Seeds and imagination. Pencil and paper. A plot, a shovel, a rake, muscle to work them, imagination, and will. Gardens gracefully refute suburban corridors and urban canyons with greenness and fruit, asserting a singular microcosmos amid slabs of concrete, asphalt, and bluegrass. Garden anywhere you can, just because you can. Be green and subversive.
Edible gardens are worth the effort, if you are able to muster it and sustain it. The land benefits, and all kinds of creatures, too. You benefit in ways you expect and could never expect. Who wouldn't welcome more resilient skin and hair, clearer vision, an overall healthier system from a nutrient and fiber rich diet? Your neighborhood benefits generally through increased house values, even as you link your garden to a larger biota of adjacent gardens. Neighbors benefit directly from the flavorful fresh tomatoes and crisp cucumbers you hand to them over the fence. Once I gave permission to two little boys to eat their way through my wild strawberries on a warm June evening. They grew delirious with fruit, standing finally in the razed bed with red sticky hands extended and mouths agape in a twin glow of stunned pleasure, and I tell you it was about the best thing I've ever witnessed.
Small humans are one of many amazing creatures that may eventually visit your plot. As a garden matures, a community forms and reforms, denizens flying, crawling, hatching, and climbing into the zone, some to camp out, others to window shop and grab a meal. The gardener gains a unique perspective on the vibrant ecosystem of the garden in bloom. There on hands and knees, engulfed in the scent and color and texture of peak season, you are fortunate to observe wild things up close, to join them in a brief and poignant proximity—your bare hand training squash vines as a squadron of bees work the bright, crenellated blossoms. Slow down a moment, hold still and close your eyes, and feel the bees gently brush in flight across your skin.
That, friends, is a peak experience, and you can have it. I look forward to that again this summer. I'm less sure I'll again have the chance to get close to a Western Swallowtail, wild beauties 5" or more across like those that arrived for the first time in the summer of 2011; they came again in 2012 but were absent in 2013. Each time, I was treated to a clear vision of Blake's fearful symmetry—which I understand as the tension of wildness in a near symmetry, where subtle variations live in precise detail.
I don't grow a garden primarily to witness mad beauty, so I'm always surprised when it arrives to render me suddenly whole, a state as euphoric as it is temporary, a pause where I forget to exist separately from it. Such moments heal up a whole lot of bad mojo, the indenture to and detritus of jobs bills worries ills and all the assorted messes I've made or inherited. Build a garden, maintain and feed it, and watch it respond to your effort by maturing into habitat, a balance expressed as a diverse range of plants, insects, and beneficial bacteria in a living soil. The real joy of that is you are part of that habitat, at once the steward and the recipient of its grace.
If you have thought about creating such a thing before, do it this year. Start a garden, or reinvigorate a neglected one.
Begin to watch the weather differently. No, seriously—watch the weather. Inhabit it fully. Study how the wheel of weather engages the wheel of light in an inscrutable gearing one can never master, only ride. And to ride it well, you'll need a plan informed by observation but fashioned from imagination. Measure your plot, sharpen a pencil, draw it to scale. Big or small, whatever you have, just get on with it and be glad.
On the surface, this is the preliminary plan for my 1,000 square foot plot for 2014. I enjoyed drawing it on a sunny February morning—a sharp No. 2 pencil really is a pleasure. I will develop it in much greater detail in coming weeks. This plan slots into and reflects a four-year cycle of crop rotation. Here's an example of how that works: in 2011, I planted a large 8x15' bed with sweet corn and in Aug/Sept harvested a bumper crop so delicious I refuse to describe it. Since then, I've planted in that bed crops of pole beans (2012) and winter squash (2013). I've amended the soil annually with compost, building up a necessarily rich bed of nutrients for this season's anticipated crop of sweet corn. I have repeated this rotation interval five times over 20+ years. This year is, again, blessedly, a sweet corn year.
It's been a long hiatus, and necessary. I don't have enough room to grow corn, a heavy feeder, more often than every fourth year, not if I'm going to maintain soil health. Still, it's worth the wait for ears picked from the stalk and shucked on the way to a short 4-minute dip in a pot of already boiling water, then served up alongside dishes prepared with ripe tomatoes, chilis, eggplant, and squash, veggies that all mature at the same time. Fresh corn truly crowns late summer in a way no other homegrown vegetable can, turning patio meals to celebrations.
Yes, a corn year is a very special year and I have penciled it in for my east bed, the best soil on the place, deep, rich, and well irrigated. Crop rotation is a basic principle of organic gardening, a cycle that supports a healthy, self-repairing soil environment. This extends to almost every other vegetable in my garden, which benefit from rotation in that they are less likely to suffer disease or stunting. So my 2014 plan looks very similar to my 2011 plan—not an exact copy, but close.
I save seed from reliable heirloom plants, providing for about half of what I grow annually, and supplement that with purchased seeds to replenish old stock, try out new varieties, and experiment with companion and succession plantings. Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, IA, has been a great source for me but the point is this: procure and experiment with heirloom varieties to find what thrives in your locality, and particularly, the microclimate of your plot. Learn how to save seed, and then share it locally. Master companion planting and succession planting to get the most out of a limited space.
Recognize that you can choose to be anything from modest to obsessive in your approach to a garden. Suit yourself, according to time, energy, and interest. I'm deep in and I'm never coming back, proved by the fact that I've developed a spreadsheet planting chart, scheduling indoor starts on a light table, greenhouse time to develop and harden-off seedlings, garden transplant and harvest dates, and companion/succession crops. It's a complex, slightly cryptic flowchart developed by a true garden geek. In this spreadsheet I have utter confidence. All I have to do is keep up with the demands it makes, something I have so far managed fairly well. And yes, it is much work, especially in in spring and fall, though the garden turns to a mild and sweet refuge in midsummer, and hangs like dream painted on frosty windows.
In fact, midwinter is the right time to think long term. Bake something. Look out at your frozen garden while eating what you baked and thinking of what you'll grow. Make notes. Spring will come, and each growing season delivers its own pleasures and challenges, but the longer you work with a garden, the more you know, the easier the work and the better the results. If you can establish a plot and improve it each season, successes will spur you on. Maintain it over time and you may hope to be rewarded with an increasingly productive, established garden—a remarkable statement to make in a time when we all should think about shortening the chain of resources it takes to feed ourselves.
Add to gardening an ability to preserve and store what the garden provides and you extend everything good about gardening. I have lately enjoyed dipping into a half-pint jar of chili pepper flakes—a blend of five chilies I grew, dried, and crushed, all of them on the Flaming Red Dragon end of the scale. I need only a half-dozen fat flakes to subtly inspire a pot of beans or ignite a soup. I can flavor-sear the surface of a hand-thrown pizza crust baked on a hot oven stone and decked with sun-dried garden tomatoes, sweet peppers, thin-sliced shallots. This year's chili flakes are ridiculously good, maybe legendary. I'm unlikely to duplicate their particular dance of flavor and fire on the tongue, which is just the way I like it.
Go on, plant something edible this spring. Know that kids love the experience, and there are tasty plants almost anyone can grow on a small patch, so long as it gets decent preparation and regular care. Couples can garden together, whether old or young. Veterans can teach beginners, or people can venture to learn together. And for those who prefer it, the solitude of the garden is among the must sublime of solitudes. The basics remain: a plan, some seeds, tools, and a commitment to see it through. Be green and subversive—grow something delicious for yourself and the ones you love.