John Richardson Gardens   Garden Design and Construction

The Pumpkin Patch. One mans quest for Veggie Nirvana

The next time you're down at the local book store, get your self across to the gardening shelves and check out the latest titles. You will quickly identify the hottest new trend in world of gardening and sustainable living. Sure, you will still see a high occurrence of the term, indigenous, design, eco or perhaps even, trees, shrubs or groundcovers, but even with just a cursory glance you will notice that the scales have definitely tipped in favor of one prosaic little word i.e. vegetables. Or more to the point: how to plant, grow and cook fresh produce from your own private pumpkin patch in the city. And if that isn't enough to convince you of the homegrown tsunami just tap 'vegetable gardening' into google world and see what happens. Two million results in 0.3 seconds. Wow. Do the same for 'indigenous gardening' and the result is a paltry nine hundred thousand in the same time, still impressive but definitely a runner up in this (admittedly crude) survey.

So with the subtle shift of focus the gardening fraternity moves from its' previous mantra of 'Plant indigenous and save the environment' to the far more immediately urgent 'plant some vegetables and save yourself!' And why not? With the price of an irradiated, shrink wrapped, jet-lagged sprig of broccoli weighing in at a mighty R12-95 down at the local supermarket, it makes sense for even the only marginally economically challenged, paranoid health nut wanna-bees (like myself) to trade in the old lawnmower and buffalo grass for couple of planks, a rusty old bucket, some enthusiastic ducks (snail control) and catalogue of loving selected vegetable seeds. Yes, it was time for the ripening fervor of my loathing to fall from the tree of potential into the fertile hands of action. Time to replace the proverbial foot with the proverbial money in the proverbial orifice that does the proverbial talking but walks no further than the proverbial refrigerator! Yep, time to stop moaning about the spurious offerings of the global food industry while feigning deafness at the inevitable question from down the dinner table, 'Did these come from your garden, then…?'

To which the truthful answer always seems to kindle that tiny flame of regret and embarrassment in the depths of my conscience. You know… that part that deals with the - practice what you preach - scenarios life chucks at us from time to time. Err …….No. But I intend to grow my own, it just that… (Add million excuses here)

Ok…… so I needed to do something! And with my long-standing aspirations momentarily aligned with my normally short-lived propensity for work, there was no time to be lost. But first I needed to know, what is a vegetable garden supposed to look like? I mean, besides having a littering of various edible plants that bear at least some resemblance to the supermarket variety of the same name, is there any real defining, quintessential holy grail that should be respected in the purely aesthetic sense, or is it just a case of whatever, whatever…….

A quick trip back to cyber space for a fast track education on everything from the origins of the vegetable garden, right across to the latest concepts for sustainable living, tells me that there is, in fact, no requirement for a vegetable garden to look like anything in particular. Furthermore the imagery churned up by the ether ranged from the sensible, thousand year old, quadrant layout through to ultra modern angularity of some of today's cutting edge veggie patches.

(Why, in the twenty-first century, one would still need to plant in quadrants we are not sure, because besides the respectful doff of the old gardening cap to this ancient and classic layout, there is no real reason for such a regimental demarcation of space. And in reality this layout should not necessarily be anymore effective than any other, barring perhaps the random spread some affectionately call the Cottage garden, also described as informal, romantic or by some folk, ……a complete @#$% mess!)

Messy or regimented aside, it transpires that besides the purely aesthetic aspects of the space, there are a number of practical realities to consider when it comes to the position and layout of a vegetable garden. For example, don't forget that wherever the vegetable garden goes, the gardener goes ….and often… and at night… with a torch, naked (optional) with bucket, spade and pitchfork. It is therefore sensible to make it as accessible as possible. (One does not really want to be stumbling around the old potager in ones pajamas, or less, with nary but the light of a silvery moon to distinguish ones marrow from ones butter beans.

