books


One of the magical, yet mundane, tricks of a beautiful and productive garden is this commonly repeated gardening rule.  It’s very direct, yet somehow mystical.  Feed the soil?  But what does soil eat?  How does it eat?  The fact is, soil is kind of a multi-species organism, a kind of meta-organism.  It’s kind of funny, because soil, otherwise known as dirt, has the aura of being inert.  After all, it just sits there under our feet.  It’s not unreasonable to think of it as just the medium that holds plants in place.  But when you get right down into it, examine it and get to know it intimately, you start to bond with your dirt.  I once took a class at the New York Botanical Gardens called Soil Science I.  Yes, there was a Soil Science II.  As a matter of fact, I just looked it up and there are 63 colleges in the US that offer majors in soil science.  There is even a Soil Science Society of America.  You’ll take my word, then, that caring for your soil is serious business.  Okay, so how do you feed your soil?  It’s a simple practice that can become a somewhat arduous, occasionally all consuming, enterprise.  Once you start feeding your soil organically you begin to understand the appeal of Miracle Grow, electric kool-aid for plants.  For those of us who want to garden organically, but need an instant boost, we have Fish and Seaweed Extract.  If you’ve never used this, trust me, you are in for a treat.

Basically, the way you feed your soil is to add compost.  Every gardening book under the sun will tell you to do this, and how to do it, ad infinitum.  So just do it, you’ll be glad you did.  We were afraid of rats when we started gardening here, so we started just making leaf mold, basically taking all our fall leaves, putting them in a bin and waiting about a year and a half.  Well-rotted leaf mold is pretty sweet.  But a couple of years ago, we just couldn’t bear to throw away our kitchen scraps anymore.  We bought a couple of plastic compost bins from our town, got a good intro to town composting from our town’s environmental affairs officer, and away we went.  At first, the most satisfying part of starting to compost our kitchen waste was seeing how much we were reducing our contribution to the landfill.  When composted, veggie scraps just seem to melt away.  And then, after about 9 months, jackpot!  Nice brown food for our garden.  There are probably about as many ways to compost as there are gardeners, so you’ll have to create your own system.  There’s even a very informative book, dedicated to composting, called Let It Rot.

One of my organic gardening gurus, Steve Solomon, says in his book Gardening When It Counts:  Growing Food in Hard Times,  that simply using compost from your own garden and kitchen will not return enough nutrients to the soil to grow the most nutritious food.  Why?  Well, for one, if we eat out of our garden, we remove nutrients from the soil and don’t return them.  Crudely, we pee and poop the nutrients from our garden into the sewer system.  Steve says “I compost only to recycle garden and kitchen waste.” (p. 180)  In addition to his own compost, he adds well decomposed feedlot manure as well as small amounts of what he calls COF, complete organic fertilizer, an organic soil amendment that he formulated to increase the nutritional content of homegrown vegetables.  I won’t print the formula here, but it is on page 21 of his book, go check it out at the library, surreptitiously copy it at the bookstore, or even buy his book, which is awesome.  Steve Solomon is the slightly cantankerous garden gramps that many of us don’t have, but could sure use.  In addition to his gardening books, he started a cool website, called the Soil and Health Library.  I use Steve’s COF, my own leaf mold and compost, Fish and Seaweed Extract, and more recently, Vermont Compost Company’s Manure Compost , which Richfield Farms in Clifton carries. Since I don’t have access to manure, nor am I really interested in finding one, this is one way that I can add manure to my garden.  It’s not cheap, though, so when the Hard Times that Steve predicts come, I’ll have to find another system.  Maybe Humanure will become more appealing then.

“The garden is calling to me” is a phrase I repeat often in the time I refer to as “pre-spring”, otherwise known as “winter” by everyone else.  But it is the tail-end of winter!  The time when you can feel the life force beginning to surge in the great outdoors, when the sun’s presence reasserts itself.  The plants begin to grow, albeit slowly.  When people compliment me on my garden, I feel bashful.  I am not responsible for the beauty revealed in my garden.   Mother Nature (whatever THAT means) is primarily responsible.  I feel that I am actually the servant of the garden. There is an often cited quote, “The gardener’s shadow is the best fertilizer.”  All that is truly required to have a great garden is your presence.   As I wander around, enjoying the garden, I check on the growth of my plants, and make a mental list of the various tasks at hand, from great to small.  Some may seem critical, if you don’t do it soon, the plant will die.  Others, not so much, but grander.  A new tree!  More shrubs!  And some are neither critical, nor grand, but entirely pleasant and relaxing.  Some tasks do not require your entire attention, and so you can relax, do a little something and enjoy the natural world.  There are some views of my garden that are glorious, if seen from a small stool.  No one ever has that view except me, it is one of the small rewards of weeding.

I am reading a fascinating book right now called Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  You may have heard of the concept of Flow, which is known as being “in the groove” or “in the zone”.  It is the state of absorption in an activity where “you” cease to be aware of your self, and are simply the doer.  You can reach this deep state of consciousness through many activities, from yoga and meditation, to athletics, music, deep reading, or painting, really any activity that engages you completely.  Flow is optimal experience, and brings with it a deep feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction.  Dr. Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist who spent 30 years of his career studying flow, came up with 8 components of flow that are often mentioned by people who have experienced it.  Of these 8, I feel that the ones most relevant to the flow of gardening are that the experience involves tasks that we can complete, the tasks have clear goals and provide feedback, and in doing the tasks, one is so involved that the worries and frustrations of everyday life fade away.  Flow is the deep enjoyment we gain from our gardens, from our experience of learning and growing with them.

Over the years as I have been gardening I have observed many people become gardeners.  It is a slow unfolding process, becoming a gardener sets your sense of time over the long term, weeks, months, years.  Gardening engages all the senses, we can all relate to the taste of a homegrown tomato, the scent of roses wafting through the air, the beautiful colors of flowers, the sound of summer insects and bird song, the texture of dirt.  Through our gardens we also access our intellectual curiosity, about science, history, food, art, our own memories.  Gardening is so satisfying because any effort reaps rewards.  Just plant one pot, put good dirt in it, remember to water it.  You will become attached to that plant as it grows.  As nutty as it may sound to the non-gardener, I have a personal relationship with each plant in my garden.  So much of what needs to be done in the garden is not terribly time dependent and is also broken down into simple tasks.  No matter how challenging it can be sometimes, to fit it into my busy schedule, to solve the pesky little problems that may arise, ultimately I get nothing but joy, a joy of the purest kind, from my gardening.  I think the potential for this passion and love of gardening is in everyone.  It is life affirming, relaxing, fascinating, uplifting, and just down-right fun to garden.