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San Diego garden writer Pat Welsh watches her friends plant vegetables

Beginner's luck

A few years ago a friend of Lou’s and mine planted a vegetable garden for the first time. George and his wife Sally lived in an old house high on a hill with an ocean view. Their land sloped south and was windy, buffeted all day long by a salt breeze straight from the sea. Before George planted vegetables, all he had was a lawn, practically nothing else. There might have been a few scruffy roses on the north side of the house facing the road, a bit of hedge, and a few camellias, but nothing worth bragging about. The back yard was solid lawn. George had never been into gardening and neither was Sally. George was a lawyer like Lou. At the time I had the impression that all lawyers were nongardeners because Lou had never gardened and neither had any of his friends. (Lou and I even had an unwritten premarital agreement that he didn’t have to garden, which was fine by me; I’d gardened since the age of three and loved it.)

“I don’t know what possessed me,” said George, “but one morning in March I woke up early, and I lay there wide awake listening to the birds singing, and I had this gut feeling inside me that I wanted to get up right then, go outside, dig up the ground, and plant vegetables. I guess I’d thought of it before but never seriously. Now all of a sudden I couldn’t wait to start. I rolled out of bed, made a cup of coffee, and pulled on some old clothes. Sally mumbled, ‘What on earth are you doing? Don’t you know it’s Saturday?’ ‘You’ll see,’ I said. I had a head of steam, and I didn’t want her talking me out of it.”

George rummaged in the garage for a tape measure, string, some pieces of wood to use as stakes, and a shovel. I like to call this kind of shovel a spade, but the typical American digging tool, by whatever name you call it, has a slightly scooped shape, a curved blade, and a long handle. Most people call it a shovel because it works as well for scooping sand, gravel, manure, or topsoil as it does for digging and spading the ground. In England, where I originally came from, spades have a shorter handle that’s split on the upper end and finished with a hand hold at right angles to the handle. Most English spades are flat-bladed with a straight, sharp bottom edge and straight sides. (English shovels are used only for scooping and throwing and are also short-handled and flat-bladed; they’re wider and lighter than spades, with sides an inch or two high, like a coal shovel, for example.) After many years of using both English and American spades, I’ll have to admit the American spade works better for digging most American ground.

George dumped his spade and other equipment into a wheelbarrow and trundled it down to the bottom of the lawn. There was a wire fence all the way ’round the back yard, hardly an aesthetic touch, but it didn’t cast a shadow and it kept the kids and dogs in — and eventually the grandchildren. George wasted no time measuring out a section of lawn and surrounding it with stakes and string. It was a plot about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, as I recall, not too big to handle. Instead of backing his vegetable garden right up against the fence as I might have done, George made a wise choice and left a swathe of grass at the back just wide enough for the mower to pass through twice. This served as a convenient grassy path. It might have been good to leave a grassy path down the middle too, but George didn’t think of that.

As soon as he’d measured the space and checked to make sure the corners were square, he began to remove the grass. This is where a sharp, flat-bladed English spade might have come in handy. Luckily for George, the sprinklers had soaked the lawn the night before, so removing the grass wasn’t the horrendous job it might otherwise have been. For a man who said he’d never gardened before, there were a few other lucky strokes too. Vegetables need full sun, which means morning to night, if possible, but six hours of sunshine at the very least. George’s site had the best possible situation; no shadow fell on it from dawn to dusk. Additionally, the sloping ground might have been a disadvantage but, in this case it wasn’t.

