Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Jardin Alcatraz: Or How I Became A "Gardener"

I grew up in a small town in Central Illinois. It was largely a farming community, although there was a large segment of the population that also worked in either the nearby coalmine or for the state government in Springfield, just down the road. While I didn't grow up on a farm, I had plenty of friends who did. If any of them read this post, they will likely wet their pants from laughter or give themselves a concussion from shaking their head so hard in wonderment that there could exist a simpleton such as I.

The reason? I am attempting to grow my own food. That's right. I have a garden. It is possibly the weensiest garden on the planet, but it's a good way to start. Especially for a greenhorn like me.

Last summer, I discovered Square Foot Gardening. I read about it and decided it made sense and would be something that I could attempt without looking like a complete gardening idiot. The premise is that you have a raised garden bed and instead of planting your plants in rows, you divide your garden into square foot sections, with each plant getting its own square foot. This eliminates the need for walking along rows as every plant can be reached from the edge of the planting bed. Also, since you don't walk along the dirt, there is no compression of the dirt around the plants and their roots, allowing for better growth. There is also less weeding because you place weed barrier down and build the planting box over it. As I said, this sounded like just the thing for a newbie like me.

Growing up, my parents didn't have a garden. They raised a tomato plant or two, but never felt the need to go all out and plant a garden. When I was young I was glad of this because it meant I didn't have to do any of the work associated with keeping a garden.

One of my best friends when I was growing up had a large patch of her yard dedicated to a garden and she and her sister had to work in it, weeding and such. This was always a bummer when I would come down to see if she could play. "No, I have to work in the garden," she'd say glumly. Then I would leave, disappointed, but also glad that my parents weren't gardeners and I'd skip off to find something else to do on my summer day; probably this involved whining to my mother that I had no one to play with.

For some reason, a few years ago, the notion of raising food that I could then eat was completely enchanting to me. I started back in our old house with a container for bell peppers because I love red peppers, but ouch! Have you priced them at the grocery? So I grew peppers in a pot and was so excited with my yield of 2 peppers in two years. Just call me Mrs. Greenjeans! It was really okay, though, because nobody else in my family eats peppers, so it was just enough for me.

But when we moved and acquired a much larger plot of land, I decided that I was going to try my hand at raising some food. Well, vegetables. Obviously I am not ready to start keeping chickens or goats or cattle. Especially with the issues in this neighborhood. But a garden wouldn't disturb anybody and in fact, could butter some people up if I found some generosity within myself and shared my bounty.

For Mother's Day I asked my husband to build me a raised bed and he obliged. Quickly I set about putting in the plants I had been raising from seedlings. They all died of transplant shock. Things were not looking good. But I sucked it up, replanted some seeds and bought some young plants for vegetables that are harder to raise from seeds. (Hello, peppers! I am talking to you!) The children would check the beds and report to me which seeds were sprouting. Each and every time there was something new they were absolutely breathless in their reports such was their excitement. I have to admit, I experienced a small thrill as I watched the seeds sprout, as well.

And now, I eagerly check my garden each morning after I have walked the dog. It is exciting to see what new vegetable is coming on. We've had some wonderful tender lettuce so far. And the other evening, I harvested two whole sugar snap peas, which my boys ate with gusto. It was extremely gratifying to hear their robust "MMMMsss" after they sampled their lone peas. My daughters, however, want nothing to do with peas. Maggie has proclaimed peas "gross" since she was about 6. Mary hasn't voluntarily consumed a pea since she was in a high chair. The boys (my new favorites) can't wait for new veggies to come on so that they can try them. But hey. I am eating food that I have grown!! Next to growing a child from cells, this is the most amazing thing I have ever done.

So here is a look at my mini vegetable garden.

See? Mini zucchini!

See? Mini peppers!

See? Mini carrots!

See? Mini, but very tender lettuce!

See? Cucumbers that haven't yet done anything but flower! Oh, but when they do? Cucumber sandwiches and cucumber and onion salad are on the menu!!

See? Sugar snap peas! Oh, stir I come!!

And also Sunflowers! Wait. Sunflowers? Yes. I planted some flowers in my square foot garden. I planted sunflowers, because the children wanted to see a giant sunflower grow. They didn't believe that it would be somewhere between 8 and 12 feet tall. Phsst. Rookies.

Also--Zinnias, because I love them.

Cosmos, because they are so ethereal.Marigolds, because they are an organic way to keep critters away. Maybe next year I won't plant so many flowers, but if I do? So what! It's my garden and I'll plant what I want to!

Also? I have named my garden Jardin Alcatraz, because there is no way, due to fencing, that anything is getting out that shouldn't be out, or coming in that shouldn't be in!

I love my Alcatraz garden. I talk to the plants. I treat them like beloved pets. I coo at them-- right before I rip the fruit from their stalks and consume them with culinary relish. BWHAHAHAHA!! Yes. I am one sick puppy. Also, I am taking orders for zucchini bread. Want some?

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