I knew I would have to start out small so I could maintain it. My first step was to decide where to put it. I knew vegetables needed to be in full sun, and I wanted it close to the house so my source of water could be accessed during those dry spells we get every summer. Once I decided on the location, I hired someone with a tiller to plow up a piece of my yard. (Now I don’t till – I just put down cardboard where I want the garden, and this kills most of the weeds/grass). However, at the time, I didn’t know this trick so I spent the entire summer picking out Bermuda grass and rocks!
My second priority was to find a way to keep rabbits and other critters out of my garden. An old discarded picket fence (plus some new fencing to fill in the gaps) was the perfect solution. However, once it was placed around the plowed plot, I realized that would keep very little out. So, after rabbits kept digging under to create nests for their babies and eat my lovely vegetables, I stapled chicken wiring to the bottom of the fence and buried it in the ground. Problem solved.
The following Spring, I had Tiller-man come again to plow up an area two feet wide around the outside of the entire garden. With this came more grass pulling and hours of rock removal. Apparently, the builders of our log home had piled gravel in the very spot I’d chosen to put the garden. To speed up the process, I made a rock sifter using a wooden frame and hardware cloth. When the job was finally completed, I planted lots of flowers to attract beneficial insects in hopes that they would reduce the population of pests that usually ate up what I was trying to grow!
The first two years I planted directly into our clay soil with sporadic success. It was impossible to grow root crops and the work of plowing the hard soil was back breaking. So, the following year I added raised beds and the difference was amazing! I placed cardboard in the bottom of my beds to reduce the invasion of weeds. I also added wiring under the cardboard after a mole decided to hang out among my beets (which did not survive that year)!
This year I added six more raised beds since my original garden was often too small to grow enough vegetables for canning. This garden has a much taller fence in hopes of keeping the deer out of my corn. It also contains my composting bins for easy access. What’s nice about having additional beds is the fact that I was able to begin growing my summer crops while my early spring crops were still producing.
However, food production isn’t limited to small garden plots. I’ve slowly added fruit trees (fig, peach, apple, persimmon, and plum), fruit producing bushes (black raspberry, blueberry, elderberry, and thornless blackberry), and muscadine vines.
So like me, the beginning of your gardening journey may start out small, if you have the space, slowly expanding is always an option. Our homestead is a little over an acre and could hold many more gardens if I only had the time and energy to maintain them! I’m also aware that money can be a roadblock to expansion, so here’s some creative ways to make your gardening dreams come true:
1) Start your crops from seed which are so inexpensive. Also save your own seeds, or go to seed swaps - some local libraries provide a space for seed swaps.
2) Fruiting bushes often multiple rapidly. My original blackberry bush has now become fourteen! And that’s after giving away a dozen more I’ve dug up. A friend recently contacted me about coming to dig up black raspberry bushes – as many as I would take – for free! Also check out the gardening centers at big box stores. As the initial rush of spring gardening wanes, they often mark down their prices. Some of these plants can look pretty bad, but a good dose of TLC works wonders.
3) Some of my first raised beds were made from repurposed wood I found on Craigslist. I put the beds together myself which also saved on the cost.
4) Contact local tree companies about delivering free wood chips right to your house. Not only are these great for suppressing weeds between your beds, it eventually breaks down into the most wonderful organic matter without so much as a penny spent.
5) If you exchange gifts with your family (spouse, parents, brothers, sisters, children), let them know you’d like plants or gardening tools or whatever it is you need to create and maintain your garden. Most often they’ll be happy to know their gift will be exactly what you wanted.
6) Create your own fertilizer. I have a worm farm and a bunny which make amazing compost. I feed the worms my vegetable scraps and rabbit food is very inexpensive (plus you get to love on a very delightful pet). I also use my chickens’ manure along with their used bedding. It just needs to be composted for a much longer time.
7) If you’re new to gardening and need more detailed instructions, there are great resources online, in your local library, and at your State University’s extension office. Here’s a few I’ve used-https://extension.tennessee.edu/Humphreys/Documents/Growing%20vegetables%20in%20the%20home%20garden.pdf (detailed instructions on raising vegetables)
The Gardener’s Table by Richard Merrill (the online bookstore, Abe’s Books has one for $3.49 with free shipping)
MIGardener has a great YouTube channel that will give you specific information on how to grow vegetables (his is just one of many channels devoted to growing a garden)
I subscribe to several magazines (Hobby Farms and Mother Earth News) that always have helpful articles on the subject of gardening. If you buy these off a magazine rack, you’ll pay a hefty price, but I’ve taken advantage of offers through the mail - a year’s subscription for $10.
8) Connect with other local gardeners (Master Gardeners through your local extension office). You’ll find a wealth of knowledge among these gardeners and their goal is to educate! You can also volunteer to help someone in their garden in exchange for hands-on learning.
For me, gardening is not just about growing food or experiencing the pleasure a lovely flower can bring. It’s also about the deep connection I feel to the generations of women in my family that worked the soil in order to feed their families. It’s love in action – love of the soil and the life it brings to these bodies we live in, love of nature and the beauty it shares with us, and ultimately, love of family that benefits from the tasks we put our hands to.