Farmers and gardeners spend an appropriately large amount of their time talking about the weather. It’s been an unnaturally cool Spring this year, with welcome rainfall and a few hail storms that thankfully did little real damage to the tender plants and shoots in the Little Texas Garden.
“Black Beauty” Zucchini Flower
The zucchini has really taken off, and we’ll begin harvesting them in the next few days. We’ve already enjoyed a few mild and crunchy “French Breakfast” radishes, and not nearly enough of the strawberries, which are incredibly sweet and juicy.
So far the Basil is heading for a record breaking year, the Kale and Swiss Chard are starting to thrive, and the mint, parsley and dill are all doing well.
There have been set-backs, of course. We lost all but one of the “Abraham Lincoln” tomatoes to some sort of virus, but the “San Marzano’s” are growing like champs and already setting fruit. The watermelons are still in the seedling stage, and I’ve only gotten a few of my beloved carrots to germinate. The corn is growing at a snail’s pace, but still growing, so I’m thankful for that.
It’s been too many years since I’ve had a proper vegetable garden, and I had forgotten just how restorative putting your hands in the dirt can be for the body and soul. We talk about being connected to the earth but for many of us it is an abstract notion rather than a daily practice. When I garden the metaphysical becomes physical as I plunge my fingers into the soil to check for moisture or to pull an unwelcome weed. I am forced to relax and walk slow out of necessity, looking for the hopeful sight of a seedling pushing its way toward the sun while checking the already established plants for color and vigor. The first flower on a pea shoot is a celebration, each grasping tendril on a cucumber vine a miracle of determination. The shocking red color of a ripe strawberry seems impossible after such a drab winter, and yet, there it is.
There have been set-backs, yes. The small patch of corn had to be replanted. I walked out one morning to find twenty eight perfectly spaced holes where the seeds once were. Now there are chicken wire cages over the corn until they finish sprouting, and I’ll have to do the same for the watermelon when I replant them later in the week. None of the hundreds of ten year old marigold seeds I planted came up (the only surprise here is that I stubbornly hung on to ten year old marigold seeds) so I’ll replant them with a fresh batch of seeds when I replant the watermelons.
Drought has become the norm in Texas, but the last day of March brought welcome relief in the form of two solid hours of a soft, gentle rain. Every plant in the garden stands a little taller and a lot greener, the Swiss chard and the kale already showing hints of coming magnificence. The next few days bring a good chance of even more much needed precipitation.
We have enough basil and tomatoes planted to keep us in Insalata Caprese and Neapolitan style pizzas for the entire summer, which makes me wonder what in the world we’ll do with all of the peppers, tomatillos, eggplant, okra and zucchini we’re growing. I’m certain we’ll come up with something.
This is going to be pretty close to the garden I dreamed of four years ago when we bought the house.
While it won’t be as large as I’d like it to be I have to remind myself that it’s in the sunniest part of the yard and there are, after all, only two of us. It’s twenty by eighteen feet of raised beds and just-wide-enough walkways, with a little room to grow if need be. I’ve designed it to be as symmetrical as possible given the materials I have to work with.
I had a handful of raised beds made from recycled cedar fence boards, and they have been recycled yet again into flower beds and relocated to the front yard. This time I’ll use cinder blocks, for a number of reasons. The fence that I put up a few years ago has been taken down so that I could start over and do a proper job this time around. I had hilariously convinced myself that I could just “eyeball” the placement of the fence posts, and of course wound up with a wavy fence. Luckily the small voice in the back of my head convinced me to set the posts in gravel instead of cement, and they were no trouble to remove from the ground. In fact, a few of the posts were half-way out before I even started to dismantle what I had.
Day One-Fence Posts
This time, determined to do a good job, I bought concrete mix and laid out a plumb line to set the posts.
Fence post with bracing and plumb line.
There were only ten posts to set, but like most projects I tackle it ended up taking about twice as long as I estimated. While setting the plum lines I measured then measured again to make sure I was setting a square instead of a rhombus or parallelogram. Like last time.
Time consuming, yes, but I intend to spend a lot of hours in the garden, so it was time well spent.
