Planting the Goldilocks garden

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I found myself playing in a garden for the first time in a long while and stopped to wonder why. Normally, I don’t find gardening drudgery, but I work in my garden. It is a serious and efficient food-growing and gathering ground with on-going combat against all that would stop me from the highest yield. Not play. So, I paused to consider the characteristics of this garden that made it a playground.

I am caretaking for friends in southern Arizona, so I didn’t plant the seeds for this garden originally, though I am compelled to keep growing these cute vegetables. Not only that, I didn’t plan or build this garden. It is rather small, with two 4-foot-by-4-foot raised beds tucked inside an adobe wall. It has southern sun exposure and a drip irrigation system programmed by a hose timer. Despite its small size, it produced enough ingredients for a gorgeous salad last night including lettuce, arugula, radishes, carrots, and cherry tomatoes. Maybe size does matter? Unlike my own production-scale garden, I find myself lovingly tending each plant, and looking forward to every single cherry tomato instead of dreading the buckets of tomatoes that must be harvested and processed before the early frost each September. Huh?

As it is garden planning time, perhaps I can apply my newfound insight to my own garden this year. My usual strategy is to map out my battle plan based on what has grown well and what might not be available in quantity at the local Farmers’ Markets. For example, there are never enough golden or Chioggia beets at any market to satisfy me. Therefore, beets usually command a row or two in the garden. If I was really efficient, I would undertake succession planting and stagger the planting of the rows by a few weeks. That is something I can’t pull off because it is too militant. I rely on my urge to plant as well as the phase of the moon, personal energy level, and the weather report to set my planting days. I believe it keeps my overall approach to gardening a bit more random. Huh?

Another possibility would be to scale back so I can lovingly focus on each individual vegetable. Plant less? Impossible! What if it is finally a good potato crop after two years of utter failure? I will regret not growing more. However, if it is a good potato year there will be plenty of tasty varieties available at the Farmers’ Market and the prices will be reasonable with a large supply. There are other advantages to a physically smaller garden. When the hard freeze warning was sounded a few weeks ago, it took one sheet and a couple of clothes pins to completely protect the play garden from frost. Hmmph?

I usually determine the quantity that I plant each year by the size of the seed packet I purchased back in January when I was dreaming of anything green and growing. Suffice it to say, I usually order the 1-ounce size rather than the 1-gram size, though the purchase price may hold back my enthusiasm as my seed budget is pretty small. In the play garden, I use seed packets acquired at the local public library. It took me a moment to understand how it works since I would not be returning the seeds anytime soon and did not like the idea of paying an overdue fine while I waited for the plants to mature. Turns out, it is just one of the many public services that local libraries, like Mancos, are offering these days. It is more of a seed exchange. What is a library other than a book exchange? As with any library, the seed collection is carefully curated and cataloged so you can easily find the seeds you want and information about how to grow them. What I found revelatory is the small packets offered; about 20 seeds, enough to plant a row in the play garden. At this scale, I find myself carefully tracking the emergence of each pea that I planted a week ago and was utterly delighted to discover a straight line of radishes underneath the mustard I harvested. Hmm.

It appears the key to my personal garden happiness is inversely related to the scale of the garden. To quote E.F. Schumacher, “Small is beautiful.” Since I enjoy planting as much as harvesting, perhaps I could incorporate succession planting into my gardening routine, so I am continually delighted by emerging plants and a manageable harvest. With my constant craving for something new, I could save some of the garden area for a “monsoon” plot that takes advantage of the rainy afternoons in July and August to grow vegetable varieties that thrive in this weather pattern. I may even try a cover crop to keep the areas that aren’t in vegetable cultivation weed-controlled and grow soil instead. Eureka! That makes my garden sound much more like a playground than a battle ground. I think I have uncovered the keys to a garden that is just right for me.

Carolyn Dunmire gardens, cooks, and writes in Cahone, Colo

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From Carolyn Dunmire.