Wednesday, June 11, 2014

To Garden or NOT to Garden, That is the Question

So, one day in a moment of weakness we thought, why not have a garden this year? I mean, how hard could it be? We like tomatoes. Yes, we live on a pretty steep slope and, yes, we don’t have any soil to speak of, but hey, we are creative people. We can overcome those little issues, right? That began our little experiment.

First we selected a location—the flattest part of the hill behind our house. A friend had a pile of rotting “landscape” timbers, so I borrowed a truck and trailer and moved them to my yard, re-loaded them on my four-wheeler for the treacherous trip down the incline behind the house, and stacked them in the vicinity of the future garden. We basically live on a slab of limestone, so we have plenty of rocks as building materials. I constructed some baskets about two feet in diameter out of welded wire and filled them with rocks around the perimeter where the landscape timbers would go. Then I stacked the timbers against the rock and wire columns, using more timbers on the downhill side so the beds would be relatively flat. When I finished, I had two empty beds about 8 X 16 feet.

The lake behind our house has been over ten feet low for a couple of years, so I used my four-wheeler to bring up dirt from the dry cove bed that was once covered by water. That might sound easy, but it wasn’t. After about one hundred trips up and down the hill, I managed to fill the beds with fish poop enriched river-bottom soil. It was a lot of work.
We live in a deer-infested neighborhood, so the next priority was an eight-foot fence. That wouldn’t be a problem if we had soil, but we don’t. I ended up hiring a rock drilling platform that moved around on tank treads to navigate the steep hill and drill holes for the fence posts. After nearly tumbling down the hill with his equipment and running over one of my beds, the operator was not happy. I tipped him well, but he still asked that I not call him again. Okay, no problem, I had the holes. I bought enough treated 4 X 4 posts to put a 100-foot fence around the two beds, about 25 feet on each side. I also bought twenty-four 80-pound bags of concrete mix to set the poles. I sensed those bags came with an embedded hernia, so I hired a couple of guys to help move them around. With the help of the four-wheeler, we moved the bags to the garden site and set the poles. I used the same guys a little later to help stretch welded wire around the perimeter and add a gate.

Of course, there wasn’t any water on the hill, the next problem. I had been thinking about the water problem for some time, years actually. Above the garden, I installed a 550 gallon tank, and then put in PVC pipe from the tank to the garden below it. I ran the PVC pipe in an “S” pattern back and forth across the two beds, and then drilled holes along the pipe to distribute water over the entire surface of both beds. I also devised a couple of ways to fill the tank every few weeks.

I wanted the garden to be automatic. I didn’t want to have to wade through chiggers every day to water the plants, so I decided to automate the watering system. That was trickier than you might imagine. Rain barrel systems, like mine, have NO water pressure, and most commercial valves, like Rain Bird and others, require 15 pounds per square inch of pressure to operate. To get that much pressure requires a tank full of water about 32 feet high. My tank was only four feet high, and provided about 3 pounds of water pressure per square inch. After an exhaustive Internet search, I found a “direct action solenoid valve for water systems” that would operate at zero water pressure on 24 VAC. I ordered that from Australia (about $40 USD). Next, I needed a timer/switch. I found one from Hong Kong for around $7 USD that could be programed to water up to 17 times per day AND withstand 40 degrees Celsius. I paired the small timer with a door bell transformer, and soon had an automatic watering system. Of course, there wasn’t any power to operate the transformer, but I managed to fix that with another week of hard labor.

After that, I turned the garden over to my wife. She planted all kinds of things in rows along the watering pipes. Of course, since neither one of us had ever had a real garden, we did not know that a zucchini plant grows to ten feet in diameter, or that potatoes should be planted DEEP, or that you need a lot of corn plants to be successful, etc. In fact, we made almost every mistake putting down plants that a new gardener can make. Now, about a month later, we can barely get inside the enclosure—it looks like a jungle in there.

We also had no idea how much food those beds would produce—beans, peas, corn, beets, okra, zucchini and yellow squash, cantaloupe, watermelon, English pickles, lettuce, etc. Every day we harvested, and our refrigerator began to overflow with veggies. Even though became functional vegetarians, we couldn’t keep up. Fortunately, our local food pantry accepts veggie donations. Unfortunately, I have to wade through the chiggers daily to pick the stuff.

So, would I advise gardening for everyone? NO. Definitely NOT. I figure every zucchini I give away cost me about $5, not counting about $25 in sweat equity. Gardening is not for the weak.

Thanks for reading,

James L. Hatch
Creator of Miss Havana (http://www.amazon.com/James-L.-Hatch/e/B005CQB6E6)

The Substitute; Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana!; The Training Bra; The Trophy Wife


Tina Donahue said...

Beautiful landscape. I envy you for living there.

James L. Hatch said...

Yes, a great place to live ... and work. Nothing on a hill this steep is easy.

James L. Hatch said...

Yes, a great place to live ... and work. Nothing on a hill this steep is easy.

Retired Phil said...

I jump in the car drive for 2 miles and buy my vegs at King Soopers. Granted not as fresh but a lot easier.....best garden I ever had was when I lived in NJ the Garden State.....

Fiona McGier said...

Husband decided this year that rather than continue to yell outrage at the heedless rabbits, squirrels and ground squirrels who yearly invade his garden and eat as much as they can access, that he'd plant only tomatoes, green peppers and jalepeƱos...and in containers. He also moved them to the opposite end of the yard, behind the garage. We're guardedly hopeful this will keep most of the garden goodies for us, rather than the poachers.

One year his new apple tree produced one single apple, which he'd go out and admire every day, looking forward to the day he could pick and eat it. On the day he had decided it would be ripe enough he got out there to find the squirrels had also noticed it, and bite marks covered the entire surface. Now he understands why once retired, my late father used to use his BB gun to shoot at the pigeons and squirrels in his yard!

James L. Hatch said...

Oh, yes, gardening in NJ would be so much easier. Cool. Reasonable soil. Flat. Even I might be tempted to do it again in the Garden State. Thanks for stopping by, Retired Phil!

James L. Hatch said...

Fiona, it's always something. I've put chicken wire around the lower 18" of my fence to try to deter the rabbits, but they are tricky. In Salt Lake City, where gardens are easy to grow, I used to use a BB gun to shoot the grasshoppers off my tomatoes. Only later did I find the very straight "worm holes" through other tomatoes in the background. It's hard to win against all the things that are after your goodies. I wonder how any farmer survives?

jean hart stewart said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your column. Remind me of why I no longer raise all that stuff. Even on tomato plant surrounded by wire somehow gets chewed at. Nature is smarter than I am!

James L. Hatch said...

I fear, Jean, that nature is smarter than we are too. I have bugs out there, all eating plants, that I have never seen before. I suspect I could use poison on them ... but then I'd have to eat it later. That just seems wrong, so I just keep pinching them off one at a time. Do you have any idea how much time it takes to pinch 100,000 bugs, especially since some pinch back?