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How Does Your Garden Grow?   (March 21, 2007)

Responding to the theme of self-reliance, several readers offered gardening-related contributions. To illustrate the topic, I offer a photo of newly budding cherry trees in Brentwood, Calif., a prime orchard area which is rapidly being paved over with stucco McMansions.

First up is long-time correspondent Victoria S. on what it takes to reclaim depleted soil--and a culture depleted by a "buy and flip" speculative fever:

There may be many housing developments where the soil is SO barren (or even toxic to plants) that it is not worth the effort to attempt a garden. I grow some plants in containers and buckets, but I've learnt from experience at this location that getting a new type of plant from the garden shops and putting it in the ground generally fails. The limited amount of sunlight is a factor, but...

I know of some people that moved to the boonies (beyond northern VA) and started fixing up an abandoned farmhouse. They leased some of the acreage to a neighbor, who barely managed to have farm income equal farm expense with his corn and cattle. They experimented a few years ago with "we'll try growing something in the bottom", but that didn't work. It turned out the land was so worn-out that it took the chemicals the farmer used to grow that corn to make that happen.

Enter thought. The local farmers had an excess of cattle waste, and were happy to sell it to the city slickers, who got themselves a tractor (a baby tractor, which big agribiz would sneeze at) and tilled it in, then ordered up seed and REALLY got to work. After three years, the muck started turning into treasured trays of canned vegetables (they learned how to can too).

But this took years of patience and effort. In the recent past, housing moved from "buy and hold" to "buy and flip". What time was there for the flipper (scurrying to do the improvements and flip the house so they could afford to send the baby to private school) to take to grow a garden or teach a kid how to do it?

Contributor Cheryl A. offers a description of gardening suitable for an urban setting:

After seeing the 0.8% increase in food prices last month, I thought I would pass along the following - I didn't know if you pass this type of information to your readers. Some background first: We both have "black" thumbs, and tried for years to grow things. We even managed to kill a cactus. We couldn't grow corn when we lived in Iowa, even after spending enough money to feed a family of four for a year. Then last year we stumbled upon the Earthbox..a miracle. We placed it on the deck of our townhouse and by the end of the summer we had over thirty pounds of tomatoes. My husband was more excited than when he received his medical degree.

This truly is an incredible invention! It is being used by a division of the United Nations to teach children about the science of growing plants and to grow food in places where soil is poor and water limited.

The initial investment of ~$65 may be expensive for some, even though the soil, etc is meant to be reused for many years (only the fertilizer strip and cover need to be replaced annually). In this case I have included the URL for a do-it-yourself earthbox that costs approximately $10 to make.

We recently purchased two more earthboxes and will make two do-it-yourself models in preparation for the spring planting season. Food prices are only headed in one direction - hopefully this will help alleviate some of the pain.


do-it-yourself instructions for constructing an Earthbox

Cheryl also offered a description of an automatic watering system:

The water reservoir in the earthbox needs to be filled at least every other day. This presented difficulties in the past if you were going to be away for an extended period of time. However, Earthbox recently developed an inexpensive automatic watering system.

Essentially, it consists of an adapter with two sides -- one side screws onto a spigot (like a hose) and the other side has a small gauge flexible tubing attached (~1/4-inch). The tubing runs to the earthbox and is connected to an insert that is placed directly into the watering tube of the earthbox. The insert is essentially a solid plastic tube that has a "float-valve" attached to it. This unit is long enough to reach the water reservoir.

When the spigot is turned on, the water runs through the tubing and solid plastic tube with the valve, filling the earthbox reservoir with water. As the water rises, the float also rises and shuts the valve, stopping the water flow. Then, as the water is absorbed by the plants, the float drops, the valve opens thereby allowing the water to refill the reservoir. Using this system, there is no longer a worry that one forgot, or was not home, to water the plants.

The system can be purchased from the company and can be set up to water multiple boxes simultaneously. With a little skill and patience, one could build his or her own watering system using PVC tubing and a rubber ball for the float.
And for a general-purpose book on gardening, Our U.K. Correspondent provides a recommendation:

If any of your readers would like to get up to speed on gardening and increase their self-reliance I can recommend the book

Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon.

In spite of the title it is not really a survialist tract. Although there are some interesting digressions into what and how to plant if you really need the result to work out, the book is primarily an excellent discussion of how to cultivate a really effective and efficient organic garden. This is not a fluff book - no pictures of cute plants - only pencil diagrams when necessary. Overall the tone is set for the intelligent layman and is packed with 300+ pages of really useful information. I found the book by digging around on the internet - and this book was consistently recommended on more sites than any other.
Thank you, readers, for a variety of excellent resources/stories on growing food. There is a primal satisfaction in growing and harvesting even modest amounts of one's own food, and I've recently spent quite a few hours working on our own small patch of dirt. The travails of our peach tree--badly damaged by leaf curl last year--will await a future entry.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

I would be honored if you linked this wEssay to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.


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