We all get started in gardening in such different ways.
The word mulch entered my consciousness seven years ago this summer, when my best friend announced that he was moving out of the place we shared in McLean to join a farm commune in Browntown, Virginia.
There was something strange about it. Here was a guy from Brooklyn who had never had a plant in his house for as long as we'd been friendly, and now he was going to become a farmer ? The things the Sixties did to us all!
We loaded his possessions into Victor, my Volkswagen Van, and drove into the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Four miles up a dirt road we came to a place inhabited by about a dozen freaks who all seemed too zonkedon either Zen or dope to be able to do any kind of work in a garden. Two half-naked women were making a measly attempt to pull weeds away from some plants, but it was obvious who was winning this battle. I figured that if this was what my friend wanted, he could have it. I walked into the kitchen of the farmhouse with a can of Coca-Cola in one hand, and was surrounded instantly by a knot of humanoids who started screaming about bad karma coming from the can. They chased me out of the house.
Which turned out to be a good thing. About five minutes later some local farmer drove up with several dozen eggs for the commune. He hoped out of a '57 Chevy pick-up, and started staring at the vegetable patch. I was positive he was interested in the topless girls, but then he started shaking his head. "If only these hippies would use mulch," he said to himself out loud, "they'd realize that gardening doesn't have to be so bad."
That was my real-life introduction to the so-called back-to-the-land movement. I made sure I stopped for a Big Mac on the way home, and gave thanks for plastic milk shakes and fast-food secret sauce. If this was the ultimate word on organics, let us now praise chemicals, I said to myself. It occurred to me that maybe the ultimate outcome of Woodstock was rock 'n' roll drowning out the cows in the country, and my generation taking one last stand against an approaching army of weeds.
It wasn't easy coming of age in the Sixties. Beyond all that power to the people and peace-love-bells-incense-hare-krishna-brotherhood stuff, there was something even worse: the greening of America. How many people uner thirty-five suffered horrible guilt because they let one of their plants die? How many people who never wanted to have to deal with any life other than their own now felt obliged to have an Asparagus sprengi or a Dracena marginata or a Ficus benjaminus stuck or hung in some corner of the apartment - only to have it die ? I felt like a disgrace to my generation because every plant I ever touched keeled over. Instantly, I once massacred thirty-seven living things by agreeing to water the plants at a friend's house while she was away for two weeks. I thought maybe they had just gone dormant or something. Until she got back and called up and said: "You've murdered my babies !"
Who needs that?
Oddly enough I would now say everybody, but that is making an enormous leap. Ironically it started with that farmer talking about mulch, because the word garden always meant work to me.(Even now I scoff at writers who wax eloquently about the arrival of seed catalogs in the dead of winter bringing thoughts of spring warmth. Hah! I thin of weeds .) It hit me that he wasn't talking about the elimination of work, only doing away with unnecessary work. And I thought about my college fascination with Marxism, and Marx's insistence that man see himself reflected in his work. A bell went off: Who sees it better than a farmer?
A few days after my experience at Browntown, a group of college buddies and I climbed into the van and headed into the Virginia farmland. I still remember the sun creeping up over a field of corn as Terry Reilly's "In C" was spinning out of the radio. I stopped the car and wandered through the cornfield. The ears were just beginning to develop, and the stalks smelled fresh and wet and reflected a faint hint of orange sunlight. There was something eerily peaceful about the place, an orderliness imposed by the straight lines of the crops.
It was then that I tripped over an old, rusting piece of plow that was jutting up from the earth. It must have been there fifty years, one year getting exposed and the next being plowed under as the farmer tilled his field. When I hit the ground, I came face to face with a single kernel of corn, which had been sown but didn't germinate. And I started wondering why one kernel made it, and another one didn't. And how all the information to create several ears of corn could be programmed into one kernel.
Another month went by, I was visiting a friend in Charlottesville, and we went up to Monticello. Wandering through the gardens, I flashed back to the sunrise in the cornfield. Again, the same sense of peace. And printed on a marker in one of the gardens was an extract from a letter Jefferson had written to a friend:
I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered and near a good market for the productions of a garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another, and instead of one harvest a continued one through the year. Under a total want of demand except of our family table, I am still devoted to the garden. But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.
Other things happened. I had recently visited the relatives of my father who had stayed behind in Italy, and was overwhelmed by the simple way their lives revolved around the crops they grew on their farm. And then there was Marlon Brando keeling over in the tomato patch in "The Godfather." Not a bad place to go.
And so four years ago I took the plunge, and bought a small farm in Virginia. I had decided that this would be a grand experiment: How could a kid from The Big City adapt to the rural life? What could he learn from his neighbors? What could he teach them? How would they accept each other?