As George cut out the sod a section at a time, piled it into the wheelbarrow, and hauled it to the lowest corner of the yard as the start of a compost pile, he couldn’t help noticing that the soil was sticky red clay. “Miserable soil?” you might wonder. Not necessarily. The disadvantage with clay is that it doesn’t drain well; it takes a long time to get it wet, and once it gets wet it stays wet a long time before drying out again. Then, when finally it does dry, it bakes as hard as a terra-cotta pot and gets cracks on the top. Sounds ghastly, doesn’t it? But the great advantage with clay soil is that it’s very nutritious, and it doesn’t dry out too quickly as sand or decomposed granite tends to do. Fix the drainage and add masses of organic soil amendment and you have it made. A slope can really help, since water tends to drain down the slope instead of standing in one spot. The disadvantage is that your irrigation water may roll off instead of sinking in, but you can fix that by amending the soil to make it more porous and by arranging rows and furrows at right angles to the slope so they hold your irrigation water, like contour plowing.

By breakfast, George had already removed most of the sod. He finished by midmorning and began working the soil. He dug it up to the depth of his spade, loosened it, and turned it over. “That was the toughest part,” he said. “I sure felt it that night. Had to take a pickax to some parts, the ground was that hard. Rocky too. I didn’t take out all the rocks. Just the big ones.” Good thing too. A story told 2000 years ago by the ancient Roman Pliny the Younger follows a farmer who removed all the rocks from the corner of a field, and after that nothing would grow there. Fact is, rocks often help ground to drain, and sometimes they add valuable mineral content to the soil. A good rule to follow is “Never monkey with the structure of your soil.” This means don’t take out all the rocks and don’t add clay to sand or sand to clay. Work with the type of soil you’ve got. Believe me and the California Agricultural Extension. Don’t believe those advice books or TV demonstrations where they dump wheelbarrows full of sand onto clay soil with the aim of working it into the ground to “lighten” it. Make that mistake and you’ll end up with concrete instead of garden soil.

But you do have to add something to bare ground in order to make it suitable for growing vegetables or flowers, and that something is organic soil amendment. Luckily, George knew this. It’s amazing to me how much he did know, since he said he wasn’t a gardener. I don’t think Lou would have known all this if he’d woken up one morning and said to himself, “Eureka! I want to grow vegetables!” But Lou grew up in an apartment in Chicago. George also grew up in Illinois but in a small town, and his grandfather had a farm. “I spent my summers there,” said George. “It was neat. There was a creek, an orchard, all the usual farm animals, chickens and ducks, a pond, cornfields, and a vegetable garden with a few flowers around the edge. Grandma and Grandpa kept it up together, and Grandma canned all the vegetables and fruit and made marvelous jam. They used manure on the ground and that was all, but I figure you’ve got to use something.”

Not having the benefit of livestock, George went to the nursery garden after lunch and bought about six bags of organic soil amendment and a bag of fertilizer recommended for vegetables. By organic soil amendment I mean nitrolized wood shavings. This stuff is bagged and varies in composition and name. Sometimes they call it “forest product” or “composted wood product” or “planting mix.” By whatever name or description it’s sold, make sure it’s nitrolized, which means sufficient nitrogen has been added to allow it to rot in the ground without subtracting nitrogen from the soil. Don’t go to the lumberyard and buy a load of sawdust and add that to your soil. Raw sawdust subtracts nitrogen from the soil in order to rot, so if you add raw sawdust to your ground without adding extra nitrogen, all your plants will die.

Luckily, George didn’t buy raw sawdust; he purchased nitrolized wood shavings by the bag and spread this organic soil amendment on top of the ground. It formed a layer about four inches thick, the right amount for a first-time garden. Then he worked this into the soil with a spade. “Did you also add gypsum?” I asked. “Nope, didn’t know about it then,” he answered. “By now I’ve learned that it can help break up clay soil and vastly improve drainage and that I should spread it on every two years. But that first time, after I’d worked in the soil amendment, I measured out the fertilizer according to the package directions, and then I used the garden rake to mix the fertilizer into the top six inches of the ground. I even wrote down on my calendar to sidedress the rows a few weeks later, like it tells you to do on the label. My secretary came across my memo one day and said, ‘Hey, what’s this?’ ”

When George worked soil amendment into the ground, he was doing the right thing: plants need humus, which is partially rotted organic matter, in order to grow. In cold-winter climates, deciduous plants drop their leaves in fall, and these slowly rot on the ground and gradually add to the fertility of the soil, so the native soils often have a high content of partially rotted organic matter. In our arid climate, however, few leaves have had a chance to fall and rot, so our soils have little if any humus. In gardens, it’s up to us to give the soil what it needs. This is why it’s such a good idea to mulch the ground with compost under shrubs and trees and other permanent plants. And it’s why every knowledgeable gardener adds soil amendment in addition to fertilizer before replanting a flower bed or vegetable garden in spring or fall.

