Saturday, February 4, 2017

Garden Update - Catalog Season

Tis the Season To Plan Gardens!

The garden catalogs mostly come at the end of December, but it's right now that cabin fever hits in the great white north, and everybody is planning their super-ambitious garden.

I am reining in to the best of my ability... but some black raspberries escaped my dream garden and insist on being planted for reals. And I have infected my partner, who now wants a fig tree in hers.  (You can grow fig trees up north now. They have developed a "Chicago" variety!)

I blame Great Gramma Lu.  I am transcribing her memoirs and she reminded me of the "black caps" Grampa grew in his garden.  We used to pick them wild too. These are not like blackberries.  Nor like raspberries. They are sweeter and richer.

So even though I have an ambitious building project for the garden already (more on that next Garden Update), I will be laying out black plastic and patio blocks at the first moment snow uncovers the right spot.  Big enough for five plants and the path around them. That means, maybe 5 by 18 feet.

The black plastic should kill the grass. It would be better if it were left on all summer and prepared in the fall, but I hadn't thought about it in the fall. (One never does. One is busy swearing off gardening forever in the fall.)

Then we dig out the sod, put in root barriers, double-dig the soil with plenty of peat moss and purchased compost, and a little lime.  (Which will also be needed for the new garden bed -- must budget accordingly.)

Then, if the roots have arrived, we soak the roots to jump start them and plant them about three feet apart in the bed.  Voila!  $100 for raspberries.  (That includes the cost of plants, shipping, plastic, patio blocks and soil amendments.)

Which is a lot to spend if you are thinking of this as independant living and survival food.  Because you're not going to get $100 out of those berries this year, and probably not even next. 

However, you could get by creating a bed of berries with a lot less investment. I buy my compost, because there is a factional divide in my household: the "lawn" faction and the "garden" faction.  The lawn faction hates compost heaps (especially since that incident where that angry ground bee made a nest in it one year).  So I buy mine from the college. (MSU is an ag college, they have great compost.)  But you can make your own compost and soil amendments, especially if you're not in a hurry. Heck, if I were willing to wait until next year, I could grow "green manure" on the bed and till it under a couple of times. No compost pile needed.

And I probably don't need the peat moss either. As it happens, I cut my teeth on the Victory Garden, am a great fan of peat, but it's acidic, and requires the addition of lime... so I would probably be fine with just more compost, which is cheaper.

The key there is, though, is to be generous with the soil amendments: these are perennials. They need great soil if they are to produce year after year after year.

I could also skip the plastic that kills the grass. If you have a good shovel and a good back, and time to mess with the grass roots, etc., you could do without that. (Plus many people use things like newspaper or cardboard, which will eventually break down and make mulch.  Worms, apparently, love cardboard so much, you can start a worm farm based on cardboard.)

I don't really need the patio blocks either.  It's just that the patio blocks turn the bed into a landscape feature -- which pleases/pacifies the lawn faction.  (And I admit, it is way easier to manage, especially mowing.)

And if you didn't want fancy black raspberries, you could get red ones for maybe $20 for five.  And sometimes you can get such things for an extra cheap price form your county extension office.  (Although a quick glance at this year's catalog shows me that raspberries are about the same as Burpee and Starks -- so you only save on shipping.)

So in the end, you could probably do it for  $30, but you'd have to be a good at your soil prep.

But I'll probably spend the hundred. What do I get for that investment?

*Fruit: 10-20 pints a year? Maybe? (Since we tend to stand and eat the berries in the garden, I can't tell you how many a patch gives me -- just that it WILL vary from year to year.) The patch may wane after 6-20 years (depends partly on how well you prepped the soil).

*Health: I put this as a separate item because I have dietary restrictions that mean fresh fruit is truly a bonus. It's good for everybody, it's necessary for me. Plus raspberries actually have some protein. Not much, but more than most other fruit.  Also, all that digging builds bone mass.

*Landscaping.  Some nice attractive bee food, and the patio blocks make it easy to mow.

*Experience.  I picked berries, and had an untended berry bed when we had acres to work with, but never really tended my own patch.  Grampa had a significantly bigger patch than I ever did. They consumed a lot, put up a lot, but also had some to take to market.  Grampa, though, had a lifetime of experience.  Your first patch of your own will always be a learning experience.  Your second one will be cheaper to create, easier to tend.

*Soil Tilth.  Preparing a new garden bed is always a whole lot of work and investment.  However, if you do a good job with your garden, you will leave the soil in better shape than you started. It will be easier and easier to work with each year. 

Those last two items are the reason why old people have such lush gardens, with seemingly no effort at all.  While younger gardeners pour knowledge, money, and labor into gardens with much less to show for it: The soil on an old garden is SO much better than on a new one, and an old gardener has many seasons of experience to give depth to their knowledge.

Growing your own food can be hard work, but I swear WILL be talking about less ambitious projects, because this blog is not supposed to be about the enormous time suck of playing in dirt, but about creating "margin" for yourself to live the life you want. 

And there are people who have created a full and leisurely lifestyle for themselves via gardening. I'll be talking about some of them this week, and also about the concept of "margin."

See you in the funny papers.

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