My friend’s mother is an avid gardener and my patron saint of seeds. She filled bags with willow tree branches (put them in water and they will grow roots, she said), three kinds of mint, tarragon, loveage (in German liebstöckel or Maggikraut), strawberries, and garlic.
“This line of garden is 23 years old,” she told me as she shoveled plants into plastic bags. “I started planting it just before my son was born, and have saved a few cloves for replanting every year since.”
Then she started pulling out envelopes and old baby food jars filled with seeds, filling an entire box with extras—ten different kinds of basil, two hot chilies, six varieties of pumpkin, edible climbing flowers, black beans, and Lima beans—all the while giving me little growing tips.
“Garlic doesn’t like a lot of compost. And loveage and tarragon get along, but don’t grow well with others, so keep them separate. The mint you won’t be able to get rid of once you plant it.” I’d been to the garden store for spinach, savoy cabbage, tomatoes and sage marked “does not contain genetically modified material.” It was late March—no time like the present to plant.
That was how my gardening rituals began. Now I find myself in March again (can it really be April already??) planting again, thrilling at the thought of watching the tiny green sprouts emerge in the greenhouse.
I learned through trial and error mostly, and I killed a lot of plants in the process (wrong soil, too much sun, too little sun, etc, etc). But I managed to help a lot more grow, and in exchange they fed me things like zucchini and spinach. A zine called The Ghetto Garden also helped a lot, and I’ll gladly send you a copy of if you send me a few euros.
Last year at this time I promised a diy gardening guide ala gorilla. Better late then never, eh?
There are a lot of people with gardens and hoards of seeds. Find them and trade with them. Ask them as many questions as they can handle. Make sure to ask them about seed saving. Once you get your own plants going you can collect seeds at the end of each season and will never have to spend money on another seed packet for the rest of your life.
If you do buy some seeds, make sure that they aren’t genetically modified. There hasn’t been anywhere near enough research to prove to my satisfaction that gen-modified plants are safe for consumption. And seriously, what is the point? I don’t need a mutant super plant in my backyard. The ecosystem probably doesn’t need a mutant super plant either. Planting gen-modified seeds in your garden will help them spread, and spreading gen-modified plants around to reproduce is a stupid fucking idea.
That first year my neighbor bought potting soil, and I filled some little plastic containers with dirt and stuck a few seeds in each and put them in the greenhouse around March. Otherwise I would have had to wait for (or had all my plants killed by) the last frost that arrived sometime in the middle of April. You don’t need to bother with a greenhouse, but it gives your plants a nice head start on growing enormous.
I happen to have a little ancient greenhouse right next to my wagon. But if you do not, greenhouses are really easy to build. All you need is some sort of open-topped box (old bookshelves or boxes of any kind, for example) and an old window.
If you can’t find any old windows, consider using the glass from old picture frames, bits of Plexiglas, or clear plastic wrap. This isn’t a project that should cost you anything as these are all items readily available in other people’s trash.
Fill the box with dirt, and place the window on top of the box (make sure you have enough to cover the entire opening). If you want to get fancy you can affix the window onto the box with a hinge for easy watering-can access, but just setting the window on top of the box is fine. Old cabinets with glass doors are super easy to convert. Lay them on their backs, fill with dirt, plant seeds, close doors, water regularly, watch your seeds turn into little plants. The sun heats up the ground in the box, and the glass traps the heat. Frost plant massacre: averted.
Watching seeds become little plants and then, really, really big plants is still as magical as it was when you learned about it in the first grade. (We put plastic wrap windows in school-lunch milk cartons and then watched our seeds sprout under the earth through the window.) This year I used earth from the garden to plant in the greenhouse, and now there are a lot of weeds growing along side my seedlings. I hope when the time comes I’ll be able to tell the difference between them.
If you’re really lucky, you won’t need to lift a finger to have a bed ready—although it’s always really good for your plants to mix some fresh compost into the soil each season—and you can plant your garden directly in the ground. But maybe you live somewhere with poor soil, previous locations of gas stations, toxic dumping grounds, Superfund sites, etc. (They are closer than you think. I grew up right next to a Superfund toxic waste site. I like to imagine that this has resulted in some sort of superpower mutation that I just haven’t noticed yet. But, as usual, the joke’s probably on me.)
Because of the gas station that once graced our land, I planted in boxes the first year. These I got from several sources, pre-built. First a trip to a construction site down the street resulted in four 2×1.5 (that’s meters) wooden boxes. Then, in a frenzy of neurotic rearranging in our wagon, I replaced two large wooden bookshelves (which I’d lugged over from the university trash depot a few months before) with some other trash furniture, and now the black beans and peas are growing in their over-turned shelves. The last two beds I built when I was moving some wood leftover from the winter to a different shed and when I couldn’t move the last handful of logs by myself, I formed them into little squares, and filled them with dirt.
Some of your seeds will be hardy, and you’ll be able to plant them directly in the ground. But if you’re growing things that aren’t originally from your climate, you’ll need to start them in the greenhouse and move them outside once the danger of frost has past.
some random plant things i learned in the last year
Tomatoes are the princesses of the vegetable garden. Fuckers need tons of water and can’t even stand up by themselves (in the wild, they grew vine-like along the ground). They smell amazing, but this year I’ve decided not to grow so many of them because my stomach no longer likes their acidy innards.
Tomatoes originated in South America and were brought to Europe by one colonizer or another. And get this, the Latin name of tomato is lycopersicum, which means “wolf-peach.” Sexy.
Snails really like to eat cabbages of all sorts. To deal with the snails, I build beer traps. Bury a little bowl in the ground so that its rim is level with the earth. Fill the bowl with beer, preferably a flat floater than nobody wants to drink anymore. Snails love beer, and because they love beer, they will dive into your bowl and drown. Your bowl will look pretty gross after a few months of this, but your cabbages will remain whole.
You may think that you’ve killed all of the garlic from your friend’s mom’s special family heirloom strain. But if you leave all the wilted plants in the ground, each one will come back the following year, one for each clove of the garlic bulb that has been quietly waiting underground all winter.
Last year I grew savoy cabbage, zucchini, tomatoes, spinach, hot chilies, pumpkins, and a number of herbs. This year I’m leaving out the tomatoes and pumpkins almost entirely; repeating everything except the savoy cabbage; trying out cucumbers, chard, carrots, and leeks; and planting even more herbs (basil, parsley, and a bunch of other things I don’t know the names of in English). My new wagon spot will mean more room for garden beds, and there will even be a few flowers in the mix (marigolds to keep critters away, poppies, sunflowers, and some other pretty things I dumpstered/picked up seeds for at the flea market).
Do you have a garden? Do you have any helpful little plant tips? I sure could use them. Leave them in the comments.