There may come a time in your life during which you inherit a garden. Or perhaps you will be given one, or find one. Any way it happens, I can guarantee that you will think one thing, and that thing will be, “What the hell were they thinking?”
The Young Couple
I was given a garden by a neighbor when she moved out of our shared building. She and her partner were moving into a yurt; a yurt they built themselves out of organically raised, local lumber, and plaster made from quinoa husks and the tears of vegan environmentalists. I assume.
Our house sits at the front of a strip of lawn, in the center of a 30-acre wood. There is one sunny patch at the end of this lawn, in which squats a large, fenced-in patch of weeds masquerading as a vegetable garden. Along the front and south side of the house is another patch of weeds, through which occasional clumps of irises struggle up. By the time we moved in, two years ago during a particularly hot and humid July, these sunny patches had been claimed by our neighbor, by virtue of her four month seniority.
“There’s 30 acres here,” she snorted, when I ventured to ask if we might share some garden space. “I think we can co-exist.”
“Yes,” I replied, “but I can’t really grow tomatoes in the woods.”
For this she had no answer, but neither was garden space forthcoming.
During the following months I watched, with mixed amusement and furious anger, as she flailed about in the garden. Truckloads of hay were laid down for mulch, until enough oat sprouted to supply a bakery. A gallant cucumber struggled up through the weeds, fruit spoiling on the vine, grabbing at the fence for support like a man who has reached the dead end in which the pursuing zombies will devour him. An aggressive comfrey plant reached out its leafy claws and ate an infant tomato patch. Four large flats of baby kale sat on the lawn for months, until the sun withered them. (The two kale plants that made it into the garden grew leggy, until their moth-eaten heads flopped over.) Every plant that survived to make fruit lay forgotten, unpicked, and unloved. Meanwhile, I turned over a new bed on either side of the sunny quarter, mentally casting the evil eye over all their land, cursing their children, and their children’s children, and the giant black walnut under which my corn and beans sulked.
Perhaps you think I am unduly harsh. It’s hard for me to feel charitable about these former neighbors. She and her partner had moved out from the city, and their inexperience was clear. So, however, was their overwhelming sense of smug superiority. They had read articles, you see. Articles on organic gardening, if you please. If we needed any help, we could just let them know.
But eventually they moved, and they took their ducks with them.
“Chickens are so smelly,” they had sneered when we moved in. “We had chickens.”
“Only when you don’t clean up after them,” I replied, trying to keep my face carefully neutral.
Before they left she took me on a tour of the garden, which she had so graciously given over to my care. “We’re coming back for the garlic,” she said, waving at a patch of grass. “And the walking onions.” Another wave. “But I brought in organic compost for the beds. And everything has been sheet mulched.”
Over the next year, that became my refrain. “It’s been sheet mulched!” I said, as I shoved my fork in the bed, to discover that the compost had been summarily dumped on top of solid clay. “It’s been sheet mulched!” I shouted, as I heaved another head-sized rock out of the dirt. “But it’s been sheet mulched!” Mr. Cloud Ring laughed, as I pulled out yet another grass root as long as myself. Under the cool, moist cardboard and hay with which she had “sheet mulched” the garden, the grass had been having the time of its life. Never have I seen grass roots so hardy and wide reaching. As the cardboard disintegrated I also discovered that she had neglected to remove the packing tape. Eventually the autumn wind began blowing the trash and bits of cardboard through the garden, clogging the fence and creating a visual tableau best described as “blustery Walmart parking lot.”
But not everything could be blamed on our neighbors. The glass, for example. Broken glass is a given in any old garden space, but over the last two years I’ve pulled out enough glass to re-glaze a cathedral. And it’s not just in the garden, either. In the woods, in the chicken pen, along the stream… Whoever used to live at this house, I can only assume a window killed his mother. Nothing else explains this level of carnage.
I’ve more or less got the garden under control now. I’ve smothered the comfrey under a compost pile. I whacked the couch grass into submission. I hauled out enough rock to build a second apartment. Of course, we’re leaving in three months, so I’ll have to turn it over to some other young couple. They shouldn’t have any problems with it. After all, it’s been sheet mulched.
