Advice for the New Year’s Garden

The 2008 seed catalogs are showing up in mailboxes, tempting gardeners and non-gardeners with glossy, color photos of luscious vegetables, each whispering, “What food could be more local than vegetables you grow yourself?”

I decided to ask Lopez market gardeners Ken Akopiantz and Kathryn Thomas of Horse Drawn Farms, Diane Dear and Todd Goldsmith of T & D Farms and Cathy Clemens of Stonecrest Farm to share some advice for current and would-be vegetable gardeners.

Each of these farmers had great practical suggestions for preparing the soil: smother quack grass with black plastic or layers of cardboard and straw mulch; setting up an irrigation system: Drip-Works has a great catalog; and using row covers: products like Reemay protect crops from just about anything: birds and bugs, cold, wind, sun. But most interesting for this catalog-tempting, resolution-making month of January is their advice about failure and abundance, the two extremes of farming.  Here’s what they said about coping with seeds that don’t come up and seeds that produce more vegetables than anyone can handle.

“Just start planting.  And don’t get discouraged when things don’t grow.  Be prepared to fail, really.”  Ken Akopiantz advised serenely. “That’s just part of what happens.  Keep plugging away.”

Diane Dear and Todd Goldsmith continued this theme, grateful to their neighbors Elf Fay and Eric Hall for the strategy of reducing expectations of perfection by treating planting as an experiment. “You have to be able to take some enjoyment out of just learning,” they said, and Diane added: “On the one hand, gardening is like this incredible experience of being self–sufficient, creating your own sense of order and your own way to take care of yourself.  On the other hand it’s a complete experience in subjecting yourself to forces beyond your control.  That’s life.”

Moving toward the harvest side of farming, Ken continued: “At some point you’re going to have more than you can handle.  That’s part of the game.”  But this abundance can be just as discouraging as crop failure: “You’ll be sad to have it go to waste.  That’s not the way you want to feel after you’ve put in all that effort,” Diane added.

Unlike the weather, there are ways to control abundance. “Across the board for the first year, plant less–less is more,” advised Diane.  And from Ken: “You might think that five zucchini plants are not going to be enough but you’re going to be swimming in them.”

You can plant less, and you can plant what you know you’ll eat.  Kathryn Thomas advised: “Grow things you know you’ll use or put up.” Diane added: “Think of what you like to eat fresh and plant that.”

Finally, you can manage abundance with a planting plan. “Do a little plan about when you’re going to plant and how long it’s supposed to take to grow, so you don’t have everything done in your garden in July,” Diane suggested.  “In a home garden,” Ken added, “you could plant lettuce every other week or every third depending on how much you’re planting. It’s just something you play around with.” Cathy Clemens modified this advice: “I haven’t had much success with sequence planting—the later plants always catch up to the early ones.  However, I finally figured out that planting several varieties of the same thing, like peas or broccoli, extends the season.”

With all this advice, if you’re still tempted to grow some of those beautiful vegetables, go back to the catalogs and start making a plan.  Or, you can settle back with a novel and let our local farmers do the planning and planting instead.

First published in the Islands’ Weekly January, 2008

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