That was Day One, instead of Morning One, as I so optimistically planned. What are gardeners if not optimistic? After all, we greedily pour over each full color, glossy photo in a multitude of seed catalogs, sure that our plants, fruits, and vegetables will look at least (at least!) as good as the professionally photographed, beautifully lit perfect specimens on every page.
The last post was cemented in place and properly braced just as twilight approached.
Day Two-Building the Raised Beds
Up early to remove the braces and cross my fingers.
Fence posts with bracing removed. Much better.
Much better. This time the posts were sturdy, and I knew I would’t have to prop a few of them up with shards of rocks as I did in years past.
Then it was off to rent a small moving van for my trip to Lowe’s. I’ve no real preference between Lowe’s and Home Depot, and after determining that their prices were exactly the same, I chose the one closest to my house (I had to pay mileage on the moving truck).
After laying out a row of blocks it became clear that there was no way I’d be able to accomplish this in a single day. I finished unloading the truck so that I could get it turned in by day’s end.
I enjoy doing things myself, but this would have been a great time to have a helper.
There’s nothing like unloading a truck full of cinder blocks to remind you of just how out of shape you are. After the last block was on the ground I took a break before tackling round two of the raised beds.
As it turns out, the sunniest spot in the yard is also the most uneven, so there is a lot of digging involved when putting in this garden.
Day Three-Dirt Delivery & Still Building the Beds
What an awesome machine. Kevin (the guy with the truck) said that he could have put the dirt anywhere I wanted it, and could have in fact filled every one of the raised beds from where he stood. That would have been good to know before I scheduled the delivery, because when he showed up with the soil the raised beds looked like this:
In other news, both of our dogs are mad at me. I’ve had to restrict them both to the courtyard for now because one of them keeps eating the dirt we just had delivered.
Day Four-Almost Done With The Cinder Blocks
The perimeter is finally done, and the blocks have been put in place for the interior beds. The interior beds are in the rockiest, hilliest part of the garden. I’m not looking forward to digging the trenches in the rocky soil but I want to get the remaining cinder blocks as level as possible. I’ve got a good feeling that Day Five is going to involve pain relievers and hopefully, wheelbarrows full of new dirt.
Day Five-We’re Never Moving. Ever.
The last cinder block is in place, the beds are level and a few of them are even filled with leaf mulch and soil. This was the toughest day yet. At some point the previous homeowners must have used the garden space to dump a load of crushed granite, which was then covered in a thin layer of topsoil, just deep enough to grow Bermuda grass.
After a lot of trial and error I found that the best method for prepping the soil was to cut through the sod with an old knife, scoop the half-inch of topsoil and grass with a shovel, then get back down on my hands and knees and alternately use the knife and a trowel to go a little deeper, removing roots, rocks, crushed granite and the odd piece of long forgotten detritus as I went. Then I’d place the cinder block, check for level, adjust the depth of the trench if needed, then use a rubber mallet to properly seat the cinder block once I was satisfied that it was as level as I could get it. Each interior bed used 22 blocks, and it took every bit of eight hours to place a total of 44 blocks.
My back is screeching at me as I type.
Day Six-Unscheduled Break
I really should have taken a break on day five, because I woke up on day six to discover that my back was out. Lots’s of stretching, alternating between the heating pad and ice packs, and the maximum daily allowable dosage of ibuprofen meant that I wasn’t going to be filling my new beds with copious amounts of soil. Sometimes having a goal-oriented personality has a down side.
Day Seven-I Can’t Stop Smiling
This is as far as I got before my back went out:
This is what it looked like after a long day of shoveling and putting up the fence:
Here’s an angle that shows off the antique gate my wife found at an auction:
To the right of the gate, near the pottery shards, is the future seating area and my next project (after planting, of course). I left it large enough to hold a standard size garden bench. I’ll have to level the ground and put in a base layer of crushed granite before adding the pavers. In the next month or so I’ll build a trellis over the seating with green bamboo stalks.
The seeds I started indoors are ready for the hardening-off phase, and before long will make their way to their new home.