A COOK'S GARDEN

Another Year, Another Chance to Put Some Fun in Your Plot

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 4, 2007

New Year's resolutions are useless. In fact, I think they're a sort of jinx. Proclamations about losing five pounds or maintaining a perfect garden are doomed to failure because they're too much like homework. "Positive change," as the self-help books call it, happens accidentally when you're fully engaged in life. Progress occurs when you're so caught up in a project that you can't quit.

If your vegetable garden isn't fun anymore, this is a good time to ask why it's not, and what you can do to make it the place that gets your attention. A garden that becomes a burden is easy to avoid, so that by fall it's a disaster you can't face at all. Instead of promising yourself to do better next year, see if you can figure out just what makes that spring-planted Eden slide downhill. Use the tranquil dormant period we're in now to make a new plan. Not somebody else's plan. Yours.

Any garden will depress you if the plants in it fail, and this almost always takes place because of dreadful soil. Only if you've actually seen superb garden loam can you fully appreciate what yours ought to look like, and what its magic effect on your plants will be. Four-star soil is dark and crumbly like chocolate cake. Your fingers can probe it so effortlessly you don't need a trowel. It's full of happy worms and venturesome roots, and you don't achieve it by scattering a bag of 10-10-10 but by adding fertile organic matter -- more than you think you need. Make it a project to round up as much good-quality aged manure as you can find, add some peat moss, dried seaweed and greensand -- a bagged product containing a broad range of trace minerals. Spread these amendments over the garden and till, fork or dig them in thoroughly, whenever weather permits. Instead of struggling, your plants will explode with vigor.

Perhaps you're up against a poor site, one bedeviled with tree roots and leafy shade. Unless you stick mostly to salad greens, your garden will never put much food on the table. If possible, move the plot, or cut down the tree. If the tree is an old friend, sacrifice the front lawn instead and put the garden there. When people laugh at your "tomatoscape," offer them a taste of the good life at harvest time.

If the weeds won last year, and you're discouraged, lower your expectations a bit and become a mulcher. A layer of straw mulch won't banish all the weeds, but enough of them to let you face the garden without shame.

Sometimes a garden is too big to be fun. Cut back to just the crops you love best, maybe sweet corn or hot peppers. Try narrowing down the selection to just the treats you can't possibly get from the market, such as fresh-picked peas. Or just grow the ones you need close at hand for meals, such as basil, parsley, lettuce and one cherry tomato plant. Experiment with closely planted rows that crowd weeds out.

Then again, maybe your plot was too small for the kind of food you love to grow and eat. The squash plants, scratchy and forbidding, sprawled in the paths so that it took fortitude to wade in. This year, enlarge the beds, or make wide avenues you can stroll down with a wheelbarrow.

Was the garden too far away? Out of sight, out of mind, out of reach of the hose? Put it next to the kitchen door. Move in. Leave a clearing in the middle and set up a picnic table with a big umbrella. Have the morning coffee there, or the evening Scotch. Snip seasonings during a meal and pop strawberries into your mouth for dessert. Seduce yourself with rows of larkspur, nasturtiums and annual butterfly weed. If problems arise, you'll notice them while there's still time to solve them. There's an old saying, "The best fertilizer is the footsteps of the farmer."

Were critters your downfall? Launch Operation Fence. Make it a handsome lattice structure with an arch over the gate and see how many different crops or flowering vines you can grow on it.

Maybe you just get distracted each year and forget to replace early crops with late ones. If having a succession of plentiful food is important to you, post a schedule to remind yourself of key planting dates. Or not. Perhaps the zeal of a spring project is enough, and you enjoy sinking into the August heat with lemonade in hand, satisfied with the effort spent on the new fence. Perhaps while building it you lost those five pounds, without having given them so much as a thought.

Scott Aker's Digging In column will return next week.


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