Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Urban Gardening Project

There are at least three things that grow exceedingly poorly on my quarter acre: grass, roses and vegetables. And for perspective, it's been long enough now that the grass has finally almost filled in the old vegetable garden, or at least filled in according to that piebald way that passes for a lawn here. The section is still tastefully cornered by a bed of perennials and bordered by a row of sickly roses, which are gradually and mercifully getting subsumed by plants that actually thrive in our sandy verminous soil. We're slowly learning which plants do and don't, see, and surrounding the sorry things, gradually figuring out when to plant grass, and where to just give it up to landscaping, and god help me, I've mentioned it all before. Suffice to say that it looks nice in the spring.

The lofty goal of all my landscaping effort is to achieve a state of minimal maintenance, perfected for independent natural(ized) and vegetable beauty. If the grass don't grow, try a perennial, or a gravel walk. The devotion to chemical lawn care is one of the more horrifying suburban sins I can think of, and paradoxically, I'm willing to expend a good deal of backbreaking labor to get to that point where it all just glides along without my guidance, hand-weeding invasive species so that the (allegedly) locally appropriate population of grass blend can have a shot, and not fretting when it turns naturally arid in the summer. I've put together a list of ground rules for yard projects:

1. use space well (grow stuff only where it grows)
2. be beautiful (and obscure the neighbors)
3. utility is a bonus
4. cost approaching zero (sustainability, baby)
5. maintenance approaching zero
6. there's no goddamn rush (except when there is)

The old vegetable garden failed in the beauty, use of space, and maintenance deparatments--actually it failed in utility too--but I've always felt guilty about abandoning it, especially as I hunger to stuff my craw with garden-fresh goodies every spring. Last year, my mother gave us a cherry tomato seedling, and we just potted it and let it grow up along one of the filigreed black columns that almost hold up the carport. And bingo: it's the same wholesome experience but now interpreted in an urban-compatible way. The mere act of using a pot managed to nail criteria one through five. No more impoverished plants and bales of weeds; just a tasteful salad-enhancing accent to an already pointlessly trellissed corner of the house, watered and harvested occasionally, and otherwise happily ignored. The small herb garden is another floral success. Tastefully surrounded by perennial flowers, the chives, mint and oregano come back every year, and I can plant the other stuff in the spring, and otherwise forget about it except when needed or when I care to enjoy the view and the aroma. Urban gardening just fits the location better than keeping our own private Dust Bowl going.

This year, I'm expanding the project. I've got some more wrought iron corners to support a few more pots of tomatoes, and I've got the idea to plant a halo of shallots (a nuisance to shp for in the benighted 'burbs) to fill in the lower reaches of the plants, and to get more produce out of the same tastefully occupied space. Similarly, I came across the idea for "vertical potatoes" somewhere, where you stack up old tires and add dirt around the plant as it grows over the summer. The tubers grow in each new layer of dirt, yielding, the advertisement goes, a substantial poundage of taters per plant compared to the space-intensive horizontal yard plot. Old tires aren't very pleasing to the eye, of course, and I made up some modular, stackable planters to house the spuds as they grow, and cleverly located them near the tomatoes' nook (it's the second-choice location, but my wife convinced me to try the experiment in better sun first), and painted them to match the house. If it works, then I'll spread out a few more next year.

It's the optimization game that really motivates me here, an ongoing engineering project that is somehow a lot more gratifying than anything I ever attempt at my actual job. I have this fantasy that I'll be mentally prepared to endure the dystopic future when the big machines all sieze up as a statement of God's wrath, and I'm thankful to supplement my diet of overlord-surplus soy gruel to whatever extent I can. Okay, that's exagerrating (and yet it's a disturbing running theme), it's really more the geeky thrill of living an efficient life.