I came across this gem after reading a book written by the featured writer. I’m reading his books on my Kindle for PC. Or I was, but I’ve taken a break to bang out a blog post. In a minute I’ll send my dad an email, and then I’ll probably get back on Google and scroll through some old cookbooks. Maybe I’ll work on my business case in Open Office, and make some copies for review. Although sometimes my printer acts up.
Dig (Through Google) For Victory!
Being poor was getting a little dull, and I thought it could be more fun, and by “fun” I mean it could involve a lot more research. So I decided to fight any Nazis that might be left after four Indiana Jones movies (and that Quentin Tarantino one) by way of World War II rationing.
Rationing has the benefit of being both historically fascinating and economical, which is not often the case with these reenactment schemes. (Honestly. Have you ever tried to buy enough linen to sew a coathardie? You could buy an entire Norman castle for that kind of money.) It also ties in with my garden plans for this year, which are to grow as much food as I can, in a small space, for the least money. (Last year my plan was “Moorish Palace,” which was less successful.)
After much research, and many internet hours later, I had discovered two things. First, I am not the first person to think to themselves, “World War II rationing? SOUNDS FUN.” Second, I am apparently the only person IN THE ENTIRE WORLD who has heard the phrase “source citation.” Or “primary source material.” Or “where the hell did you read that are you sure you didn’t just imagine it a diet of lard can do that to you.” There are several rationing blogs out there, and I’m sure they’re written by very nice people, people who pay their taxes and love their children, but those blogs can bite me. I’m not going to name names, because this blog isn’t about shame, even if that shame is well deserved, but I think we can all agree that “Cite Thy Sources” only missed out on being a commandment because there wasn’t enough room for an eleventh law on the tablet.
You Keep Using That Word…
Having said that, I did discover some delightful wartime cookbooks on Google Books. (When they legalize marriage between man and website I will be marrying Google Books, in an elaborate Tahitian ceremony I’ve been planning in my spare time.) The best of them has been “Mary Elizabeth’s War Time Recipes; Containing Recipes for Wheatless Cakes, Meatless Dishes, Sugarless Candies, Delicious War Time Desserts, Etc.” published 1918. (Wrong war. So sue me.) It’s worth noting that when Mary Elizabeth says “sugarless” she means “not containing white cane sugar but four cups of honey will be dandy,” and when she says “meatless” she means “containing an unbelievable amount of meat but no beef.” By Mary Elizabeth’s standards I’m an ascetic Hindu monk.
I can highly recommend Mary Elizabeth’s cookbook, as it’s absolutely packed with simple-yet-delicious recipes. Also some strange ones. Like the cooked cucumber quarters with mayonnaise. And the broiled calves brains.
Many have a prejudice against calves brains, because they have not been in the habit of eating them ; but they are such a delicacy that we should overcome this idea and use them more often. After all, it is a ridiculous thing to eat and enjoy calves liver and shrink from eating calves brains. And calves brains, too, have the merit of being inexpensive — a rare merit in these days of soaring prices. In our own home, they have been served and enjoyed by people who might have turned up their noses had they known what they were eating (a small deception, which is quite permissible in proving the point that they are a real delicacy).
I have so far been unsuccessful in locating anyone who would like to be deceived into enjoying brains. My friend Kenda, who is an expert in all things zombie related, claimed to be doing a “vegan thing,” and my marriage isn’t strong enough to risk a ruse like that on Mr. Cloud Ring. I could try it on the dog, but he also eats bird poop and used tissues for fun, so I don’t think I would learn much. (“At least as good as bird poop and used tissues” is not something you often see on menus.)
I’ve only had time to test one recipe so far, but it was so good I’d like to share it with you.
I halved the recipe, so mine went like this:
1/2 lb Goya dried black beans, soaked in a bowl of water overnight
8 cups water
2 tablespoons beef bouillon (I was out of chicken)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda (to help the beans cook)
Some chopped carrots
Some chopped onion
Some celery tops
A fresh bay leaf
Salt and pepper
When it had cooked for three hours I whipped it up in the blender, and it was just about the tastiest thing ever. I don’t even LIKE beans. I only picked this recipe because I enjoy collecting dried beans out of pods, and I need to find a way to justify growing them. (Beans are also shiny, which I quite like.)
