I’m learning to grow vegetables

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If you asked my former classmates Julie and Erin if I have a green thumb, they would laugh: The few times they left me in charge of their beloved potted plants, they either got them back dehydrated or overwatered. Over the years I myself became convinced that greenery just didn’t get along with me.

You may therefore be surprised to hear that last week I gave my thumb another chance. Since transitioning to a plant-based diet, I have become interested in the origins of the fruits and vegetables on my plate, wondering what it would be like to watch food grow in my backyard. When I shared these musings with Terry, my gardener husband, he suggested making room in our garden for two small vegetable beds.

Learning to grow vegetables: Digging out the day lilies

Digging out the day lilies

Last Saturday morning, operation “Get-Nivien-her-beds” launched. We bought several two by sixes that were made from red cedar and cut down to pieces either six or three feet in length. Over the following hours Terry converted the wood into two frames for raised beds. My job was to dig out sixty daylilies that grew in the garden’s sunniest spot, because they had to make way for the frames.

I don’t care much for daylilies – they are not native to Houston, and at this time of the year, without their bright yellow blooms, they look like tall grass. But I was motivated by Terry’s idea to replant them around a fruitless pear tree in the front lawn, whose gnarly root system made me curse each time I mowed there. If the daylilies promised to free me from mowing, I would promise to excavate them with the utmost care!

The day lilies in their new home, in front of a pear tree.

The day lilies in their new home, in front of a pear tree.

By late afternoon the flowers were transplanted, their chance at survival decent to good. The frames were in place though not yet level, and twelve bags of potting soil and compost waited to be poured into the beds.

Exhausted from digging and transplanting

Exhausted from digging and transplanting

The few square feet of digging and transplanting I had done were puny compared to the amount of physical work farm laborers do for a living, yet my efforts completely exhausted me. The experience gave me a new appreciation for the skills and abilities of people who regularly work the land.

Compared to Saturday, Sunday was a breeze. We leveled the frames, filled them with dirt. Then we put in a few tomato and pepper plants we had purchased from a local store. With the exception of tomatoes, peppers, and basil, most vegetables do poorly in Houston’s August heat. That’s why I filled the remaining bed space with buckwheat seeds, a great ground cover that takes a mere month to mature – just the right time for transitioning to fennel and lettuce. Finally I covered the soil with a thin layer of humus and some aged mulch to hold in the moisture.

The beds are finished

Whether my thumb is any greener now than it was a decade ago remains to be seen. What is already clear is that my interest in plants is far greater, because I connect them with nutrition and health. Two books are shoring up my gardening knowledge: Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston provides wonderfully practical advice on how to grow a pesticide-free garden in the very city I live in. Teaming with Microbes explains how soil composition is connected to plant health.

A bell pepper I put in the ground

A bell pepper I put in the ground

The title may sound arcane, but the book is the most fascinating read – I am only a few chapters in and have already learned that the soil contains an enormously rich and complex food web of which plants are the beneficiaries, and that plants, through excretions from their roots, control the composition of this web. How wrong I was to think that flowers and bushes were the passive recipients of rain and fertilizer!

When I look at each veggie bed in front of me I no longer see a pile of brown powder, dirt, or gumbo, but a megacity of bacteria, fungi, minuscule worms called nematodes, nematode-eating protozoa, earthworms, bugs, toads, and of course the roots of tomato, pepper, and buckwheat plants, which play a major part in running the microbial show. It is truly wild down there.

That we, humankind, need healthy soil for our survival is a no-brainer, and yet for many years the truth of the statement was largely theoretical to me, because it was disconnected from my personal life. Now I am experiencing the relationship between health and environment in a more personal, visceral, and therefore meaningful manner. Perhaps this will make food my entry point into environmentalism.

Young Buckwheat

Young Buckwheat

If you’re wondering how the story of my thumb continues, I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime I’ll enjoy looking at the beds right outside the window. Five days after having been sown, the buckwheat seedlings are poking their heads out of the ground, in tribute to the vibrancy of life.

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