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Vegetable gardening an effort in trial, error

Earth Matters

I have long held farmers in high regard, but have particular admiration for fruit and vegetable growers.

Beyond the vagaries of the weather, the unending battle with insects and disease, and the increasing costs of almost everything they need, they receive a pittance of profits compared to the multinational corporations selling the food products in our supermarkets. The growers seldom get paid what the crops are truly worth and the pickers make a fraction of what they deserve.

Yet the appreciation of, and empathy for, them comes from my own experiences.

My first attempt at very small-scale vegetable gardening in the mid-seventies was not just unproductive. It might best be described as comically inept. Despite both my grandfathers being enthusiastic, if not extraordinary gardeners, neither my mother nor father were particularly excited about working the soil.

My father joked that he believed his disdain for the pastime had its roots in the long hours his dad had him removing stones and weeds from his massive garden plot in their Walnut Avenue yard. Despite this lack of enthusiasm on the home front (further exacerbated by terrible clay soil in our part of town), I decided I’d give it a try.

The first summer, I dug up a small plot on the north side of the house, the shadiest place in the yard. I planted a few tomatoes (which struggled in the shade) and several rows of carrots (that ended up a gnarled mess because they couldn’t grow a taproot in the heavy clay).

The next summer I expanded the plot to a sunnier location. I ordered some purple-podded snap beans (through an introductory offer from one of the mail-order seed houses). I planted them during a warm spell in April, and they were wiped out by the inevitable frost that visited us in mid-May.

I ordered seeds for the biggest watermelon in the seed catalog, failing to recognize the relationship between the size of the melon and the length of the growing season it would need.

I likely had the biggest crop of immature (and inedible) watermelons on the entire East Coast that summer.

After a few years of trial and error, reading, talking with my grandfather, and developing a bigger garden with better soil, I actually became a pretty fair gardener. The beans did well when I realized they should be planted in early June rather than April. I found a carrot variety (Danvers Half Long) that could grow in more shallow soil. I found a watermelon (Market Midget), a honeydew (Earlidew), and sweet potato (Jewell) with short growing season needs.

When Jimmy Carter’s Department of Agriculture decided to encourage a new generation of victory gardens, I experimented with a few crops included in their free package of seeds. I didn’t like beets or cucumbers, but I grew them since I had the seeds. When Mom pickled the beets, I came to realize that growing something doesn’t necessarily change one’s dislike for it.

As life becomes busier and more complicated, it often becomes more difficult to carve out the time for such extensive gardening endeavors. Next time, we’ll examine the challenges of growing your own on tight schedules while trying to keep ahead of the insect pests and wild animals.

John Frederick (www.

johnjfrederick.com) writes about science and the environment twice a month.

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