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Confessions of an Obsessive Organic Gardener

Organic Gardener's Ode To Spring: In spring, a woman's fancy turns to thoughts of...compost?

Years ago, when my kids were young, I was an obsessive organic gardener. I converted two suburban yards into gorgeous, productive organic gardens. I neglected the housework and my family while I communed with heirloom seeds and compost piles.

I thought I had gotten over it, as I hadn't had an overwhelming urge to garden in years. Just a few pots of flowers, a bit of parsley & basil, all very civilized. Ha, ha ha! Two years ago, my daughter thought it would be a great idea to plant just a few more herbs and flowers.

Last year that escalated into an organic flower garden on the east side of the house. Before I knew it, the garden had crept around the side of the garage, and we were planning to dig up the hedge, and do away with part of the lawn so we could grow lots of organic vegetables.

All winter, we read up on organic gardening, companion planting, herbs & heirloom seeds, dreaming about Arugula, Italian broad beans, and Amish paste tomatos, planning all the potions, tinctures and teas we're going to make with our home grown herbs.

The minute the weather was warm enough, and the heavy clay soil dry enough, we were out there putting the insanity into action, amusing the neighbors and neglecting the housework and children. Just like old times!

First, we've tripled the size of our organic garden, from miniscule to modest. This involved cutting down and digging up part of a privet hedge that I tended fanatically for 10 years, because it shaded the new garden & hogged nutrients. To lesson my guilt at digging up innocent plants, which gave privacy, and sheltered the birds, I think about the other 50 feet of privet hedge waiting to be trimmed.

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We also dug up a large patch of tiger lilies, which were plotting to take over the yard. I wasn't sad to see them go - I'll enjoy seeing them from a distance, rampaging in the Iowa roadsides. Last fall, I pruned the plum tree, for the first time in six years. Now, we're going to have an apple tree, even though I swore I never would plant and tend another fruit tree.

One day, Sarah was at Martha's house and noticed her enormous pile of well-composted sheep manure right next to her organic garden. After playing phone tag for several days with the owner of the golden poop, we had three cubic yards delivered - we've spread it four inches deep over most of the garden, and still have close to a yard left. Beautiful stuff!

Our neighbor Tim, was hanging over the fence admiring the manure - I gave him the phone number and he offered some of his leftover seeds. We were sitting out on his front step poring over seed packets like 10 year-old boys with baseball cards. Tim's organic garden is enormous, he's a compost maniac, and raises seedlings under grow lights in his basement. He has to give away or sell his excess produce at the farmers market, where the farmers are jealous because he has beans a month before anyone else.

I'm hoping my addiction doesn't go that far. But I have to admit, it's not looking good.

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We're building a new compost bin out of scrap lumber & straw bales - unsightly but it works. Our plan was to tear down the garage extension, which partially blocks the garden on the west side, and have the compost on the west side of the garage, to make more room for growing things. My husband was foolishly concerned about the car not fitting in the garage, and vetoed the idea. Oh well, we'll just have to plant nettles there instead. We started the compost off with last year's bean vines, left dangling all winter from the roof of the shed, and turf from the lawn-designated-as-organic-garden.

I don't feel guilty about the grass - lawns are over-rated, in my view. But I feel slightly annoyed that, in the fall, we didn't cover what the wading pool didn't kill. When the manure arrived, we decided not to dig up the rest of the grass, since it was already 6 inches high, but to bury it under manure & straw & let the worms do the work. We won't be able to grow anything there this year, but after the lilies & the hedge, we weren't up for more digging.

I'm a long time convert to no-till organic gardening with mulch a la Ruth Stout. Clay soil compacts if you work it while it's cold and wet in the early spring; in summer it gets hard as a rock and cracks if it's left exposed. The solution is to cover it lightly with manure, compost, straw, weeds or whatever, and never walk on it, which is tricky, unless you make beds with paths in between. Note I said beds, not raised beds, which are heavy labor. I'm obsessive about gardening, not work!

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We salvaged some old wooden storm windows, for a makeshift cold frame to start seedlings. Acting on a tip from a friend, we arranged to buy 10 straw bales; to our great delight the man offered to deliver! We expected to haul them in our van, which would have been covered in straw forever after.

Right now we're planting cool-weather crops - peas, lettuce, spinach, chard, arugula & radishes. Then we'll put up bean teepees, using scrap wood and last years sunflower stalks, for three kinds of pole bean. Yes, I'm sure we'll get sick of eating beans! Next come squash, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, greens & peppers, interplanted with culinary & medicinal herbs. We have faith that it will all fit into our 400 square ft organic garden!

Not everyone feels the same way about gardening. My friend and neighbor Odette found that gardening made her hot and aggravated, and wasn't any fun unless I was out there to keep her company. She traded her green thumb for cool drinks & air-conditioning, and does her bit by biting her tongue, and graciously accepting our excess tomatoes & zucchini.

Then there are those for whom gardening is a never-ending war against weeds, insects, and weather, which they battle with everything that evil science can devise. In my opinion, that attitude has led to the tragedy of industrial agriculture.

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Some people say that gardens are wasted effort, when we can just go to the store and buy food. On the other hand, we have to spend time working for money to buy it, cover the land with big stores and parking lots, and truck the food long distances, which requires highways and fossil fuels.

How about local farm markets and CSA's? We have wonderful organic farmers around here - they earn every penny they make, and more. Of course, we couldn't help thinking we could plant heirloom tomatoes and arugula ourselves, and save money.

In fact, after all the work, and buying manure, straw, seeds, and seedlings, it isn't cheaper to plant an organic garden. But that's not the point!

Gardening is fun, and it's all the fresh air & exercise anyone needs. I feel happy and smug as I trip out to My Organic Garden to gather herbs & veggies for lunch. For cheap therapy it can't be beat - it's impossible to have a problem when you're digging in the dirt. I'm convinced that gardening is an instinctive human activity, touching the pulse of creation, which we shouldn't have to explain or justify.

If you want a garden, even if it's only a pot of flowers, go for it! Don't give in to sanity, practicality, efficiency, or any other unforgiving virtue.

Judith Kingsbury, Savvy Vegetarian

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