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Gardening without a Garden

by sheri
  Last spring I found myself ripping out the perennials from the garden in my mother’s backyard to save them from what otherwise would have been certain death by bulldozer (she was changing the grade of the land). Everything except a few rhubarb plants made it into pots before the bulldozer arrived, so all was good on that front. However, the effort turned out to be the beginning of a very unusual vegetable growing season. Due to the timing of the bulldozer’s arrival (early summer), if we wanted homegrown vegetables, we would have to find other places on the property for them. But where; the rest of the beds either had no space or no sun? The vegetables with a short growing season would not be a problem as we anticipated having the backyard put together, vegetable beds and all, by the middle of June. The vegetables with a long growing season, well, that was another matter all together – we would be losing the first month of the growing season to the bulldozing. Tomatoes were our biggest concern. Where to stick the tomatoes? They need at least 6 hours of sunlight a day and, because all of the sunny spots were under construction, we found ourselves in a bit of a pickle. The first solution I found resulted in endless teasing for the duration of the season – I planted the smaller Roma tomato plants in-between the not-yet-leafed-out red-twigged dogwood bushes at one corner of the house. It was definitely not a normal place for tomatoes – the tomato plants grew way too large, required far too much pruning, and, while they survived and produced fruit, they were not particularly healthy in the shade after the bushes leafed out. So, wisdom lesson number one: avoid stuffing tomato plants in-between dogwood bushes. Except for the dogwood corner, there really were no sunny spots in the backyard left untouched by the bulldozer. Sigh. We had so many more vegetables we wanted to plant. Adding to our woes, in early June the bulldozing and re-landscaping were not going well (rain, rain, and more rain), putting even the planting of the short season vegetables in doubt. So, I started looking at the front and side yards for any spot where a vegetable plant or two could be squeezed in. The south facing side yard started to talk to me. And, when I say ‘talk to me’ I don’t really mean it in a crazy kind of way, but in an ‘ideas started to flow like mad’ way. Mom was skeptical. This space had always been considered scrub land: the soil was pure sand, it was a mere sliver of land, and it was awkwardly sandwiched between the house and a cut-through sidewalk. The only plants I’d ever seen growing in this space were mint (by the tons), oregano, and weeds. But in my desperation to find space for a vegetable garden I saw only sunshine (by the boatloads) and unused space. If you’ve read Easy Edibles, or know anything about my gardening style, you might well be saying to yourself “oh oh, I sense a container garden in the making.” Sure enough, I set about converting this strip of scrub land into an edible container garden. I was in heaven – this spot had bothered me my entire childhood, neither aesthetically pleasing nor practical. So, at last, I had a chance to make something of this barren space. The first task was to gather a ton (uh, an exaggeration to be sure) of containers. Then, with more ambition than space, I crammed the containers up against each other, allowing barely enough room to get to the back of the bed where I’d relegated the mint and the oregano. Finally, the containers were planted with tomatoes (large beefsteak varieties), basil, fennel, lettuce, radish, kohlrabi, Chinese cabbage, potatoes, marigolds, sunflowers, etc. All in all it was a menagerie of wonderful culinary items. I sat back proudly and waited for growth and an abundance of vegetables. Unfortunately, as the season progressed my pride wilted as it became obvious this would not to be my finest gardening effort. While a few of the vegetables thrived wonderfully, most suffered terribly and produced little. I had failed to take into account how the house itself would affect the plants. Nestled in a corner up against walls painted in a light reflecting color, the other side of the garden edged by heat absorbing cement, the layout of the space concentrated the summer heat. Sadly, it had taken me far too long to realize this was happening. So, wisdom lesson number two: if planting up against a structure evaluate its potential for concentrating heat and increase your watering accordingly. In the overall lessons learned category, this gardening season I will do a few things differently in ‘scrub land’. For one, the lettuce, Chinese cabbage, and radish won’t be returning (all three bolted too quickly in the heat of this corner). The kohlrabi would also do best elsewhere, although in a pinch I would plant it in this space again. Tomatoes will definitely return but I will use larger containers (to help even out the moisture available to their roots between waterings). The marigolds, basil, and fennel will also return since they loved the dry heat. And, the potatoes, oh the potatoes, they deserve a whole blog entry of their own. Look for that story next week. Overall, last summer’s gardening was incredibly interesting and educational. I’ve been successfully growing vegetables (in and out of containers) for so long that I’d forgotten what a failed growing season looked like. On the other hand, I’d also forgotten how much fun it was to search for a solution when garden space was in short supply. The moral of this story: you can pretty much create a vegetable garden anywhere, providing you have sun, containers, water, a willingness to experiment, and the ability to swallow your pride if it doesn’t quite turn out as planned. I, for one, am still swallowing.