The College Kid Guide to Gardening

A quote from a friend in my nature writing class:  “The best part of workshop classes is they force you to write even when you don’t have time to write”

So true.

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1. Planning Your Garden

Dew dampens my toes and grass clippings cling to my ankles as I walk through my yard and towards the garden. Sunlight has just begun to slice over the ridge tops, illuminating drooping, red, tomato globes and sturdy, yellow, summer squash. Rainbow chard waves in the light morning breeze as I gingerly hop from stepping-stone to stepping-stone, surveying my spoils. From his perch on the hillside, a mule deer munches dry forbs and looks wistfully towards my shining bed of spinach. I stoop, balancing myself with five fingers in the moist soil, and pluck a ripe, maroon strawberry from the vine. Beneath my feet, the perfect synergy of carbon, nitrogen, and water pushes my plants up towards the clear Montana sky.

Wait, no, this is what I imagined my garden would look like as I carefully studied the glossy photos of a “How To Garden in Zone 4” coffee table book. The truth is more vacant lot than Eden, more you-better-have-a-grocery-store-nearby than lush, local, sustainable food source. Dry, yellow grass crunches under my toes as I walk through my yard towards the barren brown square. A few straggly weeds, drooping starts and what could be spinach if it had a 400x growth spurt are all that greet me. The mule deer on the hillside turns back to his forbs, delighted with his spoils. I stoop, resting on my haunches, pluck one microscopic spinach leaf and place it into my mouth. Where had I gone wrong?

2. Preparing Your Garden Bed

Five months before, in a fit of procrastination and spring-induced inspiration, I armed myself with a pair of polka dotted gardening gloves, two bags of compost and a slightly rusted garden spade. I decided to begin gardening because I was worried about how the tomatoes in the grocery store, shipped direct from Mexico, seemed to drip with petroleum. I was gardening because the cute boy with blue eyes on campus was doing it, and I wanted to impress him. I was gardening because I remembered the sweet taste of garden grown carrots, pulled from my mother’s refrigerator. I was gardening because, as an environmental studies student, I had read about the way fertilizers melt into our rivers and pesticides poison our songbirds. I was gardening because I was nineteen years old and had never, not even once, had any direct contact in creating the food that sustained me. This terrified me, a little bit.

I loosened and raked the dark soil, shoving my hands deep into the ground as if the heat of my flesh alone would convince the earth to tilt faster towards the sun, the land to turn green and summer to arrive. I slowly sifted through the dirt, savoring the smell of the seasons changing. The sun beat down on my covered shoulders, all color, no heat. I found one red marble, two plastic labels of crops since decomposed, fourteen cutworms, two earthworms, and one long lost sprinkler head. With blisters doting my palms and dirt smeared on my face, I marveled at a hidden world exposed by the sharp blade of my shovel. I wondered, what else lies just under the surface, waiting to be torn and turned over?

3. Planting Seeds

Seed packets have the lyrical labeling of a grown-up version of a box of crayola crayons. What did I want to color my landscape with today? I chose charger spinach for the rolling hills, snowball cauliflower for drifting white puffs of clouds, brandywine tomatoes for a deep red barn and scarlet nantes carrots for a deep, orange sunset. With trembling fingers I slowly pinched miniature seeds into shallow troughs. I poured in extra seeds here and there, as if I was more of an expert than those who wrote the fine print guides stamped on the packet. I couldn’t fathom that anything so small would ever grow into food I could eat, especially under my clumsy care. I was struck with the realization that every piece of food that has passed over my lips, once started as one of the various incarnations of a seed, most small enough to disappear into the folds of my palm. I talked to each row of seeds as I gently covered them with dirt. “There you go, all tucked in, do some growing now.” I wondered if the industrial farmers, sitting inside their air-conditioned tractors, ever whispered goodnight to their seeds? Could you feed the world if you whispered to every seed that was planted? This garden was creating too much wondering for a lazy summer night, and I set aside my seed packets and walked indoors.

