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The Ungifted Gardener - The Beginning of a Journey?

These pages are written in the hope that others may learn from my pathetic gardening mistakes (and occasional successes - sometimes the successes were even planned). They simply represent the journey of one ungifted gardener and the knowledge acquired (practical and theoretical) over a modest number of years. However, I do have one other motivation in writing these pages. If I can help anyone avoid some mistakes then perhaps they may have the time or incentive to experiment and perhaps (assuming they are encouraged to write about them) make a breakthrough that I can benefit from. We all need to stand on each others shoulders to make progress.

I am not a gardener. I do not come from a family of gardeners. No gardening lore was handed down as part of my heritage. Bare earth that constantly had to be weeded, grass that constantly had to be cut and a few straggly flowers that always seemed to be infested with earwigs is all I recall from my childhood gardening experiences. If I ever have a green thumb it will be gangrene.

I have owned various properties at various times throughout my life (mostly in the UK), some had gardens (including at one stage a 2 acre orchard/woodland plot), some not. Apart from a 3 year spell with desultory attempts to garden in the somewhat hostile climate of central Scotland (including a vividly remembered unmitigated disaster of a slug-infested compost heap), I have no gardening history whatsoever. Fast forward to 2010 and, through my friend, I became associated with a large garden in rural Quebec - almost exclusively at week-ends (details of site).

While it's very pleasant to sit in a garden, being bitten by a myriad of creatures, it can get a tad boring. As a boredom antidote, I took over a long established but very flaky, clay soil, insect infested, vegetable plot shaded by trees and getting about 4 hours sunlight per day in high summer. Every year the annual ritual started around mid May: digging the rock hard 15 x 20ft plot; buying plants (tomatoes, cucumber and anything else that took our fancy) from the local nursery; planting the poor things in the lumpy earth; waiting to see what survived (very little); harvesting a few miserable cracked tomatoes and the occasional cucumber that escaped the slugs. I even planted beans the second year and was staggered when they yielded a reasonable crop in spite of everything (I have loved beans ever since). This seemed to be normal for the site. No one was surprised by the (lack of) results. My desultory gardening habits were returning.

Week-end gardening in a rural setting seemed like a constant battle against nature 'red in tooth and claw' that overwhelmed the puny week-end efforts. Given that nature had the luxury of a full week's, uninterrupted, destructive power to undo the meddling of the pathetic human. Do something reasonably serious or give up the pointless struggle seemed to be the only alternatives that presented themselves.

In 2012 I decided, rashly, to give nature a run for its money and built two raised beds (see raised beds for more details) placed them in a unshaded part of the garden, filled them with bagged black earth (fertilizer, what's fertilizer?), bought the standard set of vegetable plants plus a few peppers (exotic), some aubergine plants (very exotic), some onions and leeks, stuck them in the beds (technically known as transplanting - I was even acquiring the gardener's lingo!) and stood back to watch what happened. Damn my eyes, but they started to grow. Harvesting that year consisted of about double the number of tomatoes (some were not even cracked), a miserably small but definitely an aubergine shaped fruit and if the summer had gone on for another month I would have had lots of peppers bigger than a golf ball. But the onions and leeks were terrific. And I like onions and leeks. Maybe, just maybe, this was fun after all.

In 2013 I built a third raised bed, put it in a different (equally unshaded) part of the garden and planted it with more tomatoes and used the original beds for salad crops. But the big innovation was I started to keep a gardening diary in which I noted what I did, when I did it and all my observations, thoughts and questions. With hindsight, this diary was the beginning of my gardening journey. It forced me to observe what was happening in the garden, which led to questions or hypotheses, which led to some (mostly web-based) research which led, finally, to some knowledge. Perhaps the easy way would have been to buy a book, but I've always mistrusted the easy way - somehow it's just, well, too easy. The season's results were disappointing, some forward progress, some backward progress. But for the first time ever I figured I understood, maybe, the reasons behind some of the successes and failures. And, the committed gardener's response to all problems, there was always next year.

Disaster Strikes

In early fall 2013, the septic tank started to do the kind of things that polite septic tanks ought not to do. Appropriate experts were called in. Grave faces and mumbled, highly technical, explanations were offered. They all boiled down to "replace the septic tank". And to make the end of a perfect year the well pump decided it had done enough pumping and was going to that special place reserved for ex-well pumps to have a well deserved rest. Over the next month the garden turned into a major civil engineering site. Trees had to be cut down to allow digging machines and boring machines and cranes and tractors to get access to do their dastardly work. Complex routes across the garden were mapped out to try and minimize the collateral damage. Altogether about 1/3rd of the garden was left as a sea of clay mud as the first snows of winter started to fall, mercifully covering the carnage. But the new well pump, pumped and the new septic tank did what polite septic tanks are supposed to do. And the snow kept falling. But it would melt again in the spring. Then what?

Time to Get Serious

But even disasters have their positive side. Most of the trees that had been cut down were in the vicinity of the old vegetable plot, meaning it would now have between 6 and 8 hours full sunlight in high summer and its boundaries could be expanded to give approximately 15 x 50 feet of growing space. The sea of clay mud awaiting the spring melt would require some imported top soil to give grass seeds at least a fighting chance of establishing some roots in reasonably short order. The solid blue clay could be, if not banished, them amended with something that might be a bit more conducive to vegetable growth. And there was the whole winter to plan a new beginning. Time to get really serious?

Problems, comments, suggestions, corrections (including broken links) or something to add? Please take the time from a busy life to 'mail us' (at top of screen), the webmaster (below) or eagle-eyes at hillofbeans. You will have a warm inner glow for the rest of the day.

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Page modified: January 20 2022

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