Sunday, March 27, 2011

About, Part 2

It is hard to articulate the hell I went through trying to dig those individual holes right through the sod, but I had no idea I was supposed to remove it, first.  Looking back it seems awfully foolish.  By the time I was done it had taken me five hours to plant my 8 x 10 foot garden.  I placed the cheap silver metal tomato cages I'd bought from the big box store upside down over the tomato plants and stood, drenched in sweat, in awe of my work.  I loved the way the small green plants looked against the backdrop of the black weed barrier and the way the lovely smell of the tomato plants lingered on my hands.

After I showered and collapsed on the couch, muscles aching, it occurred to me that work, my day job, hadn't crossed my mind a single time.  It was the first time in over a year that I'd been able to completely detach from it for that long.  

At work, I'd become one of the project leaders on the implementation of our new electronic medical record. I had no training or experience in Information Systems so I had to learn my way through a new field and because of my specific responsibilities on the project I felt an immense sense of responsibility for how successful it would be.  I was primarily responsible for defining how our current workflows would be executed in the new electronic record and our goal was to be paperless.  We were planning to roll out the new system Big Bang Style meaning all sections would be converted from paper to electronic with the flip of a switch.  It was a huge change for everyone and the worry was palpable.  This is an oversimplified, maybe over dramatized version of it but it's how I felt.  By the time I started that garden, I had been on anti depressants for months trying to combat depression and anxiety but none of it helped. I thought of work when I was at work, and when I wasn't.  When I was home I was constantly checking emails, running through potential workflows in my head, tossing around ideas of how to make users embrace the new system.  I was fixated on worst case scenarios,  catastrophes related to the project and about how my relationship with my coworkers was being shaped by my role in its implementation.  In my dreams, I was always showing up to work naked, or without shoes. No matter what I tried, even the drugs, I was really only engaged with work. I was in a constant state of heightened anxiety.  I wasn't a lot of fun to be around.   I'm not blaming work.  I have a tendency to fixate on things, explore them from every possible angle, over analyze and psychoanalyze.  This trait makes me good at my job but I struggle with work-life balance so I'm always at risk for challenging and invigorating projects like this to mentally hijack me.  That day, gardening got me in the moment.

I was fully focused on the task at hand.  The way the sole of my foot felt as I placed all my weight on the shovel forcing it through the sod.  The way the dirt looked and what it felt like my hands.  The epiphanies.  That sod should be removed first and then the holes should be dug.  Somehow knowing that my dirt was lifeless even though I didn't really know what dirt that was alive looked like.  I was proud of the work I'd done and I felt like I'd accidentally discovered some secret drug that would help restore my sanity.

Later that evening in a flash of genius I realized that the narrow part of the tomato cage goes at the base of the plant, the pointed ends meant to be buried in the ground at the base to secure it and eventually support the tomato plants heavy with fruit.  In pajamas I ran outside and flipped the four cages over.  As I pushed the spiked ends into the ground the cheap metal bent.  When I had straightened them as much as possible I wandered back into the house, my hands dirty again, wanting to call everybody I knew to tell them about my new garden.

Edited to add: Stay tuned for Part 3

Read About, Part 1, here

Sunday, March 20, 2011

About My Skinny Garden, Part 1

It was that simple.  I wanted an organic tomato.

For the longest time I thought that was the reason I started gardening.

I was standing in the middle of our failing local "French Market" one Saturday morning trying to figure out why there was such a big price difference in the identical looking tomatoes being sold by the only two vendors there when I noticed the vendor with the more expensive tomato was white and the less expensive tomato vendor was Hispanic.  After that, it was like I was sucked into some vortex of crazy thoughts about race and prejudice and produce.  I questioned my own sanity.  Why I even cared.  Why I suddenly felt like the tomato I chose to buy that day was about so much more than just a tomato.  That grocery store tomatoes were a lot less stressful, albeit less tasty, because you didn't have to look the farmer in the eyes. Then wondering what it would be like to always have to look the person responsible for the production of my food in the eyes.

Ultimately, buying tomatoes that day became too much of a moral dilemma and in that moment I decided I'd just grow them myself.  My quick trip to the farmer's market turned into a much longer trip to my local big box store where purchased the things my mother told me to when I called her frantically after leaving the French Market. "Mom?  What do I need for a vegetable garden?" Black weed barrier, some plastic stakes to hold the weed barrier down, a bag of mushroom compost, peat moss and a few tomato, pepper and herb plants.