It quickly became obvious that the main basis for initial social interchange in the country was gardening. Were the peas in yet? How did the tomatoes come out? Did the Japanese beetles destroy the corn? I knew I was at a distinct disadvantage because I knew nothing . (The first year, for instance, I called my neighbor to ask why my potato plants were dying, only to have him laugh and tell me that the vines shriveled up when the potatoes were ready to be dug.) So I started reading scores of books. (An annotated list of books and catalogs follows this article.)
The one that really got me going was Catharine Osgood Foster's The Organic Gardener. She doesn't just jump in and say, "This is when the kale should be planted." She touches on botany and chemistry, and doesn't make it sound like the organic gardener has a hot line to heaven. It's a very systematic approach that emphasizes the relationship of a plant to the soil. You can spend as much time on your plants as you want, she says, but unless you really work on the soil you'll toll in vain.
Organic gardening had seemed to me to be the sensuous expression of counter-cultural excess. And guy who told me that Coca-Cola was full weeds for the rest of his life. As a chemistry student, I had learned early that the nitrogen in manure and the nitrogen in chemical fertilizer had to be the same thing. So why bother to use manure? Particularly when the farmers living around me were all saying that manure was the best way to guarantee that your garden would be full of weeds.
There are a couple of problems with that argument. You don't have to get weeds from manure if you really till the stuff into the earth. There are also some serious ecological considerations that have to be faced with chemical fertilizers. Never mind any ethical considerations; I just got fascinated with seeing how well my garden could make do with things that most other people considered garbage.
I had the worst soil imaginable. It seemed like pure red clay, and when it rained you risked limb and life plopping your foot down into this oozing muck. The field hadn't been used for crops in about fifty years, and had been covered over with orchard grass. When one f my neighbors plowed it up, he broke blades in the process.
The first step was to get some kind of nutrient into the soil and start a biological process going. I called one of my neighbors who raises cattle and asked if I could buy some manure from him. He is a little hard of hearing and kept shouting into the phone, "You want to buy what ?" Finally he said, "You can't buy that stuff, but I'll give you all the s . . . you want for free."
Two of his men hauled over about ten tons of manure and spread it over the garden. This cost me two beers. On top of it I piled sawdust, leaves, peat moss, kitchen garbage and ashes from the fireplace. My major investment was a Troy-built rototiller, a $600 work horse that's like a giant garden Mix-Master, which I used to churn everything together.
Within two weeks a lot of the neighbors were amazed. They'd told me that I couldn't plant anything for about a year, and that I'd have to put several tons of lime on the garden to break up the clay. Now they were stopping by and wondering how all this red dirt was already turning into loam. The tiller also put a litte Tom Sawyer into my life. I was the first guy on the block to have a front driven tiller - one that doesn't use the tines for propulsion - and people would actually stop by and ask if they could run the thing through the garden for a couple of rows.
If this crazy tiller wasn't enough, there was also the black plastic mulch. The Browntown farmer was right: there's no need to do more work than you have to in the garden. So out came long, yardwide rolls of black plastic that I'd lay down in rows. I'd cover the edges with dirt, cut slits into the plastic with a razor blade and then just stick seeds or plants into the holes. The weeds couldn't come up through the plastic, and the ones on the outskirts of the sheet were easily taken care of by the tiller. In August passers-by would see scores of cantaloupes floating on a sea of plastic, and they'd slow their cars down to gawk.
Of course, everything can't be done this easily. Even as you read this, you should be outside planting peas, lettuce, onions, radishes, broccoli and spinach - if these are vegetables that excite you. It's impractical to use plastic mulch on these corps, so there's going to be some weeding and thinning involved. The simple fact of gardening is that it is easy - but it involves very hard work.
It also tends to become all-consuming. Especially when you make some of the classic mistakes. My first year I planted twenty hills of zucchini, which was easily done with black plastic mulch. I thought I was in fat city, especially when the little plants started emerging with nary a weed in sight. Within two weeks the little guys had inundated half the garden. Six weeks later they were yielding about 100 pounds of fruit every day. I would bring huge boxes into work, barely managing to give it away. One morning the guard at the door finally said to me, "What are you doing with all that stuff," and I said, "I can't help it; it's trying to take over my house."
The same thing happened with green peppers. The first year I put in thirty-six plants and, come August, there was a new bushel out there every morning.
