Thursday, March 4, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

The Maiden's First Blush
By, Shannon Elsom

Cherry blossoms blush
At the mere mention of spring
Like a smitten maid

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Spring is upon us. Everywhere we look we see the first signs of life stirring after the cold of winter. The thaw brings on renewal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the plant and animal kingdom. We can feel the shift in seasons when we notice the first cherry blossoms bloom. Our ears pick up the quickening rhythm of life in the sounds of chirping birds and buzzing bees swirling about, tending to the day's busy work. The stark grayness of winter gives way to a colorful burst of fresh promising energy. We see the potential for rebirth as light reenters the world out of the safe womb of darkness. A lone blade of grass pushing its way through a crack in the sidewalk illustrates so simply the newness that is born out of what was once cold and barren. As the daffodils raise their cheerful faces toward the sun it reminds us to open ourselves to the warmth now entering the world. The new life blooming blossoms hope within us. We feel the beat of invigorated life and intuit the miracle of growth it brings.

One of the most intimate ways we can connect with the earth and her cycles is by planting a garden. By tending the soil and nurturing seedlings to full fruition we see the symbolism of our own soul's work. Many gardeners have experienced this sense of connection and seen the parallels between caring for their earthly gardens and nurturing the growth of spirit. Upon entering this movement of co-creation with nature, we come to understand that the earth is not a possession, but is actually part of us. Never do we experience this more directly than when we grow our own food. Cultivating a vegetable garden helps us foster an appreciation for the earth and the bounty she blesses us with. We develop gratitude for our meals understanding the many hands and forces of nature that must come together to put food on the table. This helps us develop a true appreciation for real food. Not lifeless food that is produced in some factory but food brimming with life-force, born from the soil we walk upon. When we nurture this level of respect for the earth and move in harmony with her cycles, we enter a sacred dance of partnership. In doing so, we value the gift of life. From this space, treating our bodies with love and honor becomes a natural response to experiencing the wonder of being a note within the symphony of life.

Not everyone has space for a grand garden. Truth is, you don't need to have a big plot of land to grow your own food. Many of us live in urban environments where putting in a large veggie patch is not really an option. However, there are many ways that we can creatively garden. It only requires a little willingness to think outside the box. Those who have limited yard space can have a container garden. Half a wine barrel can accommodate a variety of produce. Even city dwellers can have a windowsill garden where they grow their own cooking herbs. Of course, there are always green thumbs who look toward spring with excitement because it means they get to dig their hands in the dirt and renew the passion they had to put on ice during the cold winter months.

No matter where you are on the gardening scale, open yourself to growing some of your own food this spring. It's not hard to get started. All you need is a little planning and preparation. First of all, consider the space you have. This will greatly determine your overall garden plan. Decide if you have room to put in a raised bed. If space is limited you can opt for the convenience and ease of a container or windowsill garden. Also consider what kind of sunlight you will get consistently in your planting location. This is very important to factor in and will largely determine which crops you plant. Once you have outlined the space you have available and the growing conditions, it is time to plan your crops. What do you want to grow?

In creating your garden plan it is important to remember that it is best to wait for all threat of frost to pass before you put your summer producing crops in the ground. However, there are some hardy transplants that you can get started with in early spring beginning in the month of March. These hardier transplants are:
  • Lettuce
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Globe artichokes
  • Kohl rabi
  • Bok choy
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Seed parsnips
  • Swiss chard
  • Garlic
  • Shallots
Hold off on your enthusiasm to put beets, carrots and potatoes in the ground. It's not that they won't make it when planted this early, but they will tend to thrive better if planted a little later into the spring season. If you are opting to grow a small windowsill herb garden the possibilities are endless because you have instant climate control. Parsley, basil, thyme and sage are good starters for those new to gardening. Once you feel more confident, you can expand your horizons by trying your green thumb at, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm, chervil, chamomile, cilantro... just about any herb you can think of can be grown indoors. Do remember when planning a windowsill garden that herbs need plenty of sunlight. You need a location that will provide at least a few hours of sunshine daily. It is also important to remember the balance of nature. Make sure you have blinds or a curtain that can be drawn. While herbs need plenty of light, more of a good thing is not necessarily better. You don't want to scorch delicate leaves. Be mindful of this during midday when the sun's rays are their strongest. Give your herbs a little break in the early afternoon so they don't get toasted. Also, be sure that herbs have good drainage. They don't take kindly to sitting in soggy soil. Of course, herbs will do very well outdoors too. You would take the same growing conditions into consideration.