Furthermore, aside from these nocturnal escapades in search of soft squishy thingy's (like slugs and snails) there is also the labour aspect to consider, because unless you are by some miracle exempt from the earthy pestilence of weeds, chafer beetles and other night crawlers, then you are going to spend a significant amount of time bent over your vegetable garden playing the all-in-one human rotavater / combine harvester / excavator. And whilst for some bendy people this is an opportunity to show-off, for those of us with actual vertebrae, it can be demoralizing to observe your otherwise willing hands dangling uselessly in mid air, miles above the soil you so lovingly want to till.

Hence, unless you have developed a concurrent interest in yoga, it is good idea to raise the working surface of the beds to a more comfortable working height. This can be achieved by using timber, brick or other building material to construct boxes, which are then filled with soil to form the beds from which the vegetables are going to grow.

My garden, I decided was going to be neither unnecessarily formal nor un-unnervingly random. It would be somewhere between the two with a gentle bias in the sensible organized direction, perhaps best described as semi-formal, ordered, controlled and organized in a relaxed way. A sort of contemporary approach, I like to think.

In reality this took the form of a series of raised boxes laid in straight lines, but staggered so as to bring some movement to what would otherwise be a very static space. For raising the beds I used railway sleepers (but you can use any number of different materials to raise the beds. Bricks, blocks, recycled timber; old tyres, etc would all work fine.) I also decided that the surface of the paths between the boxes would be stone chip, the reasoning being that this part of the garden was already going to demand disproportionate amounts of time and I was reluctant to add lawn mowing to the list of chores allocated to this area. Also like any good hippy …pardon, organic grower, I did not want any nasty petrol fumes anywhere near my pristine homegrown vegetables. The stone chip also presents a pretty nasty surface for a slug or snail to traverse in order to get to the vegetables! Although it must be said that my friend (who knows everything) says snails crawl across razor blades all the time, and would therefore hardly baulk at a few blunt little pebbles!

Another thing all my surfing (on the net, naturally) has made salient is the requirement for drainage and good light. Well drained soils that dry out between watering are much less subject to soil based problems than heavy water bearing soils, which when combined with shady conditions, cause problems with fungi and bacteria. Raising the beds definitely improves drainage and allows easy improvement of the soil when filling the boxes.I filled the boxes in my garden with a sandy-loam soil that is well drained but still retains a certain amount of moisture. Sub-optimum soil (like most soils here in Cape Town) can easily be improved with compost and other additives to increase its fertility and potential. You can even buy earthworms! Yippee.

O.k. with the space sensibly pegged out under the stoep light, right outside the back door, just a moment's dash from the kitchen, the next task was that unmentionable reality, conspicuously absent the reams of text through the ages, that unspoken truth that that unites gardeners across space, time and back ache …… digging. Digging.…. digging…... digging…. and…… more digging. Spade after spade my back engaged in a war of attrition against the wretched grass. Lift, drop, cut and shake. Lift, drop, cut and shake. Lift……

It was then, with blistered hands and bitter heart, that  it dawned on me that it was this digging, this most ancient and arduous of activities, that keeps many a potential urbanite subsistence farmer strolling lamentably down the air conditioned isles of the local superstore. Happy in the knowledge that whatever it may cost, irradiated or not irradiated, local or from the !@#$  moon, that whatever it took to get that sprig of broccoli onto the refrigerated shelf in front of him, it definitely did not involved a whole lot of digging on his behalf.

This is of course all true. Digging is an undeniable pain indeed, and a pain disgracefully omitted from journals of the esteemed literatures (not this one!) which is why, despite my initial evangelical devotion to the cause…..I eventually actually paid somebody else to do the digging!

Sure, it doesn't evoke the same poetic sensibility as lovingly tilling the soil with my very own hands, with all the stoic patience of a Buddhist monk but, damn it, it's close enough for me. And when asked by a friend across a crowded dinner table if I did it all, it is without a moment's hesitation that the reply 'of course' spills from my guilty lips, fingers crossed, whilst I drown, with quaff of organic Riesling, the murmured caveat '….. except the digging…'

It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that said (rather pompously I might add) 'The deed is everything, the glory nothing', but quite frankly I wonder just how much digging old Wolfgang did.