Of course, there is a much more sensible way to garden, which involves picking out the fruits, vegetables and flowers that are particularly appealing. I would much rather grow raspberries than lettuce. Luckily I have room for both.If I lived in town and had limited space, the lettuce would go. And even if I had no earth whatsoever to work with, I would buy a few large tubs and grow strawberries. If I needed to hedge a small area in the city, I might try planting some asparagus. I'd not only get to eat it in April, but by the middle of May I'd have huge sprays of delicate ferns marking out a border. Peas can easily be grown near any urban fence line, and then be replaced in May or June with pole beans.
The best way to decide what plants you want is to simply leaf through a few garden catalogs. You may like petunias; I consider them weeds. I'm crazy about daffodils, and planted 1000 last fall. Space or taste may cause you to opt for six iris, or perhaps a few lilies or a dozen tulips. If you like fruit, a dwarf tree can be squeezed into most city yards. A novelty would be a fig tree, which tends to bear much sooner than most trees. You can even set it in a big container, leave it outside for the summer and then let it go dormant without any water in a cool basement over the winter.
Whatever you plant, it's usually wise to keep a record of what's happened in the garden. I can tell you, for instance, that I put my peas in on April 23 last year - which turned out to be much too late. The vines withered up before I got any peas, which tends to happen with crops that like cold weather (peas, lettuce, spinach and broccoli) if you plant them too late. This year all those veggies went it on March 12.
Another advantage of record-keeping is that you get a chance to find out what varieties are best suited to your growing situation and taste. Four years ago I planted fifty Surecrop strawberry plants because everyone told me they were the best ones for my soil and climate. Two years later I put in twenty-five each of Fairfax and Redchief. I'll never grow Surecrop again, because in comparison with the other two they seemed like the wimpy kind of water-bloated berries you get at the supermarket.
There are some veggies that almost require record keeping, like asparagus. For starters, you can't cut any stalks until the third year they've been in. And then each year the number of weeks you can cut increases. Last year I cut for about four weeks in April and early May, and the plants still sent up enough new shoots to regenerate. This year I figure I'll have six weeks of asparagus.
Record-keeping also facilitates setting out plants that have to be started indoors. Every garden book lists the average first and last frost dates for different sections of the country, but somehow they never seem to be perfectly suited for your own garden. Cantaloupe plants, for instance, don't like to be set out until it's good and warm at night. I shoot for about the 15th of May, so I start my seedlings about six weeks before that. In the flower department, dahlias and single Mexican tuberoses similarly don't like cold weather, so I wait until late April to stick them in the ground.In late August the tuberoses burst into subtly scented white blooms that have a faint hint of cinnamon (If you think I'm advocating tuberoses, you're right). I also know from my records that they have to be dug up and stored inside by about the 15th of October. One year I waited until mid-November, and they simply didn't come up when I planted them the next year. The previous fall's frost apparently had killed them.
While we're on the subject of records, let's talk about bees. For starters, anybody who has been stung by a bee probably hasn't. Most likely it was a hornet or wasp that looked like a bee. Bees are actually quite friendly, and my garden records indicate that vegetable and flower yields tripled after I got my first beehive.
Of all my gardening endeavors, the bees have undoubtedly been the most satisfying. It all started when I read Von Frisch's book The Dancing Bee, an account that took forty years to research and explains ow bees communicate. It seemed to me that any little bugs who were that sophisticated would be interesting fellows to get to know. Obviously I was petrified when the first package of bees arrived in the mail, convinced that the books were all wrong: the bees would not be docile and I would get stung.
Not so. They behaved exactly as the literature predicted. Now I spend hours peeking into their hives, observing the sophisticated and orderly way they go about converting nectar into honey. I also get a lot of visitors who want to know about bees, and phone calls at 8 in the morning from people who've discovered a swarm on their apple tree and want me to come gahter it up (gladly done).
Once I was in West Virginia and stopped at an apiary with 500 hives. The old codger who owned the place was convinced that I was this mysterious person who'd been stealing his money. I said, no, I just have four hives of my own, and was wondering if things were different when you have 500. He pulled out a shotgun and told me to go stick my hand in one of his hives. He said the bees would know if I'm telling the truth.
Well, I figured that a handful of stings is better than a gut full of buckshot, so I went over and lifted the cover off one of the hives. The bees were incredibly tranquil. "Pick up the queen," he said to me. I found her and picked her up and fifty bees landed on my hand. I put the queen down and they crawled off.
"You were telling the truth," he said to me. "The bees can tell. They symbolize the paradox of God: the pure sweetness of honey on one end; deadly poison on the other. Heaven and hell."