4. Purchasing Vegetable Starts

I walked through the sea of sundresses and sunglasses, baby backpacks and dogs on leashes, work pants and river sandals of the Saturday morning farmers market.

“Look at this beautiful kale” I exclaimed, my fingers running over the smooth, dark leaves.

A nervous boy, no more than twelve, stands behind the count of the booth.

“Ma’am that’s actually…”

“I mean, how do you grow kale in these colors, it’s crazy!”

“Ma’am, that’s not kale, it’s chard.”

I blushed and hid my embarrassment by purchasing a flat of chard starts (or wait, was it kale?). Returning home, I noticed how a row of pale green lettuce starts had germinated and pushed up through my garden bed, but I was still skeptical that they would grow into anything consumable. I welcomed the opportunity to place something in my garden that actually looked like food. The stalks of these plants were sturdy, the most fragile stages of the plant’s life tended to under the careful hand of an experienced farmer. As I dug small holes in the open spaces of my garden bed, I realized how lucky I was to live in a community that indicated its wealth by ones ability buy flats of deep green basil, carefully separated into individual sections of soil.

5. Watering and Weeding

With my small, square garden full of little plants and bigger plants, I arrived at the hardest part of gardening. Waiting, watering and weeding are not sexy. This part of gardening does not leave you with blisters on your hands or even dirt on your face. It doesn’t involve cradling seeds in your palm or running into the cute boy with blue eyes at the farmers market with your arms full of vegetable starts. It involves patience, responsibility, and schedule – the three four-letter words of a college-aged summer. Yet I resisted my teenaged tendencies and woke up early every morning to turn on the sprinkler. I carefully picked weeds and unwanted bugs from around my crops. I took excellent, motherly care of my beautiful garden… for approximately sixteen days. And then I went on vacation for a week. And I got wrapped up in my summer job. And I got wrapped up in a different sweet boy with blue eyes, who really didn’t care whether or not I was a gardener extraordinaire. And I abandoned my garden. I let my blisters and sweat, whispers and songs, and money and research, shrivel under the hot July sun.

6. Harvesting Your Garden

Sitting back on my heels, I realize what went wrong in my garden – and it has nothing to do with rocky soil, insect infestation, or poor planting choices. The square of dirt is no longer a canvas for my wonderings and musings, my path to whatever high and mighty awakening to the earth or proof of my dedication to sustainable agriculture and communities I had envisioned. Suddenly, my garden represents the inability of our culture to make sacrifices and confront hard choices in the face of our environmental problems. If, as a young, idealistic, environmental studies student I can’t find the time or willingness to tend to a garden, how can I possibly expect anyone else to? What had seemed so easy in print and in theory had turned into a failure.

Angry at the garden for pointing out my faults and angrier with myself, I begin tearing savagely into the healthy weeds and withered starts. The jagged edges of leaves cut into my flesh and my hot, frustrated tears provide the dry soil with the first hints of moisture in weeks. I grab a fistful of long, soft weeds and pull with all my might. There is a gentle tearing sound that seems different than the angry screeches of the other well-rooted plants. Looking down at my hand, I’m amazed to see three perfectly formed, scarlet nantes carrots. A sunset in my hand. I slowly rub the dry soil from the carrot’s flesh.

When I began my garden in the spring, I wanted a soul-shaking, paradigm breaking window into the world of real food. I wanted to be able to write a beautifully crafted narrative of how I had grown my own vegetables for a summer and how it had changed me. I wanted to be able to end this essay with three powerful sentences that would rush you into your own backyard to start digging up Kentucky bluegrass. But I don’t have anything to give. All I can tell you is that growing your own food is harder than grocery store prices would lead you to think. You might have the patient personality to be a great gardener, or you might not. A garden will let you throw your musings and frustrations into it, without speaking back. Ultimately, even if you ignore your garden for half a summer, seeds have been designed for thousands of years to take hold in the soil and fight for their life. And nothing tastes sweeter than a homegrown scarlet nantes carrot on a hot summer day.

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