Garden victory

Posted by Cameron on 05.23.09 8:55 PM

(c) 2009 AEC all rights reservedA couple of weeks ago, I ended up talking to a reporter for the SF Chronicle for a story on urban gardening, and had a grand time bending her ear about my recent adventures. But after I rang off, my lovely and talented wife gently reminded me that our own home-grown publication hadn’t seen any garden news in… er… months.

Let’s see… where were we? In mid-January, everything in our newly built beds looked very promising: The radishes had sprouted, the onion sets were sporting little green mohawks, and the peas were “ready to wrestle a very tiny trellis into submission.”

But by mid-February, though the peas were still rocking and rolling, everything else had stopped growing. It was a completely pathetic sight: Rows of tiny green leaves surrounded by what looked like miles of grey-brown wasteland. By mid-March, the peas really did need some kind of trellis, but everything else was basically unchanged. I started to wonder if cold weather and frost had nuked my seedlings. Ridiculous, sure, but what did I know?

That was the start of a spring spent learning how to turn raw dirt and compost into a place where plants actually want to grow. I reconfigured the drip irrigation system three times, then watered by hand. I added more compost, cocoa bean mulch, fish emulsion, greensand, and finally a general purpose organic fertilizer. Basically, I followed the same approach as new parents confronted with a crying baby — “Is it thirsty? Is it hungry?” — except I was getting a lot more sleep.

I replanted the radishes and beets in what I hoped were more hospitable digs (ha!). But my thrill at the quick flush of new growth turned to fury as I realized that the new seedlings were being eaten down to the stem almost as soon as they emerged. As if that weren’t enough, I found that by filling raised beds with soft compost and soil, I had inadvertently opened a five-star refreshment facility for the neighborhood cats.

Imagine the thousand scenes where Clint Eastwood’s eyes narrow to a hard, weatherbeaten squint behind a loaded sixgun, and you’ve got a picture of my state of mind. The words “critter” and “varmint” entered my vocabulary. I closed the kitty spa by installing a low fence around the beds, but that didn’t stop whatever was chewing on the delicate sprouts. I embarked on nightly expeditions armed with a flashlight to try and catch insectile marauders in the act. That was the worst part: I couldn’t find any evidence of what was doing the damage. At last, I spotted a lone earwig scurrying across the beds late one night. Skeptical but desperate, I put out small tins full of beer as traps; after a couple of days, I was happy man. Those little prehistoric-looking summbitches loves them some suds, but they sure can’t swim a lick.

By this point it was April and though the peas were swarming up the second trellis I’d built (they didn’t like the first one — who knew that peas could be divas?), the rest of the plants looked like they’d survived a war. So I did the sensible thing: I planted more stuff that I’d never successfully grown before. Pickling cucumbers and cornichons took up residence in the beds. On the edges of the yard — in the sunniest, warmest spot along our northern fence — I put in St. Pierre and New Girl tomato plants, along with a brace of Kentucky pole beans around the corner. I adapted a yard composter to serve as a potato tower, populating it with seed potatoes that had returned with us from London. And although several of the cucumber plants didn’t thrive, everything else seems reasonably happy and healthy.

Back in November, when I first contemplated pulling up the slate tiles of our beautiful (though completely unused) patio and dropping a bunch of cash on wood, dirt, and compost, I slowed my racing heart by remembering that I had a lot to learn, that the first year of the garden would be a pure lark. Even so, I had no idea how difficult and how rewarding this project would be. On top of finding out basic stuff about what makes plants happy, I’m getting to know our back forty (feet) and its little ecosystem: Where the sun shines and where it doesn’t, what’s in the soil and what isn’t, and what sort of critters and varmints (good and bad) are crawling around.

One of the more amusing revelations that I’ve had along the way is that when it comes to our patch, nobody knows much more than I do. Last week, I decided that I wanted to put asparagus along the eastern fence line, but I was worried that it was too late in the season to plant the crowns. I fired off an e-mail to an expert source and got a response that boiled down to, “Sounds like a great idea! It might work…but then again it might not. Give it a try!” They say that in politics that if you want a friend, you should get a dog. In gardening, if you want certainty, get FedEx or get religion.