Things don't have to be viewed that cosmically. The bees will pollenate your garden like it's never been pollenateed before. They will also make quite a bit of honey. And you don't have to be in the country to get it. A bee-hive will do just as well stuck o the roof of an apartment building or in the corner of a tiny backyard as it will in the middle of an alfalfa field or an apple orchard. In Washington you tend to get locust honey. Because there are so many trees around and so few beekeepers, the smart fellows who do have hives tend to get incredible yields.
The city gardener with only a limited amount of space might want to concentrate on herbs. It might be wise to buy a packet of basil seed now and get it started indoors, along with a few San Marzano tomato seeds. The seedlings can be set out as soon as all danger of frost has passed. In June you can throw 2 cups of basil leaves, 1/2 cup of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, 2 cloves of garlic and a teaspoon of salt into the blender. Thirty seconds later you'll have the basic mixture for pesto, which tastes as fresh as a garden smells. It freezes perfectly. When you're ready to use it, just add 1/2 cup of softened butter and a cup of ground Parmesan cheese. Dump it over a pound of freshly cooked pasta and you will be forever addicted to basil.
You can also freeze or dry more of the basil leaves to use witht the tomatoes later in the season. Both tomatoes and basil and well suited to black plastic mulching, by the way.
Now for some more specific advice: Books
The most practical, specific advice on general gardening is probably contained in Dick Raymon'd Down-To-Earth Vegetable Gardening Know-How, put out by the Garden Way Publishing Company, Charlotte, Vt. 05445. Even if you don't buy this book, it's worth getting on thier mailing list because the company publishes and astonishingly comprehensive and low-cost series on every aspect of gardening and homesteading. They also manufacture the Troy-Built tiller and the Garden Way Cart, which is a great improvement on the wheelbarrow. Raymond is a great advocate of wide-row planting, which means sowing lanky swarths of seed rather than a single row. This substantially cuts down weeding problems, and results in a much higher yield per given area of crop. Urban gardeners may find the Ortho Chemical Company's All About Vegetables more helpful, because it suggests a number of ways to grow plants for very small gardens. Thalassa Cruso's Making Things Grow Outdoors will be helpful if your major interest is flowers. Garden Way publishes a slim volume on Green Manure, which explains how you can plant crops like clover and rye to improve the quality of your soil quickly. They also publish two volumes by Stu Campbell on mulching and composting, respectively titled The Mulch Book and Let It Rot.
Would-be beekeepers would do well to read Roger Morse's Complete Guide to Beekeeping, which covers every aspect of the art in clear, concise language. A more poetic but slightly less instructive approach is taken by Richard Taylor in his Joys of Beekeeping. Even the foggiest interest warrants the request of a catalog from the A. I . Root Co., Medina, Ohio 44256. Bees can be hived as late as mid-May, but it is essential to order bees as soon as possible. Ask Root to enclose a free copy of their magazine, Gleanings in Bee Culture, which lists addresses and telephone numbers for many bee suppliers. General Vegetable and Flower Seed
I would choose among three here, although it is often the case that the major seed companies buy their seed from the same distributor. Consequently the seed you order from one may be the same that anther sells as its own. Stokes Seed, Buffalo, N. Y. 14240; W. Atlee Burpee, Warminster, Pa. 18974; and Joseph Harris, Rochester, N.Y. 14624 are all generally reliable. At this date it may be wiser to buy cold-weather crops like peas and spinach from a local seed merchant. Specialized Seed
Grace's Gardens, Hackettstown, N. J. 07840 offers the strangest assortment of seed known to man, including offspring from the world's largest sunflower, which grew to a height of twenty-one-and-a-half feet. They also have seed for yard-long beans (They do not sell pots to cook this mutant), 350-pound pumpkins, twenty-pound radishes and a variety of corn that supposedly grows into a broom. I'm not sure why anyone would want any of these things, although Grace explains in the catalog how you can get yourself ensconced in the Guinness Book of Records. I don't buy any seed from her, but I send in my quarter every year for one of the funniest little catalogs published. Thompson & Morgan, the English seedsmen, offer their products through a branch in Somerdale, N. J. 08083. They have some unusual varieties, and an extensive list of flowers arranged by their Latin names. They also offer seeds for Grande Beurre artichokes, a tasty variety that can be grown in these parts.Nichols Garden Nursery, Albany, Ore. 97321, lists a wide assortment of herbs, as does Le Jardin du Gourmet, West Danville, Vt. 05873. Herb seed and plants are also available at Washington Cathedral's greenhouse. General Flowers
