The Gardening Pre-Show: Sketches and Excelsperations

It snowed today, but I'm all right with it.  As far as winters go, this one has been a piece of cake, I can live with winter being like this.   Right up until today we've had a spell of unusually moderate weather:  mid 40s to 50s.  I spent all of last weekend outside and it was so wonderful.  The cheapest form of therapy there is.  My iPhone tucked in my pocket with a playlist on shuffle, I went around from bed to bed, doing a bunch of cleanup that I usually can't get to until the end of March.  Hellebores were putting out blooms.  Iris was sending up new pointy shoots.  Clearing away debris, pruning back, poking in the dirt, saying hello to old friends, I went into a zone of perfect happiness. As I worked in the veggie garden, which is right next to the road, cars slowed down and most people waved to me.  One woman stopped and rolled down her window.  "Are your tulips out yet, they can't be!" she cried.

"They're coming up," I called back.  "Couple more months, you'll see them."

"I always see them from the road, I love driving past your house," she said, and with another wave she was off.

Exchanges like these make me think twice about our plans to put a fence at the edge of our property where it borders the road.  I grow my gardens for me, yes, but over the years I have gotten such response from people walking and driving by.  If the flowers are the high point of someone's commute to work, if they move a stranger to roll down the window and say can you cut that kind of thing off?  I hope Jeeps and I can reach a compromise in a fence that marks the property without blocking the view.

Anyway, it's that time of year...

Yes indeed, that is my vegetable garden depicted in an Excel spreadsheet.  That, my friends, is the Plan.

I love the Plan.  I make Plans every year - don't you see the tab with "Garden 2011"?  I had a file with all the garden plans going back to 2005 but that got lost in the great coffee spillage debacle.  Bummer.  But before you think I am completely insane at worst, or a total control-freak at best, let's get a couple things straight:

The primary reason I plan out the garden like this is crop rotation.  Any farmer on any scale will tell you this is common sense practice - it's good for the soil and it deters pests from infesting in one place.  So the spreadsheet makes it very easy to see, year over year, what got planted where and how I'm going to rotate the crops.  Fair enough, right?  Right.

The second reason is because it's something fun to do when I'm out of my mind with winter boredom.  There's a stack of seed and flower catalogs by my bed and more arriving in the mail every day, and I'm just itching to start.  I can't get outside and actually START start, so what's the next best thing?  Virtual garden.  Pretend.  Believe me, come actually spring time, do I go and follow this plan down to the square inch?  Hell, no.  Other than the basics of "carrots go here this year, zucchini over there," a lot of the plan gets forgotten.  Or turns out to be impractical or outright impossible, what was I thinking?

Yet filled with optimism at the start of the growing season, I do try to set some goals for projects and technique, just to keep from biting off more than I can chew, and, face it, to try and get the most out of that lovely little garden of mine, and to try to keep it as organic as possible.  Goals I've jotted down thus far:

*Jeeps and I want to take the area under the living room windows and turn it from grass to garden.  He hates cutting that awkward piece of turf and it always ends up being baked by the end of June anyway.  I am supremely psyched for this idea but it involves removing all that turf, and then taking apart the stacked stone wall that currently edges part of the garden border.  The wall has to be rebuilt at the edge of the walkway but when done, I will have a little enclosed herb and cutting garden.  I can't wait!!  But this is a big project, therefore I tell myself to keep the focus here.  Other little plans and dreams for the yard can wait.

*Case in point:  the new walkway from the front door.  Big vision.  It's gonna be awesome.  But I have to hold off until the new space is done.  [Editor's note:  or hire it out, (cough cough)]

*I will not grow pole beans this year.  I have not been having good luck with them lately so I'm taking a break.  It's not them, it's me.  Actually it's them.

*Crops I'm trying for the first time:  fava beans, lima beans, bok choy and swiss chard.

*Way, WAY too many cucumbers last year!  Let's exercise some control this time.

*I will not grow peas this year.  I give them my heart and soul and yet I always end up with like two measly cups as the entire crop.  It's totally discouraging and a waste of my time and space.  No peas this year.

*(Chin wobbling)...but I love peas.  Yes.  I will give them another chance.

*No I won't...

*...Yes I will.

*I will devote more time to soil improvement.  The plan is two-fold:  maintaining the compost heaps, and working the resulting organic material into the soil.  I have a dream that someday Jeeps will build me a multi-bin compost system like this:

Isn't that awesome?!  But I can survive without it.

*I'm going to try to sow a cover crop of crimson clover in all the raised beds this fall, and till it under next spring.

*I will companion plant.

Companion planting is something I've gotten really into the past couple years.  For the uninitiated, companion planting is the practice of planting different crops together on the theory that they aid each other in pollination, pest control, and nutrient up-take.  You scratch my back, I scratch yours.

For example, Sweet Alyssum, planted as a ground cover underneath broccoli and other brassica crops, attract parasitic wasps that prey on cabbage lopers, those disgusting worms that can chew leaves to lace.   It's also common practice to plant basil and marigolds by your tomatoes, but the theory is that the strong-smelling basil can deter certain tomato-preying pests, while marigolds also deter nemotodes in the soil.  Nasturtiums grown near squash can lure caterpillars that normally prey on the squash into preying on the nasturtium blossoms instead.  This is called "trap cropping".   The best success I've ever had with trap cropping is when I grew Miribilis (common name "Four O'Clocks") by my roses.  Supposedly their flowers lure Japanese Beetles.   Supposedly?  More like, um, YEAH!  To the point of Four O'Clock plants dripping beetles that you then dunk off into a pail of soapy water.  Done, done and dead.

Carrots love tomatoes.  Dill loves carrots.  Borage loves everything.  And so on and so forth, all with the added perk that flowers attract pollinators like bees and butterflies, and vegetables and flowers just look pretty grown side-by-side.  Sometimes it seems they just beg to be put together.  Look at this eggplant and this coleus, are they made for each other or what:

Make no mistake, there is a ton of information out there about companion planting, and often someone will dismiss what another person swears by.  I like to stick to one or two sources that have studies to back them up.  This year I found a book Great Garden Companions which seems to be the very thing for me - already it's dog-eared and filled with penciled underlinings and notes.  I love the author's simple approach to building garden "neighborhoods" of related crops and their herb/flower best friends.  The Plan uses a ton of her ideas.

It all looks good on paper.  How it turns out in execution, we shall see.

No peas.

...Yes, peas.