Actually, it is clear to me now, sometime later, that there are only two kinds of digging in this world. The first is hard digging .Hard digging is the ripping up, carving out and filling in of the existing landscape in order to make way for the idyllic Garden of Eden one has in mind. This type of digging should be avoided at all costs. As it will snuff out the kindling flame of your passion just as surely as the rain falls on the plain and the sun drops into the Atlantic every night.

The second kind of digging is easy digging. Or if you like…. glorious digging (Sorry Wolfgang) It is: (please indulge me here) our engagement and integration with the natural world; it is the edifying immersion of our souls into the benevolent bosom of this earth, our planetary home; it is the playing in simple aggregates of our genesis, the rich dirt from which we are born. It is this kind of digging, this joyous contentment of gain without pain, of return without risk, that gardeners the world over unanimously call ….Pottering.

Yes, fellow seed-swappers: Pottering is that un-hurried step back into the most ancient and necessary of activities that motivates the every-day kitchen gardener. It provides reasonable grounds for spending endless hours at home, comforted and contented in the seed catalogues, mulch and manure of our gardens, self-righteous in our stand against the modern, plastic polypropylene world of mass production, tunnel growing, pesticides and market speak of the market people at the market doing their marketing.

The only real question is; when is one pottering and when is one digging? Because, believe it or not, many and unwary potterer has, through no fault of their own, strayed un-wittingly into realms of real digging. It is at these times, when the previously subliminal inner voice's protest breaks the normally tranquil meniscus of our consciousness, that we must pause, reflect and dutifully apply the first law of gardening.The first law of gardening states that: If one is holding a trowel then one is pottering and one should simply stop pottering, pour oneself a tall glass of ones favorite refreshment and continue when one's sanguinity is restored. However if you are holding a spade then you are undoubtedly digging and should therefore stop immediately and apply the first law of an easy life.The first law of an easy life states that: If one finds oneself holding a spade one should physically remove oneself from the spade and proceed with haste to the nearest telephone. Once there, dial the emergency digging number 0861 116124 and a kind landscaper….pardon… counselor will immediately dispatch a team of highly trained and competent diggers to your rescue. 

Interestingly, husbands, in particular, either through pure naïveté or malevolent duress, have been known to find themselves, perplexed and slightly desperate, in the middle of the vegetable garden, 15 minutes before the guests arrive….. holding the spade! Gentlemen, this is not good. You've been duped. Apply the first law of an easy life immediately. However, if you are unable to apply the first law of an easy life due to the presence of the overarching law of upset wife, then apply the second law of an easy life, i.e. pretend you didn’t hear. And if that fails…..well, then I suggest you pretend you're digging. (And sort your life out later)

And that, I believe, concludes the first, and last, chapter of this highly subjective dissertation on the uber-trendy topic of D.I.Y subsistence farming in the city. And while this throw-away internet article is admittedly a little light in the practical tips department, please do take comfort in the knowledge that you always have the local book store to fall back on for real advice. Because, as this hack can attest, it is full of fine honed tomes crammed with good instruction on absolutley everything you will ever need to know about growing your own vegetables for your own consumption.

Except perhaps this little gem of internet wisdom…; your carrot, that you grew, has every right to technically be referred to as a carrot no matter what it looks like. Furthermore you should never hesitate to place it proudly in the center of the dinner table, confident in the knowledge that whatever it is that makes the real carrots grow straight, it is probably not good for you anyway. Take comfort instead, dear friends, in the self-righteous knowledge that at least your carrot has not been irradiated, suffocated in shrink-wrap and dumped in a blast frozen box before being shipped off somewhere far away.

Although, sadly, some cruel folk may argue that it should be.

Happy Gardening.


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Posted: 9/20/2011 (2:07:50 AM)

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