For those of you trying to grow food this year, some for the first time, I don’t need to tell you about the many challenges.
Besides the dry weather, difficulty finding seeds or plants, bugs, etc. (all normal stuff, by the way), I also experienced a dramatic increase in age-related slowdown, difficulty moving around the garden, and a drop in stamina and strength.
Grateful to be still on this side of the dirt, I just thought I’d collect some ideas that might be useful to others, not necessarily just for the older gardeners.
• Make your garden paths at least twice as wide as you think you’ll need them to be.
How many times did I lose my balance walking between my garden beds, and had to put my foot down IN the bed to regain my balance, and always where I had assiduously avoided walking so as not to compress my fluffy soil?
I just needed more width to compensate for losing my balance more often and more dramatically.
Also, if you have to sit in the row to work, where are you going to put your feet? With a wider row, I could put a piece of firewood on end or an old sap bucket in the row to sit on, and I’d still have a place for heels to rest without compressing soil in the bed.
Once I tried sitting on the ground to weed and thin my carrots. The gymnastics required to get up again in that narrow row would have won a floor exercise competition at the Olympics. There were times I needed to bring in the garden cart or wheelbarrow filled with some needed amendment that I used to carry effortlessly in buckets, because I was younger then. Wider rows would have made that task much easier.
• Let the self-sowers and the overwinterers do their thing and they’ll reward you.
I let my garden be more random. Remember that Nature abhors a vacuum, which is the principal behind never letting soil go unprotected if you can help it. It’ll be populated immediately by something, and that might be something you don’t want.
Alternatively, let your self-sowers and overwintering food plants take up some space for a while — you might be moving more slowly than you anticipated anyway.
I used to get several rows seeded and mulched or under cover before getting any transplants in the ground (mid-June) but this year I found that my ambition far exceeded my capability. I never even planned a good part of the garden — it just happened, which also meant a good deal less soil disturbance (and work) than in times past.
Example: a friend advised me many years ago to stop fighting the Gil-over-the-ground (Glechoma hederacea, also known as creeping Charlie) and make friends with it. I found that it makes a dandy winter cover crop. I just opened a 3-inch or 4-inch path through the mat and put transplants into it.
The same holds true for Dutch white clover. The parsley and kale I planted into the clover were gorgeous, feeding off the stored nitrogen. Throughout the dry summer the ground cover conserved moisture and saved me much watering labor. The pepper plants nestled into the middle of a patch of Glechoma were always moist and produced abundantly.
I also enjoyed some tasty greens from forgotten and overwintered turnips, rutabagas, kale and lettuce, let them flower for the pollinators’ sake and then took them out when it turned hot. I never sowed the Calendula, Nicotiana, Nigella, cleome, morning glories or most of the tomatoes, yet I enjoyed their glories nonetheless, just by letting them have their space.
• Protect seedlings right from the start.
After a neighbor complained about how he “hates robins” because they ate his sprouting raspberry plants down to the ground, I suspected that what I thought was slug damage might actually be due to birds.
I paid attention one morning long enough to solve the mystery of what had completely mowed down my first planting of peas: sparrows and starlings. So, up went the row cover and I resolved never again to leave anything uncovered for the birds to eat.
It’s essential to prepare anyway for late/early frosts. Have your structures in place before seeds or transplants go in the ground. With our weather more and more erratic, you can protect your plantings and hedge against unfavorable weather in one stroke.
• Even heat-loving plants can get cooked.
I thought I was doing the right thing transplanting cucumbers and peppers into warm soil under light row cover. The outside temps went over 90 degrees and I left the cover on, thinking that with enough water the plants would be OK. They weren’t — they got cooked. I should have taken the cover off and shaded them temporarily because they were very vulnerable at that stage. It would have been better to wait for slightly cooler weather.
I’ll be contemplating more lessons as I marinate further throughout the winter. Whatever reduces stooping, bending or kneeling will be part of the plan. There will be lots more and bigger raised beds, and at least one of them will be devoted to carrots.
(Deborah Bigelow is a volunteer master gardener with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Allegany County.)