A Bigger Garden

Spading my little urban 6’X10’ garden the other day, I breathed in the earthy and fresh smell of early, early spring. The change of seasons always floods my mind with memories, but there are triggers, and turning that soil in anticipation of getting my garden planted brought me back to those days when, …well, frankly, when I knew how to garden.

Very early Spring was that cool time of year when, anxious to watch the gardens grow, I’d be sitting down at the kitchen table, shuffling through sealed paper bags of seeds. Plump, dry bags of seeds from Jung and Gurney’s, including everything from purple beans and sugar snap peas to acorn and butternut squash, pumpkin, cucumber; and of course our secret variety of white sweet corn passed down to us from Grandpa George. (To this day, there is not a sweet corn that compares.)

In the very early Spring, it is still too wet to get anything useful done, especially in the Town of Rockland, where plowed fields, once covered in snow, expose the pink and red of solid clay. Another year whose frost and freeze just wasn’t strong or fierce enough to brittle and break apart those dense, heavy upturned slabs.

Although it was never officially measured, the square footage of the three gardens put together (two belonging primarily to mom) I have always thought of and described as being about an acre. Today I am sure this was an exaggeration; but if they weren’t altogether an acre, there were times when they certainly felt like they were.

The oldest garden was mom’s, West of the house, creating a layered foreground for the twin dead pine trees that reached up out of the ravine to be silhouetted against the Western sky every night. This garden was the original, the genesis of my own roots in the garden. This is where I got my hands dirty; where I learned how to make straight rows of invisible carrot seeds; where I developed that indescribable sense of gratification at watching new life sprouting up into the neat rows you placed them in with your own hands. (Although naturally, this is when any sudden curves or jaunts in the row, inadvertently laid at planting, would reveal themselves.)

The second garden was North of the house, a nice square in what once was the large fenced pasture running the length of the property out to Old Military Road. The smallest of the three gardens, this one generally contained the annual crop of potatoes, onions, lettuce, radishes, one of the crops of corn, and of course the strawberries. There were plenty of other varieties of vegetable, including broccoli, cauliflower, leek, tomatoes, and our random experimental selections, but these were spread or alternated throughout the three gardens.

The third garden – a section of the alfalfa field directly in front (to the East) of the house – was the largest, probably about equal to the other two combined. Originally planned as a joint venture between the Ellis boys (Tony and myself) and the Wagner boys (Nick and Dan), this garden was created for the sole purpose of growing produce for the local farmers’ market. The concept was genius. Sure, we were developing a healthy work ethic, but –

-It was genius because we were essentially taking life-experience courses in agriculture, business, and economics. Yes, in terms of agriculture, we were already immersed in the self-sustaining homestead lifestyle: we had sheep, chickens, turkeys, hogs, etc., and had been working in the other two gardens for the better part of our lives (well, a few years, that is). But this was ours. We got to sit down and decide what we were going to grow; we got to figure out how many pounds or ounces we would need of a given seed as we planned the garden; we got to select the varieties of beans and peas and odds and ends from Jung and Gurney; we got to pay for them, plant them, tend them, weed them, harvest them, sell them, and then retain our own profits for the year, after setting aside what we’d need for the next year’s inventory.  And for a 10-year-old, $600-$700 was a LOT of money.

But more importantly, it was immensely rewarding and fulfilling.

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have stayed in the business. In an ironic twist, my wife and I have been looking at a few local CSA programs (Community-Supported Agriculture), and I find that today to buy a season’s produce – for just one family – through a CSA is about equal to the total revenues we generated from an entire acre selling at the farmers’ market 15 years ago.

Alright, again, perhaps it wasn’t a whole acre. And perhaps I don’t need an entire acre to garden. But I do need a much bigger garden. Much MUCH bigger. And of course, then I’d need more than a spade.

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About A. S. Ellis

I am always learning. Always. And that is as it should be.
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