Fred’s Victory Garden. Or Not.

As I contemplate the gardening year ahead, what comes to mind is the vintage Wide-World-of-Sports opening action that showed us the disparate fates of two ski-jumpers. Their success and failure will live forever in some our chronologically-gifted minds. Remember?

One happy skier is airborne, leaning forward, building speed down the ramp, then buoyant and balanced, graceful and solid in his landing; the other, ill-fated, off-center and out of control, he careened over the side of the jump, wind-milling arse over teakettle in the agony of defeat.

gardening in Floyd County, Southwest Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains It could go either way every gardening year, I acknowledge as I head out with my seeds, my hoe, and my hopes momentarily intact. Sadly, at the end of gardening year 2006, I was the second of those two jumpers-humiliated, humbled and broken. Sports fans gasped in horror. Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.

I blamed myself, though I knew the garden’s sad and sudden demise was surely due to matters beyond anything I could have done. Maybe it was the four inches of rain we had the week before Sudden Garden Death. Or, perhaps we were finally paying the chemical price for putting the garden in the only possible place it could go in our less-than-ideal rock-infested deep valley location: over the septic field. (I thought grass-and veggies-were supposed to grow greener there!) I had the soil tested for excess chlorine, considering this possibility.

The total garden wipeout was all the more heart-breaking because at the end of the gardening year of 2005, we had five walnuts cut from around the garden. We get little enough light in this deep holler, and the trees had grown tall and wide enough to cast a significant shadow. Also, you may know, their roots exude a toxin poisonous to competing plants-including those of the edible vegetable variety. (We bartered one large walnut trunk towards an oak desk, and burned the tops for firewood, even though I think walnut makes more ash than heat.)

The other tragic fact about our 2006 garden’s utter failure was that we had made its success a kind of sink-or-swim test of our self-sufficiency: let’s work as if we are totally dependent on summer’s produce alone for the coming winter’s food. I set the bar high, and didn’t even get airborne. Test score: we would have starved.

Okay. Here’s the full confession part of this dreary tale: we have seen the enemy and it are us. Well, it are me. Yep, single-handedly I wiped out our garden from sheer ignorance in my gardening zeal. Soil tests in March ’07 showed the soil was NOT ACID ENOUGH! Somebody (gulp) must have put too much wood ash (walnut, actually) and leaves on the soil. Mea culpa. The big OOPS. I have followed the advice given to bring our little plot back to a healthy pH, and we’ll hope for the best.

The best. Now just what does that mean, in local gardening terms? Is the best we can hope for to create the lushest, tastiest and most tempting Deer and Insect Salad Park on Goose Creek?

As my daughter would say: you want some cheese with that whine?

I admit it: I’m discouraged. We have rectified my toxic attempts at organic soil amendment. We have removed the shade trees to maximize our sunlight, and repaired the five-strand electrified fence.

And yet, with all the hours of tilling, stooping, bending, pulling, hoeing, watering and coddling in the months to come, we may still suffer the agony of defeat. Make that “the agony of the feet”-deer feet-tramping the Swiss Chard, mincing the smooth spaces where I would plant fall greens, tramping down the waist-high corn. Deer: rats on stilts. What’s a gardener to do?

And I dream of the Fortress Garden. I see rat wire sunk two feet below the surface to keep out burrowing insectivores-moles and shrews-that would tunnel their way into the battlement. Twelve foot posts are buried three feet into the earth, cemented in place, to hold up a ratwire-reinforced nine-foot electrified fence. There is razor wire across the top. The entire structure is covered by a drape of fine-mesh Kevlar netting to keep out the crows that would maliciously pull up the new bean sprouts, the cruel Japanese and Potato Beetles that turn vegetable leaves to lace, and the menacing eye-seeking ear-buzzing gnats of July that make a gardener slap his head silly.

But daydreams end, and life goes on, powdery mildew and blossom rot notwithstanding. And as I stand here on the leafless plain of our future garden in early May, I look around and see the greens and golds, reds and yellows of all the blessings that can come from the tiny seeds in my bucket, still embryo-like in their packets full of promise and hope.

You know, I bet that the guy that ended up in a crumpled heap off the edge of the ski jump eventually got back up and tried again. And so, too, will we. I’ll get back to you in September with the judges’ scores.

Printed in “The Road Less Traveled” | Floyd Press | May 17, 2007

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. On top of your septic field? Any concerns about e-coli leaching out?

    How about doing square foot gardening that you could do right on top of your rocky soil? Lasagna gardening is also a great option. Both are no-till options. I do my own variation of those two strategies. I make layered piles of carbon and nitrogren sources (grass clippings, leaves, shredded paper, kitchen scraps, and cardboard are my main ingredients. If kept reasonably damp, these decompose into a great planting medium. If you have the energy to turn those piles, they will decompose even faster. I never turn mine and often forget to water them so they are “slow” piles. I don’t bother with sides for my piles – I just let them spread.

    I hope you have a great garden this year. I can’t imagine ever growing enough stuff to feed myself all year, even though I know it can be done. So hard to grow Twinkies . . .

  2. My garden did not do well last year either so this year I have tried to condition the sandy beach soil, raised the beds, installed irrigation and plan to shade, yes shade, the tomatoes when the temperatures begin to rise to the uncomfortable upper 80’s to 90’s. I want this years garden to be GREAT! I know that it’s a long shot but like you I’m willing to try and most likely will continue to try for as long as I am able.

    I like the photo editing you did to the sunflower

  3. This is one case where one really must not keep score; it can only be debilitating. In my case, the deer were scoring very high until the deer fence allowed me to find out what other failures could come along. I try to find happiness in what works and resign the rest to the compost pile asap. Working up a bed yesterday, I found a small patch of self-sown parsley. Hooray! Success! It’s spring, enjoy.