My transition to eating whole foods, things that for the most part come without food labels, has been a long, slow process with several compromises along the way. It started with the birth of my first son 20 years ago (and second son 18 years ago). I swore they would never eat a French fry or taste anything that came from a box or package. Easier said than done when you are new to the area and join a playgroup with other moms and kids who aren’t quite as worried about diet and nutrition and you’re just thankful for some adult company with a group of fabulous women going through the same life experiences. I was the mom who insisted her kids drink water, not cans of soda; who brought homemade treats and then sometimes a package of cookies so as not to seem judgmental or too strict. Lucky for me my kids loved to run around on the playground more than they loved to eat the snacks (most of the time).
Once my kids got to middle school I decided to go back for my degree in nutrition. I knew I wanted to teach again. I also knew that eating healthy was important to my family and me. We ate far from perfectly, but did a whole lot better than I gave us credit for.
Along the way I realized that one of the things I missed most from my childhood was my grandmother’s canned vegetables, especially her tomatoes. There is something very rewarding about eating healthy that seems magnified when you know that you grew it yourself without all the chemicals and fertilizers. So, five years ago my husband very generously pitched in to help me start a garden. I say “very generously”, because out where we live gardening is tough! Our soil is Triassic clay. To quote Scott Hutler in an article that appeared in “Our State NC”:
The clay is so impermeable that septic systems wouldn’t percolate, and wells yielded no water. That sprawling acreage between Raleigh and Durham was waiting for developers to build RTP because nothing else would grow there. That soil grows buildings — if you build them right — but not much else.
For the novice gardener getting vegetables to grow here would be difficult, to say the least. We didn’t realize that building the garden itself would be even more so! In order to keep the local wildlife from consuming everything we planted we learned that we would need “a 7’ foot fence, nothing shorter.” So off we went to Home Depot to get the supplies. We agreed on a 4’ wooden fence that we would augment with rebar and deer netting for a more attractive presence in our yard. We rented an auger for a day to drill holes for the fence posts. My husband marked off the location of each post and set the auger in place. (Mind you, an auger is an industrial strength “drill bit” the size of a tree trunk powered by a gas engine!) As the drill began to spin it made only a small dent in our soil. My husband applied more muscle to force the auger into the ground, at which time metal clanged and parts started to fly…. We had broken the auger. Our soil was going to have nothing to do with holes being bored into it. Auger #2 was much younger and stronger than the original and thankfully our soil was no match (well, it was a little match). After several weeks of work our fence was up!
Our next big challenge was the soil. I opted for raised beds instead of trying to force things to grow in that horrible clay. Soil in raised beds was soil that I could control! The first year our garden consisted of 50’ x 75’ fenced in garden area and one 4’ x 8’ raised bed. No deer could possibly get in to touch my 4 tomato plants or 6 peppers!
Now here we are, five years later with more raised beds and 18 blueberry bushes safely tucked inside the fence. I am still not very good at making too many things grow, mostly because I want to grow everything and my space is still limited. My garden may take forever to evolve into something more productive. Regardless, I have learned the following:
- The blueberries love it here and haven’t been too big a challenge.
- Given the limited space of the raised beds I am only able to grow small quantities of vegetables; not enough to preserve and barely enough to eat.
- Peppers grow well.
- Tomatoes grow well if we don’t get too much or too little rain. I still can’t figure out the watering schedule.
- Squash and zucchini apparently need a LOT of bees for pollination (still working on that.)
- Black beans are easy to grow.
- Squirrels LOVE sunflower seeds and can clean out a whole crop in under 2 days. Funny to watch, too. They hang from the base of the flower by their back legs in order to free up their “hands” for picking out seeds.
- Potatoes are easy to grow. I was able to harvest an entire bushel from one organic potato purchased in the grocery store that I cut into 4 pieces. (I learned that you need to cut the potato section so that each has at least 2 eyes.)
- It takes 2 years for asparagus to produce stalks and they come up one at a time so plant many.
- I am considering taking apart the confines of the raised beds and renting a tiller to amend the soil so that I can use the whole garden space for bigger and better things. What’s holding me back? I’m afraid our soil will cause the tiller to disintegrate.
Gardening is frustrating and peaceful and enlightening and a learning process every single year. I wish I had spent more time watching my grandmother do it. I will keep trying (and failing, and trying again). Someday I hope to be making kimchi and sauerkraut from the things that I have grown. I already have the jars and the cookbooks ready to go! I just hope I’m not 90 years old before I figure it all out.