Whole Food Adventures: Preparing a Garden

Part of the idea of Whole Foods is trusting the source of your food to know that it has been handled in a responsible, and natural, manner from seed to stem. The best means to do this, by far, is probably just to grow the food yourself. Of course, some people simply like Gardening, and frankly that’s a better reason to embark on such an endeavor than any other.

With that in mind, Catherine and I have joined the Pullman Community Gardens, and got our very own 400 square foot plot to plant however we see fit, provided we don’t use any chemical herbicides or fertilizers. How do I wish we could have used herbicides…

We’d gotten kind of a late start on the process, as the Community Gardens website was last updated in 2006, and we didn’t know who to contact regarding getting ourselves a plot. Luckily, a few weeks ago there was a little event at the gardens, and the current plot coordinator, a gentleman by the name of Tobin, was there to talk to people who were interested in doing a bit of gardening. By the end of that week, we had ourselves a 20’x20’ plot that hadn’t been used in several years.

For those of you who’s knowledge of plants, like mine, ends around the point of “green is good”, let me describe what that means. We now had a 400 square foot patch of clay-like dirt that was covered in weeds, and had a pretty nasty grass infestation along two of the four edges. How, oh how, do I wish I’d have thought to take the camera.

Given that we lacked tools for attacking such a problem, we took ourselves to the Hardware Store on Friday, buying the necessary hand equipment to get our patch of dirt into shape. One pointed shovel (spade), one dirt rake, one spading fork. With these tools in hand, we spent the next several hours attacking the dirt, trying to manually extract the vile grass from our long neglected plot, because while we could happily till-under most of the weeds, the grass would be a constant problem if we didn’t dig it out (or so I was told).

This is because most grasses are what is known in the plant world as a Rhizome. Rhizomes are plants that send feed stems under the ground, in order to form a vast vile network of nasty tufts of grass, each tuft being thick and hard. Don’t pull the roots, and the rhizomes? That grass will be right back within a week. Incidentally, this is why many people put in underground plastic edging around garden plots, they stop the rhizome from invading, and therefore, no more grass problem. We haven’t done this yet, but that may change.

Anyway, after about two hours, we decided that we were done, as the mosquitoes had come down in force, and we looked at out plot to discover that the ground was still hard as bricks, and we’d cleared less than 10% of the unwanted vegetation. In all, a highly disappointing day. But, we’d resolved that on Saturday, we’d be prepared to take the rototiller to the patch, and prepare it for planting.

The next morning, we headed into Moscow to go to the market, where we got yet more plants for the garden, a list which I’ll address in a later post. On our way back to Pullman, we stopped at the Tri-State to buy ourselves a new weapon of clay destruction, a mattock. This combination garden hoe and pickaxe is probably my favorite piece of dirt destruction. Finally, we had a tool with which we could loosen the thick dirt and actually remove some weeds. Using a mattock is basically as simple as the description makes it. Raise overhead, and bring hard down to the ground, using the handle as a lever to break the dirt apart. Come behind that with the spading fork or a shovel, and the weeds practically pulled themselves.

With our new tool, we breezed through the rest of the plot, taking only another two hours to get almost all of the weeds out. At least taking things to a point where we decided to put the rototiller to the test. Heading over to the local machine rental shop, we grabbed a 5 HP rototiller, brought it back to the plot, and fired it up.

Remember how I’ve been stressing the clay like consistency of the soil? That’s because the rototiller was more inclined to skip over the surface of the dirt than actually dig in. That’s not entire true, as we’d softened the dirt up a bit with the mattock, but that was an uneven softening, resulting in me having to fight the tiller to try and keep it going in a straight line. Luckily, Catherine found a pick-axe in the tool shed, and so, between her softening the surface dirt a bit with the axe, and me straining to keep the tiller moving in a straight-line, we managed, within an hour, to go over the plot a single time.

In some places, I knew I’d barely cleared three inches of top soil (which I was assured was excellent). That was simply unacceptable. So, after taking a break due to my aching muscles from the bucking tiller, I fired it back up, and put it back to work. The second, and third passes were considerably easier, requiring almost no pick-axing, and considerably less fighting to keep the tiller in a straight line.

For those of you who’ve never handled a rotary tiller before, I can pretty much only describe it like this. Imagine holding a three or four big ass hungry dogs on leashes back from a pile of steaks. They want to go one direction, you want them to go a different, and they’re going to fight you every step of the way. Needless to say, I was, and still am, sore as hell. Admittedly, I’m not the pinnacle of human fitness, but even when I was working grounds at a county park, the tiller was always one of the most tiring jobs.

Since we’re leaving town for a week today, we decided to hold off planting. Instead, we covered the recently disturbed dirt with black plastic, hoping to keep the weeds from taking hold again, until we can plant next week. I’ll be writing up another post on that, detailing what we’re planting and how we’re doing it.