Back at home, I selected a spot immediately in front of our dilapidated patio.  The placement of the garden was terrible from an aesthetic perspective but given my tendency to quit projects, I thought if I put it as close to the house as possible, in as conspicuous place as possible, I'd be more likely to maintain it.  After I decided where the garden should go, I laid the black fabric on top of the grass but the grass was too tall; the fabric wouldn't lay flat and I immediately became frustrated.  I tried to drive the green plastic stakes into the corners but the the thin fabric kept tearing away from the stakes.  I needed a hammer to get the stakes through the thick layer of sod but being plastic, many of the stakes broke under the weight of the hammer.  I fought with it all, cussed, threw stuff.  I was glad nobody was there to see me.  When I had the fabric secure enough, I used kitchen scissors to cut X's a couple of feet apart where I planned to plant the tomatoes and about a foot apart for everything else.  And then I began to dig.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I'm a .com!

If you follow me on twitter you know that switching my website to its own .com is something I've been thinking about for a couple of years.  With my blogs 4th birthday on the horizon and some exciting new garden writing projects coming up this summer, I thought it was the perfect time to take that step.  While I was at it, I also decided to get a proper logo and do some redesign on my new site.  There will likely be some additional tweaks until it looks like I want it to.  I've also updated my blog's facebook page with the new logo.  

In conjunction with my little makeover project, I'm planning to finally attempt to explain the name of my blog so stay tuned.  In the meantime I have two questions for you...

  1. How do you like the yellow background?
  2. What do you think my blog name means?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show: The Stone Garden

Silent Poetry
The Confluence of Stone and Plants

This was my favorite demonstration garden at the 2011 Chicagoland Flower and Garden Show.  I don't really get the connection to the theme "The Sport of Gardening" but I still loved it.

The day I attended the show the artist was there chipping away at a huge piece of rock that would eventually become one of these works of art.  The backdrop of interesting conifers from Rich's Foxwillow Pines Nursery was perfect for these huge Shona sculptures from Zimbabwe.  It was dramatic and calming at the same time.  I was drawn back to this garden over and over.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Friday, March 4, 2011

On the Failure to Grow Poppies

It's like a relationship with a bad boyfriend.  You pour everything you've got into it but he always fails you.  You're sad. Angry.  I am always angry.  You swear you'll never go back.  But then, because you're a sucker who never learns, you give him another chance.  You analyze and rationalize why it didn't work last time, coming up with what seems like perfectly logical reasons.  This time, it'll be different.

Last night I sowed some Blue Himalayan Poppy seeds in coir pellets in the basement under grow lights.  This is my 3rd or 4rd try. I have read about the climate they enjoy, cool, damp, partially shaded. (he's not right for you)  I have only known Canadians who've successfully grown them.  But I am seduced by their blue flower beauty.  I'm shamefully obsessed with growing these plants in my garden.  At just about any cost.  I just want one bloom.  One bloom! If I can get one bloom, I'll consider it a success. (it'll be different this time)

I don't know why but I simply cannot grow poppies.  It's not just the elusive Blue Himalayan ones, it's regular ole poppies, Oriental ones and California ones.  None of them will grow in my garden.  I have tried every type of seed sowing I know on every type of poppy that I've ever seen.  Indoor under shop lights, winter sowing, direct sow.  None of it works.  Yet, as I struggle, as my self confidence is destroyed, people all over the place are bragging about how easy they are to grow, posting beautiful pictures of their fields of poppies. (he's just not that into you)

Last year I thought I'd finally found the right method.  Mr. Brown Thumb had been telling me for years that he scatters them over one of the last snows of the season, then it snows atop the seeds forcing them down onto the dirt. In spring they just appear, clusters of traffic stopping, hooker attracting poppies.  So, during a late February snow I was out in my coat and hat scattering 5 packs of poppy seeds about my garden.  I felt foolish.  I hoped none of the neighbors was watching.  But I just kept reminding myself that in the spring when folks were telling all their friends about it, "hey, did you see that house down the street with all the gorgeous poppies?" how crazy I looked scattering seeds around in the snow wouldn't matter.  Out of 5 packs, surely few will come up, I thought.

In spring when things started sprouting you could find me out in the garden every day bent over staring at some little green thing that was starting to emerge from the dirt.  They were mostly weeds, but one looked promising, with fragile lacy leaves.  That must be it! It must be!  It was butted right up against the patio which seemed odd because I thought I'd been careful not to put them too close to it.  But yes!  This definitely looked like a poppy!  I watched it all summer long, ignoring other folks in the garden blogging community bragging about their poppies already blooming as my one lone poppy slowly grew. (he's just running late)  By then, I'd even seen an entire bed of deep red ones in my neighbor's yard while peering out my kitchen window.  (jealousy, denial)

The poppy looking plant never got more than about 8 inches tall and then it started to spread over onto my brick patio almost like a ground cover or vine and although I remained in denial for a while, when I saw the lovely delegate purple blooms I knew it was some kind of verbena that had volunteered.  I was crushed.  The verbena was beautiful in its own right, but it was not what I wanted.  It just showed up there, accidentally beautiful. Visitors to my garden commented on it.  "Wow! What's that? The contrast between the plant and that dark brick is striking!" they'd say.  "Meh, it's some verbena.  I have no idea where it came from." I'd dismiss.  It required nothing from me and stayed beautiful all summer.   I admired it but I certainly never marveled at it, I always compared it to the poppy.  It didn't measure up.