So the rationing has been going well. I even used my knowledge of blackout procedures to convince the landlord I wasn’t home. The only hiccup has been butter, which Mr. Cloud Ring says I can’t ration. And he said it with a look that strongly implied that anyone who DID happen to ration his butter would find themselves fertilizing the victory garden. So for the sake of the nation I’m gonna let that one go.
Today’s Topic: Tools
Welcome to the first post of Sei Shonagon’s Garden Guide! In these Guides I’ll be sharing my hard-won gardening wisdom, all carefully harvested from five years of embarrassing, boneheaded mistakes. If you’re completely new to gardening, if you haven’t got the time or the money, or even if you have gardened previously and you had a really miserable time, don’t give up hope! Come along on a voyage of discovery, as I show you, step by step, how to win at gardening.
What You DON’T Need
There is a certain gardening catalog which, for legal reasons, I’m going to refer to as “Durpee.” I’m pretty sure you know which one I’m talking about. The photos are lush, the pages are glossy, and everything in it is overpriced. The plants are mostly patented hybrids, which means you can’t save the seeds. The plant descriptions are written in a distinctive car salesman patois, where “dies midway through the summer” becomes “early season crop,” and “grows three miniscule tomatoes” becomes “produces adorable fruits – great for kids!” I feel immense disdain for this catalog, and I end up ordering something from them every year.
In the back of the Durpee catalog is a collection of the most useless, over-hyped garden junk you will ever see. Special weed killing fabric! Three yards of special string for tying tomatoes! Plastic funnels for watering! $90 seedling heat mats! Special compost “activator”! SAVE BIG ON STICKS. ORDER NOW.
On reading this, the novice could be forgiven for thinking that gardening was akin to rocket science. Look at all the specialized equipment! Gardening must be a very tricky, scientific business, if tomatoes have to be supported with their very own sticks.
Balls, I say. BALLS. Gardening is no more difficult than driving a car, far less dangerous, and much cheaper. Our ancient ancestors grew their own food, and they weren’t even advanced enough to have discovered lending libraries or money market accounts. The weeds growing in my lawn do just fine, and I’ve never fertilized them with ANYTHING, let alone organic seaweed granules.
So what you DON’T need is any fancy-ass gizmos, specialized jangles, or anything out of the back of the Durpee catalog. You also don’t need a special hat, or little gloves, or a fancy bag for tools, or even a little mat to kneel on with pictures of butterflies on it. What do you think this is, a fashion show?
What You DO Need
1. A shovel
2. A fork
3. A hand trowel
4. A large watering can or hose, depending on the size of your garden and the state of your back.
5. A wheelbarrow
THAT IS IT. You can maybe get a sturdy rake if you have a use for it. (My rule for tools: if I find myself on five or more occasions, saying, “Man, I wish I had a ___,” then and only then may I buy one.) If you have a woodsy backyard and/or a consistent supply of brush, there’s a few more odds and ends you might need. You can get fancy and buy a used chipper/shredder off Craigslist for $200. Then you can make your own mulch. Get a little twig clipper if you have woody plants, and maybe a saw. (One little saw is enough. You don’t need a specialized set of saws any more than you need a $50 compost bucket with replaceable carbon filters.)
You can get 10-gallon buckets from restaurants for free, and then you can either sit or carry, depending on which way up you’ve got the bucket. You can also get newspapers and cardboard for free, and you can spread them around to keep the weeds down. You can get regular, ordinary string and tie your tomato to a stick you FOUND IN THE WOODS FOR FREE. Remember: Craigslist is your friend. For every one of you, there is someone who did the same thing last season and gave up in disgust. It’s a pity for them I hadn’t yet written my garden guide, but their loss is your gain.
Next time we’ll talk about why gardening gloves are for pussies, and why you can take your pH test kit and shove it.