- From: BUST April/May 2005
You Grow Girl was launched in February 2000, as a community for gardeners not unlike myself; people who want to grow but whose garden space is less than ideal. And for those of us with shallow pockets but a big, crazy love for tending plants and making a meal from homegrown fare, wherever home may be. – Read on…
Guest post by Teresa Youngblood
Gardening was making me a little crazy, and this before I had planted a single seed.
I always wanted to grow up to be one of those peaceful, well-adjusted, earthy women who live with gusto and who tend wild, luscious gardens. I think this was because, as a child, I was bookish, possessed of few friends, and likely to blurt out odd things in the middle of other people’s conversations. The skillful, nurturing, and wise gardener was the antithesis of my extended geeky phase. It was more of a mental picture than a plan, though, and I clipped through college and then graduate school with nary a spider plant to call my own, much less a laid-back, carefree approach to living.
But one day, a few years ago, I found myself graduated, in a new city, and living on a second-floor apartment. I had no clear goals for my future, but I did have a balcony. So in lieu of taking up panic attacks, I decided to start a garden.
I immediately began planning a brave and inspiring balcony garden. Never mind that I didn’t know a thing about gardening. I wanted the kind that wantonly spilled vivacity and cheer over the side of an otherwise sterile building. And since I knew not a soul who had a knack with plants, I set off for the city library.
It was September, and because I did not know yet that winter gardening existed, I made a plan to research gardening until the spring. The first two books I checked out were Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and John Jeavons’s How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. They were just what I needed—pages and pages of facts, how-tos, tricks of the trade, and important ecological philosophy.
I found plenty more information to keep me busy until March. I made charts and copied graphs. I spent hours surfing gardening websites and creating a list of my favorites. I perused back issues of the Organic Gardener and Mother Earth News. By January I had moved on from reading about gardening and was reading about heirloom varieties and seed saving, the World Bank and global food issues, the waning of the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s, and the history of the Dole family and the hijacking of Hawaii.
And so, by February I was convinced that the only way I could call myself a real gardener was if I moved out to the Canadian countryside, grew all my own organic food, and checked out of the cash economy.
This was not turning out to be the harmonious hobby I thought it was. I needed space. Gardening was making me a little crazy, and this before I had planted a single seed.
So on my next trip to the library I picked up Michael Pollan’s Second Nature and Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (Book). I thought perhaps that other bibliophiles would have advice on what to do after the crash.
And I was right. Aside from incredible writing, I found in these two books some perspective. As the authors told the stories of their first gardens, I recognized the impulsiveness, the eagerness to always know more, and the difficulty in finding a balance between being obsessive and negligent. I saw them looking for themselves in their gardens—either the selves they were or the selves they wanted to be—and I recognized that, too.
When March came, I bought a bag of organic dirt, a bag of mushroom compost, and a trowel.
I chose one, just one, variety of heirloom tomato to grow on my balcony. I planted eight seeds; six came up; I gave three away (along with a few tidbits about crop diversity) and kept the other three. Feeling the need to be encouraged, I also planted things that I found suggested for a child’s garden because they were sunny and easy to cultivate: morning glories, nasturtiums, and marigolds. They all came up and bloomed gloriously.
As the summer began, my reading tapered off. My plants grew. Neighbors would call up to me from the street and ask what was what. By August, the morning glories even started to cascade a little bit.
That September (and every September since then), I got an itch to catch up on my gardening reading. I have some favorites that I dip into, and others that I read cover to cover. But I let the information sit a while in my head and mix with other things I know—about myself, about the world, and about gardening. I am still waiting to turn into the quintessential gardener (I have even bought a floppy hat to speed up the process), but in the mean time I think I am more peaceful, better adjusted, and the most connected to the earth when I garden with a few books, a few facts, and a little of my very own wisdom.
Teresa Youngblood hails from the deep, deep South of the U.S. of A. She tried her hand at gardening in the ground for the first time this winter in the community garden of a local women’s center, and now understands why collards became the staple of Southern diets. (They are made of iron, and are daunted by nothing.) She is currently studying to be a teacher of middle school English.
Guest post by Kelly Gilliam
So you’ve just moved into a new place. You look around, and find yourself in a jam. Maybe your new yard doesn’t come with a garden plot, or perhaps the plot there is so overgrown with weeds that it looks like it hasn’t been touched in ten years. Whatever your situation, there’s no reason you can’t forge ahead and create your own sustainable and personal garden. All you need are some good tools, a little bit of research, and a plan for what you want to grow.
Last year I was presented with the problem of starting over, completely from scratch. After much prodding, my upstairs landlords had given me the okay to use a small, five-foot-square plot of land. They had left it unused and uncared for, apparently for the entire time they had owned the house. It baffled me that the clay-logged soil, infested with weeds, could ever have housed a working garden. Regardless, I was hell-bent on making my own little garden to grow not only hardy plants, but vegetables and more sensitive species as well.
I started by deciding exactly what it was that I wanted to grow. Being in love with the idea of one day growing all my own fruits and vegetables (to the point where I wouldn’t have to buy any save for the off-season), I decided the bulk of my plants would be vegetables and herbs. Luckily, my new plot received almost full sun and would be ideal for growing tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs.