But the lack of guarantees may be what makes the harvest so special and satisfying. I still can’t quite believe it when I see the (very small) piles of radishes on the counter that went from seed to salad not thirty feet from the kitchen sink. I’ve got a long way to go, but the path ahead is one of the most inviting that I’ve ever seen. Every single peapod I munch tastes like victory.

(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved




Comment by Genie

Perhaps they are pea-vas? Having tasted one of the pods’ worth, I can absolutely corroborate that they are rock-star good, for sure. :-)

Posted on 05.23.09 at 9:14PM

Comment by Kalyn

This may be one of the more profound things I’ve read about gardening: “They say that in politics that if you want a friend, you should get a dog. In gardening, if you want certainty, get FedEx or get religion.”

Occasionally people write and ask me for gardening advice and although I do sometimes offer suggestions, truly there are so many variables that it’s hard to generalize!

Posted on 05.24.09 at 6:40AM

Comment by Cameron

Genie: You should know, rock star! We planted a second batch yesterday. We’ll see how peas like SF summers.

Kalyn: Thank you! I should mention that I’ve received really useful advice from several friends. Special thanks are due to Genie and Laura!

Posted on 05.24.09 at 7:50AM

Comment by cookiecrumb

I love the taste of peapods in the morning…

Good work, you two.

Posted on 05.24.09 at 12:50PM

Comment by Missy

It’s so good to see someone else giving a garden a whirl in a very small space! My kids will eat stuff straight out of the garden that they won’t touch otherwise and they love to harvest on their own. My attitude toward my garden is if it grows, great! If not, seeds are cheap and we can try something else.

Have fun with it!

Posted on 05.24.09 at 4:50PM

Comment by Morgan

“Those little prehistoric-looking summbitches loves them some suds, but they sure can’t swim a lick.”

…I sware you grew up in South Texas.

Glad to get an update. Every one of my tomatoes got early blight after it set fruit. Fortunately, the plants decided it was okay to ripen the fruit in spite of the embarrassingly ugly leaves and stalks. I have no idea what caused it. Congrats on the garden sucess!

You liking the Kentucky Pole Beans? I was contemplating them for our Fall garden.

Posted on 05.25.09 at 6:24PM

Comment by White On Rice Couple

I wish the beer traps would work for us. Instead, we come home to two drunk dogs on the lawn. This brings a whole new meaning to dealing with “critters”, both wild and domestic.
Your radishes, peas and inspiring garden are wonderful!

Posted on 05.26.09 at 11:17AM

Comment by Cameron

cookie: Aw, thanks. You’re on our “inspired by” plaque out back.

Morgan: Can’t really report on the pole beans yet, they’ve only just begin to put up their twining feelers.

And if I had really grew up in South Texas, I would have said, “Them little prehistoric-looking summbitches loves them some suds, but they shore can’t swim a lick.”

Posted on 05.27.09 at 3:33PM

Comment by Nicole

This is OT, but the One Local Summer challenge will be starting on June 1 this year. I hope you’ll join us again!

Posted on 05.28.09 at 9:28AM

Comment by EB

Man! And I was proud of one sad lonely tomato plant! Check you guys out.

Posted on 06.01.09 at 5:29PM

Comment by Lee

I am a gardener obsessed this year! All I think about is the garden. Don’t know what happened but I love it and I loved reading your thoughts!

Posted on 06.02.09 at 11:53AM

Comment by liz

I love this post. I also cultivate a postage-sized patch of garden in Brooklyn, and am currently in a battle of wits against my neighborhood squirrels, who have stealthily picked off every single last strawberry in the dead of night the very moment it has gotten perfectly ripe. The score currently stands at squirrels 12: Liz 0. I’d highly recommend the book “The $64 Tomato” – it’s a hilarious chronicle of a garden battle that sounds similar to your own.

Posted on 06.03.09 at 2:59PM

Comment by Cameron

EB: Don’t knock your little plant. growing tomatoes in SF is *not* easy. We’re blessed by our location; we get a fair bit of sun, relatively speaking.

Lee: Thanks!

Liz: Have you tried bird netting (

Posted on 06.03.09 at 3:07PM

Comment by Clarity

Fine post. I was checking out a friend’s grow your own efforts yesterday and she not only explained to me that potatoes do grow seeds and leaves (who knew?)I also went away with a “starter pack” from her. A little late in the season but that’s better than never.

Posted on 06.08.09 at 7:09AM

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