When I started the Grow Your Own program last year, I had been successful with houseplants, a few potted vegetables, but had never had my own garden. I was so excited when my landlord allowed me to dig up two 20 ft rows in the front yard, and even more excited to eat the delicious vegetables I grew that year. This year, doing some major landscaping on my partners’ family property, we unearthed the former family garden, unused for almost 10 years. We didn’t quite know what we were getting into when I said we should start it up again, but I’m still glad I did and I know that the struggles and successes we have had so far will stay with me forever!
What we were left with after removing autumn olive, locust and a variety of shrubs and brambles, was an 8,000 sq ft clean slate. It feels like it got bigger every time we worked on it. We could have just planted directly into the soil, but in our participation in the SWVA Field School hosted by ASD we learned about how important soil organic matter is, how compost can benefit soil in long term protection and nutrient composition. So we went to work acquiring compost and mulch. We spent a few weeks making slightly raised beds with compost turned into the soil which had been disced and tilled to soften it up. We hope to never till again, and only use hand tools to loosen the soil and add more compost over the years along with mulch between the rows.
All of this work put us 2 weeks behind in planting, which then took more than 2 weeks to fully complete. We ended up with 4 “quadrants”, 2 quadrants with 15 rows total and 2 other areas without distinct rows for corn, pumpkins and flowers. We got to work planting the tomatoes and peppers I had started from seed, along with transplants and seeds provided by the GYO program in the rows. We are now well into the growing season and learning more every day.
Of course, the pretty pictures painted by gardeners are pretty and aspirational for all of us, but it is always good to recount the challenges it took to get there! For us, there have been a couple hurdles that we are still working on. Firstly, the soil and more importantly, compost; we got compost from a friend with a horse stable, under the assumption that the Carbon to Nitrogen ratio would be adequate. However, a few weeks into growing we noticed that the nightshades, peppers and tomatoes, were having strange leaf curls. We are still uncertain what imbalance or concern this could come from. So, if you need one, this is officially your sign to get your soil tested and to always get your compost from a reputable source!
This brings us to our second challenge: pests. We were unsure if the leaf curl could be derived from a pest rather than the soil, or if the pest derived from the new compost we brought in! Either way, you can squash as many of those little leaf suckers as you want, but more will come, and we’ve accepted that fate while trying to combat the issue with diatomaceous earth provided by the GYO program. A pest we were unprepared for was what took the tops off all our okra and tried to decimate our watermelon and cucumbers! There’s only so many options when it comes to groundhogs, fill in a hole and they’ll dig another. We try to take the dogs down to the garden as often as we can to deter it with their scent but at some point, the sucker will be caught and tried for his crimes. While the okra might be a lost cause I’m happy to report that the watermelon has rebounded, and we still have hope for a harvest at some point. Fortunately, we invested in a significant amount of new fencing for the season. Between the coated chicken wire, barbed wire and always remembering to close the gate we seem to have successfully protected ourselves from the herd of local deer, for now.
Maybe if they ate the weeds I’d be more accepting of their furry presence which brings us to the final challenge! I’m sure it’s no surprise that an 8,000 sq ft garden requires a LOT of WEEDING. We knew this going in and while the pathways through our garden aren’t our top priority and are a little hairy, the rows have been okay to keep up with. I can get most of the rows done in a week, though between life and regular schedules sometimes it can take a few weeks to get through and restart the cycle. My main goal is to get them pulled before they start setting seed.
All in all, my partner, his sister/my friend and I knew going in that cultivating such a large patch of land would be an adventure, to say the least. We did anticipate the hard work it would take, and I’m mostly just proud of us for not giving up. While maintaining a garden can feel like climbing a never-ending mountain, I find it therapeutic to detach from the stress of the day and the news and just be outside with the plants. There’s no cell service at our garden which is an added bonus. When I can look back after maintenance and see the beauty and bounty we created it feels good. Supplementing our diet with veggies we’ve grown ourselves feels like an accomplishment, even if it’s mostly just squash and basil for now. I’m glad to have been a GYO participant and I think the knowledge I’ve gained is only a starting point for the rest of my life.