The next step was to break up the clay soil and add organic material to support the plants. Thankfully, I had recently bought Andy Sturgeon’s “Planted” and it proved to be an indispensable resource on soil types. At the time, I was working at a greenhouse so I was also able to learn from my co-workers. For my five by five foot area I settled on 30 L of mushroom manure, 60 L of topsoil and 20 Kg of washed sand. I dedicated a full day to re-conditioning my soil.
My first act in the plot was to rip out all of the larger weeds—anything over 15 cm in height or spread. I decided that I couldn’t rip out all of the smaller weeds, so I took my good, heavy-duty metal shovel and worked from one end to the other, turning over all the soil to break it up.
If there’s one nugget of wisdom I’d like to impart, it’s the value of getting yourself a good metal shovel. Plastic shovels, while cheaper, cannot take the strain of tough soil or tons of use (that goes for the handle as well the blade). It’s definitely worth the money to go all out on a good shovel; if you do you can get a life’s worth of use out of it.
For the next round of digging, I took the sand—all 20L of it—and threw it over the garden in segments, turning over each area with my shovel and a large metal-toothed rake as I went. I had decided that it was best to break up the clay with sand first, and then try to work in the organic material.
I worked in the mushroom manure using the same method I had with the sand. I chose mushroom manure not only to break up the soil, but also to add lots of nutrients. I did not want to be fertilizing every few weeks all summer, preferring to create something much more sustainable and low maintenance.
After I had finished with the manure I added the topsoil, to give the soil lots of bulk and more drainage. I had removed particularly large clumps of clay along the way and needed some filler for those areas.
When I was done, after nearly three hours, I was left with rich, dark soil that drained well but could also hold water on those long hot days when the plot would be in full sun. I was tired, but I was really excited that I had personalized my garden, and without even planting anything. I started to better understand that gardening all begins with the soil—that seems like such common knowledge, but it is easily overlooked in the haste and excitement of planning the look of a garden.
The next day I went to the greenhouse where I worked and picked up my vegetables, herbs and ornamentals. Because of the direct sun my garden would receive almost all-day, I made sure to pick lots of sun-loving plants. Tomatoes took up most of the room in my garden in the long run; my four baby plants eventually grew to over three feet tall and produced fruit constantly up until November, with no fertilizing. I planted several varieties of rudbeckia, as well as four types of basil, rosemary, dill, borage (a great herb with a cool cucumber flavour and beautiful little, blue, star-shaped flowers), fennel, cucumber, a lime plant, passionflower, and many other flowers. I also planted bee balm right beside my herbs and tomatoes to attract bees for pollination.
With a little research and a lot of persistence I had started from the ground up and made my own little garden according to my own tastes and needs. It took remarkably little of me save a few hours in the sun (with lots of sunscreen and water by my side), and I gained much from it. Not only did I have a garden, but I had created the area all myself and I really felt like it was my own. I had a bond with my garden that I’d never quite experienced before.
I’ve since moved from that basement suite into another urban basement suite, and that little plot is now somebody else’s. My current place doesn’t have any land of its own, but there is a perfect spot in the yard, calling my name, waiting to be transformed. I find myself really excited at the prospect of once again creating my own personal space.
Kelly is a city-dweller from Vancouver, B.C. Originally from the prairies, she was amazed to find that in Vancouver you can garden three-fourths of the year. She’s currently attending film school, and whenever she’s not in the stages of production she can be found digging around in her garden. She is also a photographer and her work can be viewed at Devileye.net.
Guest post by Sarah B. Hood
When we moved into our narrow city house with its postage-stamp backyard, my partner Jonathan outed himself as a lawnie: a leaning more frequently found among men than women, I’ve found. My dad was never happier than when spraying an arc of water over his little plot of grass; similarly, Jonathan likes to sit on the picnic table with a paperback in one hand and a hose in the other.
Jonathan grew up in a semi-developed suburb, where residential yards blended seamlessly with woodsy areas. For him, a lawn is where kids play hide-and-seek, and where grownups chill in a lawn chair with an iced tea, a radio and a book. He was surprised to learn that the North American lawn is the subject of controversy.
Of course, some see lawns as artificial environments that are inhospitable to many creatures and too often maintained with an arsenal of chemical agents. Nonetheless, Jonathan and I have found, a little bit of grass is nice to walk on, pretty to look at and easy to maintain in a more natural way. Here’s how:
Don’t even try to grow grass right under a tree or in a heavy-traffic area. These situations call for a few well-placed paving stones, a wood-chip path or some shade-tolerant ground cover.
If your lawn looks sad, get your PH tested (that’s the acid/alkaline balance of your soil). The quick-and-dirty method: dandelions thrive in alkaline soil, which you can correct with gardener’s sulphur. Moss loves acid, which can be balanced with pelletized lime. (We’ve never done this, but we thought you’d like to know.)
Don’t make yourself crazy when you mow. Instead of chopping off the ends of your hostas, make a mulch border or dig a trench between the flowerbeds and the grass. Fill in hard-to-mow corners with something forgiving like a clump of ornamental grass.
If you get snow in your area, make sure you and your neighbours aren’t throwing salt on your grass. (Where does sidewalk runoff go?)
Finally, don’t spend more time fussing with the lawn than you do enjoying it. Make your first lawn investment a cheap and comfy lawn chair, a paperback and some iced tea. They’re bound to make your grass look great.