No company probably generates as much controversy as White Flower Farm, Litchfield, Conn. 06759. Advocates swear that this is the finest nursery in America; detractors claim the place is over-priced and snooty. If you order more than $15 worth of merchandise a year, they keep sending you their catalog, which is filled with generally sound cultural hints. If you don't order, the catalogs cost $4 annually. I order regularly; yet sometimes I feel I've paid too much. A tree wisteria I got two years ago is one of my prized possessions, as is a jasmine which bloomed last month in my dining room and made the place smell like a pine grove on a rainy spinrg day. On July 9, the nursery holds open house and serves cucumber sandwiches and tea to anyone who shows up with a catalog. Maybe that's why their stuff is o expensive. Wayside Gardens, Hodges, S. C. 29695, also offers a wide variety of flowering plants, generally at cheaper prices than White Flower Farm. I have mixed feelings baout them: many of their plants have arrived at my house already dead; at the same time, they have been very conscientious about replacing damaged plants. George W. Park, Greenwood, S. C. 29647, offers a number of flowering plants and seeds. I have found this the best place to order single Mexican tuberoses. Roses
It is almost but not quite too late to order roses for planting this year. The best seem to come from Armstrong Nurseries, Ontario, Calif. 91761, and Tillotson's Roses, Watsonville, Calif. 95076. Strawberries
Rayner Bros., Salisbury, Md. 21801, wins hands down. There is still time to order, and berries are easy to grow in this area. Other Fruits
Trees, including figs, and such bushes as raspberries and blueberries are best ordered from Bountiful Ridge, Princess Anne, Md. 21853. Now is an excellent time to plant fig trees, particularly the Celeste variety. Daylilies, Peonies and Iris
Now is an ideal time to order and plant daylilies. My vote goes to Gilbert H. Wilde, Sarcoxie, Mo. 64862. They can also supply excellent peonies and iris later in the summer and fall when it is appropriate to plant them. Stay away from iris being offered for planting now; they will probably die. Lilies
A few lilies could be snuck into the ground now, but it is probably better to wait until fall. Write to Blackthorne Gardens, Holbrook, Mass. 02343, for a catalog, and there'll be ample time to consider the selections. Begonias
There's so much work involved in growing tuberous begonias that I gave up last year. The flowers seemed pale in light of the amount of time and effort it had taken to get them to grow. Those so inclined, however, should request a catalog from Antonelli Brothers, Santa Cruz, Calif. 95062. This is prime time for starting tubers. Geraniums
One of the most maligned genus of plants. Everyone seems to think of those horrible little red things that sit in front of tract houses. There is an amazing variety available in a broad range of colors and leaf patterns, as well as an entire spectrum of scented geraniums. I order from Carobil Farm, Brunswick, Maine 04011. Water Lilies
My choice would be William Tricker, Saddle River, N. J. 07458. Bulbs
Now is the time for planting gladioli, and one of the nicest collections is available from John Scheepers, 63 Wall St., New York, N. Y. 10005. This company also offers a substantial line of bulbs that can be forced indoors in fall and winter. It is not too early to begin thinking of the spring flowering bulbs that must be planted in fall. The best general selection comes from De Jager Bulbs, South Hamilton, Mass. 01982. Daffodil nuts will want to check out the selections from Murray Evans, Corbett, Ore. 97019; The Daffodil Mart, North, Va. 23128; and Grant Mitach, Canby, Ore. 97013. Azaleas
These need not be ordered until late summer and planted in fall. The Tinglke Nursery, Pittsville, Md. 21850, has an admirable selection and even more admirable prices. Miscellaneous
Gadget-hounds will want to peruse the pages of catalogs from Mellinger's, North Lima, Ohio 44452, and Walter Nicke, Hudson, N. Y. 12534. Biological Controls
Rincon-Vitova Insectaries, Box 95, Oak View, Calif. 93022, will ship you harmless little microscopic bugs that destroy other harmful insects. The Bio Control Co., Auburn, Calif. 95603, offers ladybugs by mail. And Guaranteed Products Co., Griggsville, Ill. 62340, makes some of the best purple martin houses on the market. Martins eat their weight in bugs, particularly mosquitoes, every day. However it is too late to erect a martin house this year. Get a catalog now and decide where you'll raise the house next spring, preferably by the middle of March, when the martin scouts arrive from their winter homes in Puerto Rico. Magazines
Horticulture, 125 Garden St., Marion, Ohio 43302, is far and away the best-looking garden publication. It is not quite so full of ideas as Organic Gardening and Farming, Emmaus, Pa. 18098, although the latter is a little heavy on the health bit. The American Horticultural Society, Mount Vernon, Va. 22121, puts out the American Horticulturalist, which tends to be a bit esoteric for the novice. This magazine has much to learn from its British equivalent. The Garden, published by the Royal Horticultural Society, Vincent Square, London, England.