The garden this year has been redemptive.
Previous growing has been hindered, stymied and manhandled by weather, late blight, and inexperience. But this year the space has been filled with an abundance of tomatoes and cucumbers, squash and kale. Which is exactly what I had planned.
The garden this year has also been an experiment.
All of my gardens have been experimental so far. It’s unavoidable when you’re just getting started with greater food independence. But unlike those previous gardens, this iteration has been experimental with purpose, intention, and – in the end – success.
All I wanted this year was tomatoes. Big, beautiful, bountiful tomatoes. Last year, late blight snatched away victory when it was within my grasp. And I was trying to do too much, growing lots of things for the sake of growing them and not because I really wanted to eat them. So this year I kept the garden small, focused, and manageable. Just a few beds, just four types of vegetables, up near the house. I got as many transplants as possible from the farm where I work instead of starting from seed.
I built a small collection of raised beds from reclaimed pallets and filled them with “experimental” soil. Maybe soil isn’t even the best term for it—you decide.
I started with a giant pile of dirt that had come out of my workshop when I put in the floor. I also had a pile of “the material formerly known as soil” saved from last year’s container garden. The material in both piles was about as fertile as a parking lot.
I mixed the reclaimed dirt with well-seasoned cow manure. (Free barrels of manure are another perk that come with working on a small farm.) I filled the beds with equal parts manure and dirt, alternating between the two with each bucket-load and mixing with a spade as I went.
I had no idea if this experiment would work. Nothing about this garden looked like the kind of thing you see in coffee table books or glossy magazines about gardening. It was in that moment of reflection that I had a full-blown episode of Tomato Anxiety: a deep-rooted fear that I was going to catastrophically screw up the tomatoes in my garden and end up with nothing. Not a single fruit, much less a bushel or two for canning.
But working on the farm has given me something even better than free manure: the understanding that things don’t have to be perfect to succeed. You don’t have to know everything; you never will. Instead, you just need to know the right things at any given moment in time.
Understand soil basics: Soil is shelter for the roots of a plant. Soil must hold both moisture and air in just the right amounts. It must be an appropriate medium for roots—big and small, deep and shallow—to expand in. Soil is the pantry for plants, a storehouse of food and nutrients. It’s also great if you can establish mycorrhizae as a reliable roommate to help the roots do their nutrient-uptake thing. These were the factors I carefully considered throughout my soil experiment.
Seeds and plants are resilient: Around my property, kale and lettuce and other random lonely plants grow in the lawn where seeds have been dropped. Cucumber transplants tossed into my dump bucket continued growing despite abandonment and neglect; I transferred a couple of the best-looking plants into my experimental bed, and they’ve given me beautiful cukes all season. Plants have been growing and fruiting and reproducing for how many millennia? Something was sure to grow in this experimental soil.
Mitigate transplant shock: Regardless of soil quality, stress is inevitable when moving plants from pot to earth. The trick I used this year was soaking the roots of the transplants with fish emulsion to minimize the shock. It’s a way of patting them on the back and saying, “It’s going to be okay, you can do it.”
Feed regularly: No matter how good your soil is, feeding your plants is always a plus. With the questionable nature of my soil, regular feeding was a no-brainer. Understanding what each element in the N-P-K rating does for a plant was key to smart feeding. Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium: grow up, grow down, grow all the way around. To get the tomato plants established, I used fish emulsion with a higher ratio of phosphorus. Once they were on their way to fruiting, I used fish emulsion with a higher amount of nitrogen and potassium.
Good soil doesn’t happen overnight: No amount of money and expertise can produce ideal soil in a single season. It takes an investment of care and attention and chicken manure over several years. It takes keeping the soil continually covered and filled with plant matter. It takes learning about the rhythms and needs of your particular piece of earth over time.
But that wasn’t going to stop me from growing this year. It should never stop anyone. Do what you can, with what you’ve got, right where you are.
The garden was redemptive this year. The soil wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. I got it right. The tomatoes told me so.