If you've successfully grown poppies before, what is your secret?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Beginner Gardeners, Start With Hybrids!

I was worried when he said he was planting that tomato in a pot on his patio.  Growing vegetables in containers is supposed to be easy but I haven't had much success with it, myself.  I tried to warn him.  "But. But. Tomatoes need so much water!  And containers in general need so much water!  Are you sure?"  In reality, I should have known better than to give an Heirloom Brandywine to somebody who's never had a garden before, that has a nearly fully shaded yard, the one sunny spot a piece of concrete.   Brandywine tomatoes are humongous.  Big tomatoes need lots of water!  And this one was started from seed, late.  Half assed taken care of.  It didn't stand a chance.

Last year, like usual, I sowed way more tomato seeds than I needed.  We'd originally planned to have a plant sale to raise money for Forest Park Community Garden but as it turned out, we didn't have enough places to sell everything we'd grown and before we knew it, it was past time for kitchen gardens to be planted.  Desperate, not ready to compost the few I had left, I convinced my office mate to take one of the spindly leftover Brandywines.  Between the squirrels and his toddler thinking they were balls, I believe he only got two tomatoes the entire season.  It didn't produce very many to start with.  I still feel responsible that his first gardening experience wasn't life altering like mine was.  It got me thinking that, for new gardeners, rather than starting them out with Heirloom varieties like I did in the case of the spindly Heirloom Brandywine, hybrids might be the way to go, for three reasons.
  1. They're prolific.  As a new gardener it can be pretty devastating to coddle a plant all season only to harvest a few tomatoes.  Hybrids are bred to be much more prolific than Heirlooms.  When you grow an Heirloom tomato, you go in knowing that whatever fruit you get will probably be amazing, but you probably won't get very many. Hybrids still taste good and they are consistent, heavy producers.
  2. They're disease resistant.  Aside from watering, new gardeners, especially ones committed to organic gardening, are pretty clueless about how to prevent or treat disease.  And at least in my experience, Heirlooms seem more susceptible to them.  Hybrids are bred to resist the most common diseases effecting that particular plant variety. 
  3. They're easy to find.  Although Heirloom varieties are popping up more in big box stores and I've even found some at my local grocery store over the past 2 years, hybrids are everywhere.  
As a beginning gardener, especially a tomato gardener, (nearly all of them are!) the focus ought to be on finding a good sunny spot, getting in the habit of regular and appropriate watering, proper staking and all that stuff.  A good friend of mine always told me that successes build on each other.  That is particularly true with gardening.  My first year, I bought whatever was sold at my local big box store.  And my garden was so successful that I wanted to expand it, explore new varieties, try out these Heirlooms I'd read tasted so amazing.  By that time I had enough experience under my belt that I felt confident I could take on these sometimes harder to grow plants.  I'm pretty sure that, had I started gardening with Heirlooms I would have been so discouraged by their production and my lack of knowledge of how to control pests and diseases organically that I may not have ever gardened again.  I grow mostly Heirlooms now but I always have at least one hybrid tomato because I know that guarantees me tomatoes in case all the Heirlooms fail to produce or die from disease.
    This year my office mate has agreed to give tomato growing another shot.  Not only that, I've recruited two new coworkers willing to try gardening.  They're all growing in containers. I'm planning to give them each one Sungold Cherry Tomato plant and one New Girl.  Both these hybrid tomatoes should be reliable, easy to grow and prolific, even in containers.   I want them to love gardening this year, not to stress over it.  I want them to learn and marvel and feel gratified.  If my plan works, they will make the same natural progression towards those old delicious Heirloom varieties many of us experienced gardeners have.

    I know the hardcore gardeners will likely gasp over me openly endorsing hybrids here, but I have given this a lot of thought.  My goal is to grow new gardeners, not one-year-gardeners.  And I believe that starting with hybrids increases the chance that a person will continue gardening beyond that first, difficult year.

    As a new gardener, did you start with hybrids or Heirlooms?  Either way, what was your experience?