Around the Farm: Learning to love a vegetable garden

Even though Christmas is a just week away, my vegetable garden is still alive and kicking. Not all of it, of course: The tomatoes and their warm-weather siblings are long gone. But the kale, chard, broccoli, leeks and brussels sprouts have hung on by the skin of their teeth, surprising me with their defiance of the cold and frost.

I never thought I’d appreciate their efforts so much.

winter greens
Late-season crops, mostly greens, still going strong

Since I first sprouted a green thumb, I had always been more of a flower gardener. I loved caring for my perennial beds, weeding them, watching their show of colorful blooms change with every passing season. They were what fed me for many years, a meal of beauty and endless photographic opportunities between the buds, blossoms and the bugs they nurtured.

The few vegetables I had tried to grow in containers or the small raised bed in my backyard when I lived in town never did well. I’m not the best with any potted plants outdoors – I hate being a slave to watering them all the time. And between the nearby houses and trees, there wasn’t enough sun over the bed to give it’s residents any real chance to thrive.

Plus, I really was partial to putting plants right in the ground, where they could take equal care of themselves. I thought if I gave them a good start, it was their responsibility to take it from there.

A vegetable garden just seemed too high-maintenance, like keeping up with a body that relied on daily gym workouts (which I never did).

So it took me awhile to come to terms with starting a vegetable garden here. I finally had enough space and sunshine, but I continued to hesitate. I knew it would be a lot more work. Laziness probably, and the memory of failing at my meager efforts in the past kept tripping me up.

But much of the idea behind moving to the farm was a commitment to living a more sustainable life, my food supply included. I couldn’t fulfill that promise to the world or myself if I didn’t give vegetable gardening another try, if I let laziness win out.

And this place used to be a vegetable farm, so how could I deny it some sort of legacy?

strawberry starts
Perennial strawberries protected by netting to save their tasty fruit

Beneath the barn I found what looked like old wooden frames for setting out seedlings and transplants. There were several of them in various sizes, anywhere from two- to three-feet wide by four-, six-, and eight-feet long. All were only about 3 inches deep.

I decided to build raised beds out of them as best I could. I didn’t have a tiller to dig a big bed in the ground, and I had done a lot of reading about how raised beds were better in many ways, by not disturbing the soil structure and organisms that live in it or bringing up weed seeds.

So in May of 2012 I built the raised garden out back, stacking the wooden frames of similar sizes together to make certain beds deeper, filling them with a mixture of soil and compost. They looked pretty puny next to the skeleton of the old greenhouse, and were definitely dwarfed by the 40 acres of fields all around. But, it was a start.

That first year I made a gardening plan and stuck by it. I watered religiously. I tried out the square-foot method, and ended up over-crowding some plants and giving too much space to others. The very tall ones and the very short ones did okay, but the in-between ones… not so much.

The next year I decided to take a more relaxed approach. Like a parent with their second child, I didn’t try to be so perfect or well-prepared. I worried and watered less, trusting nature would somehow take care of itself. Unfortunately I relaxed too much, neglecting to put up a fence to keep out bunnies and, fittingly, ended up with little to show for my efforts.

This past year, however, was a major improvement. I like to think I achieved a happy medium and learned from previous years’ errors. I built an additional bed and set myself and the plants up well in the spring. I mulched and put up gardening cloth and hoops, added a soaker-hose system and an automatic timer. With each step that made things easier or more productive, my appreciation grew.

sheltered chard
Swiss chard, kale and other transplants off to a good start

But I have to admit, there were moments when I still didn’t love it all the time.

In June, wind blew my hoops and their protective cloths all the way to Kansas to meet Dorothy. Then followed many hours under the hot summer sun spent picking herds of Japanese beetles off leaves or hunting down well-camouflaged cabbage worms that were eating a lot more than just cabbage. My soaker hoses clogged up once, and I had to return to hand-watering until I fixed them, a chore that became even more tedious having formerly given it up.

At those times I couldn’t help but think, What the f*#% was I thinking doing this? But I kept on going. After all, any relationship worth keeping involves work, right?

I ended up having more vegetables than I knew what to do with. My two freezers are full, so I’m not likely starve this winter. I’ll be able to eat apples or greens or squash in the middle of February without making a trip to the grocery store. I gave a lot of stuff away. And I have the satisfaction of knowing I grew much of my own food, making the space I take up on the planet just that little bit smaller.

Next year, who knows? I may dig an in-ground bed finally, try more companion planting and crop rotation. It’s a bit of an on-going experiment, really.

But what I can say, after these past few years, is that I know more now about what I like to eat, what I can realistically grow or can’t, how much of it I need, and how to go about preserving anything that’s leftover. I’ve learned more about my own limits and that of the world around me, the larger one and the one just outside my back door.

What I’ve also learned, harvested from my garden along with all the vegetables, if you will, is the understanding that I’m going to have to keep growing right alongside my plants. It’s work and effort to try and be a better part of this world, to live with and within in it, instead of just on top. Love is like that. And I think that’s a crop well worth tending.