Sometimes, it can seem overwhelming to try your hand at gardening if it is something completely new to you. In this case, I highly recommend you visit your local nursery and get yourself some starter plants rather than working from seed. It's also a good idea to connect with your local nursery if this is your first try at gardening because you will find plenty of helpful people ready and willing to answer any questions you may have. They can also help you select starters that will do well in your regional area. Each starter plant has a tag that includes very clear directions about the type of light the plant needs, which soil conditions it prefers and when it is best planted. It's helpful to rely on this information as you are learning the ropes. I also recommend utilizing your local library to check out books on gardening. You can find inspiration and clear directive in the pages of these simple guides, giving your confidence a boost.

The final element you want to consider is soil quality. Many people get overly wrapped up in worrying about fertilizing. It doesn't need to be that complicated. If you can get your hands on some quality compost your crops are sure to thrive. Most nurseries have compost available at reasonable prices. If you feel like really invoking your inner earth mama, you can do your own composting. It's not as difficult as people think it is. You can actually get started relatively easy and it's a wonderful way to recycle waste.

I personally compost and use an old plastic salad container to collect waste that I keep in the cabinet under my kitchen sink. When the container gets full, it is emptied into the compost bin out back. You can find affordable compost bins. There's no need for anything fancy. In fact, if you are in a pinch a simple garbage pail with a secured lid will do. You need to make sure to frequently turn over the contents in the bin manually with a shovel or sturdy rake if you decide to go this route. Additionally, you can find numerous resources online that will tell you how to build a bin from the ground up.

When first starting a compost bin, you want to work in layers, kind of like when you are building a lasagna. The first layer of your compost pile will contain organic materials like the ones listed below. The second layer will include manures or starters to help activate the initial heating of the compost pile. The pile is finished off with a final layer, (about 1-2 inches) of quality top soil. Within about two weeks, your compost pile will sit and stew. At this time, you can continue to add fresh ingredients to your pile by recycling your wastes into the bin. When you add new material, be sure to turn your pile and water it. A compost pile started in the early spring can be added to all the way up to late winter. By the time the following spring season rolls around you will have quality compost to nurture your new crops with. Ideally, you would turn your pile weekly, but realistically most gardeners only get to this task every month or so. This doesn't seem to have a compromising effect. The compost seems to do just fine.

So much of what we normally toss in the trash can be recycled. The following items can be composted:
  • Leaves/Grass clippings/Hay/Wood chips/Pine needles/Weeds/Wood ashes/Sawdust/Trimmings from houseplants/Garden soil/Flowers that have died/Straw/Broken-down cardboard
  • Paper napkins/Post-it notes/Paper towels/Old bills/Old newspapers (shredded)/Tissues/Q-tips (cardboard only, no plastic)/Wooden toothpicks/Pencil shavings/Brown paper bags/Envelopes
  • Veggies (note that corn cobs will break down slowly)/Fruits that have spoiled
  • Natural coffee filters/Burlap coffee bags/Coffee grounds/Tea bags
  • Pet hair/Leftovers from cleaning out the bird or Guinea pig cage/Feathers
  • Popcorn/Stale spices/Stale bread/Egg shells/Pasta/Nut shells/Moldy cheese/Expired yogurt/Shellfish shells/Oatmeal/Rice/Tofu/Wine that's headed south (you wouldn't want to waste perfectly good wine)/Spoiled Beer (check note on wine)/Cereal
  • Matches (paper or wood)
  • Worn-out leather gloves/Leather wallets/Cotton socks
  • Hair and nail clippings
  • Dryer lint
This is just a snapshot of what can be composted. It certainly doesn't cover the whole picture. Think of how much waste we could eliminate if we gave back to the earth what we normally toss in the trash so something new could grow from it. This is recycling at its finest. Composting allows us to directly experience the circle of life. It is a wonderful means to a thriving garden. It is also a great way to reduce waste and give back to the planet.

Try your hand at a veggie or herb garden this season. Whether you have grand gardening plans or your plot is small enough to fit on your windowsill really makes no difference. This is a way to reconnect with nature, develop an appreciation for the blessing of food and to honor the earth as a great provider. Get your green thumb on today and let it grow... let it grow.

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