It’s unfortunate that most people here are forced to garden on subsoil that’s been pushed around by heavy machinery and compacted into little flat terraces. I’ve ached inside when I’ve seen bulldozers bury the natural topsoil on the north sides of San Diego hills. In some cases that topsoil is thousands of years old; it’s rare and sacred stuff. When you regularly add soil amendment to the ground, you are giving back to Mother Nature what mankind has been taking away. You can feel good about your soul as well as your soil. That’s part of what gardening is all about.

By evening George was dog-tired, but he managed to drag a hose over to his future vegetable garden and set a sprinkler, gently watering it for 20 minutes. Then he let the ground settle overnight, went to sleep in front of the TV after dinner, and the next morning, he was raring to go again. Sally was astounded. I didn’t tell you this before, so as not to complicate the story, but when George went to the nursery on Saturday, he also bought seeds for warm-season plants. March is the first month of the year for putting in summer crops, and George chose the easy ones, a good way to begin. He bought seeds of Kentucky Wonder pole beans, beets, carrots, corn, leaf lettuce, New Zealand spinach, radishes, Swiss chard, and turnip. He also bought plants of tomatoes and a few potato sets and onion bulbs for scallions (green onions for eating whole; the varieties sold here as small bulbs won’t make full-size onions).

On Sunday morning he planted all these, putting his corn all together in a block, not strung out in a long skinny row, and leaving some seeds in the packages for future crops and some space in the garden for cucumbers, cantaloupe, eggplants, peppers, and squash, which he planned to plant in April, when the weather had warmed up. (I don’t plant my cantaloupe as early as April; along the coast it’s better to wait until May and grow a variety such as Ambrosia, which takes fewer days to mature than most.)

Since you already know how few plants George had in the rest of his garden, you may be wondering what he used for bean poles. His neighbor had a stand of bamboo and was always cutting some culms, so that served. I used bamboo myself for years, but it does rot quickly, so eventually I switched to those metal poles that are shaped like bamboo and are covered with green plastic. Practicality wins over beauty.

I think it was in July when Sally and George invited Lou and me to dinner, and we had all this wonderful, fresh produce from the garden. By then there was a short chicken-wire fence surrounding the vegetable garden to keep out the dogs, and everything was flourishing. We had tomatoes with basil and a green salad with lovely lettuce and herbs — all homegrown. Sally had said, “Why don’t you grow some herbs?” so they got crowded in. There were tiny new potatoes rolled in butter and parsley. (As soon as they bloom, you can take a few.) The first corn. Yummy! Fourth of July had brought a harvest. Lovely little zucchini with the flowers still on and Sunburst squash, an All-America award winner, round and yellow with a green end — picked young and succulent, it won us over too. It was a dinner to remember. Of course, there was a steak cooked on the barbecue, and then sliced, to go with it. But it was the homegrown vegetables that made that evening memorable.

George had watered his garden overhead, with the sprinkler, about once a week, but it also got some runoff from the lawn. “What amazes me,” said George, “is that everything grew so well despite the wind. It must have blown the bugs away, because there were so few.”

“Well, let’s drink to next year!” cried Lou, and we clinked glasses. A wise toast, since pests often don’t find a first-year garden; after a year or two they usually catch on. George, however, was undeterred. After that first banner year he continued to grow vegetables for many years thereafter. But that first harvest was the event never to forget. “You see what happened,” said George. “I had beginner’s luck!”

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