The no-cost criterion is an important one, and usually overlooked for us modest suburbanites. What's worse than spending two hundred bucks on an ugly gardening project that yields a three dollars worth of nasty wizened produce? The potato planters rose from hoarded bits of surplus lumber (that experienced carpenters sanely refer to as "shit"), free and scroungeable from one of the zillion condo construction projects still mysteriously underway. And to be clear, I'm talking utilization here: any urge to store potentially useful crap is counteracted by an extreme resentment of undesired crap taking up my precious living space. No pack rat, me, and the odds and ends are stored in perpetual purgatory. Eliminating clutter, but shunting its imminent ride to hell, is another motivation for actually doing these things. I can't stand to see it sitting there, and I hate to waste it.

This year's vertical potatoes may meet some of my guidelines, but they're doomed from a financial standpoint, because I had to buy twelve bucks worth of dirt in which to plant my dollar's worth of seed potatoes, and it's hard to imagine recouping that cost. An aggravating development to be sure--buying dirt--but it has inspired my most brilliant outdoor project yet. Yup, the new compost bin is cleverly situated behind the woodpile (tree work and an ice storm--it feeds my fire pit) on a lifeless piece of forest floor behind the shed, where only the hated neighbors can really witness it's undesirable nature. It consumed the huge leftover beams from the shed, and I'm gradually tacking the sides up with suitable-only-for-burning (but free!) pallet lumber. It diverts a fraction of my natural waste stream toward consumption, making my household notionally more sustainable, and it makes the lousy microfauna work for me, dammit, rotting something useful instead of my precious roots, to ultimately turn my garbage into dirt I can finally grow vegetables in. I'm a genius!


Schmutzie said...

The one thing, the only thing that I regret as an apartment dweller is my inability to have a garden. I've never had a garden. I'd absolutely love to grow corn and tomatoes.

Wait...that's not quite right. A house I shared with 2 other guys had a strip of dirt along the back wall that had what we assumed were weeds when we moved in. Took the lawn mower to the patch of weeds, and damned if the whole yard didn't start smelling of onions.

Chives. I'll be damned.

And there's a bit of Windy City trivia for you K....the word Chicago is native American for "land of smelly onions" or some such. Apparently wild onions grew all along the lakefront before we came along and built a city.

Keifus said...

Wild onions, eh? No wonder they called it the windy city.

What we obviously need to do is convince switters into that farm thing, and then just live the experience vicariously.

Schmutzie said...

Wild onions.

And chives in my own back yard.

Your post reminded me of it. Looked like long thin lime green weeds until we cut them. What a great smell. And they came back the following spring too.

I have been urging Switters to write something cool on canning. Ever since he started talking about gardening, and canning his own food, I was fascinated.

I think that recent sad events might make such a bit of writing even more fun for him. Well, maybe too soon for "fun writing" but you just gotta know he has some great memories of his mom rolled into his fondness for gardening and canning. It's just such a peaceful concept that I never really thought much about.

Artemesia said...

Just read in a very good gardener's blog that parsley seed strewn around where you keep the compost grows amazingly well..I knew a woman who followed the horses(wherever they were..street or horse path) and scooped up manure for her roses. Evidently roses thrive on horse manure..Do you have any stables/riding academys nearby? Much richer stuff
than buying dirt! Hope your garden surprises you and does much better than you expect!

Ben There said...

A quarter acre huh. Here I sit with lawn envy, wondering why houses like my mine are called "garden homes" when there damned sure isn't room for a garden. And the term "Urban Garden" just sounds like someone growing pot in their apartment. I'd love to try growing some food but I can barely keep the damn grass alive on my .0000001 acre.

Ben There said...

Hey, I think Schmutzie likes golf! It's an awesome excuse for heavy beer drinking before lunch.

Keifus said...

That sounds great, except for the playing golf afterward. I feel about as smart about not starting golf as not smoking.

One nice thing about potted tomatoes is that they don't require a fortune of subterfuge to grow them. You can just put them in the driveway and no one cares. I should also point out that my environment is not really urban, but I'm just finding it more pleasant to use the "gardening" space that way. I can't get the grass (or roses) to grow either, and I have a deep fear of becoming one of those suburban yahoos who spends his summers on his ridiculous lawn tractors and enjoys it beyond measure.

The rose (and former vegetable) patch has some kind of local fungus. Moved a healthy plant from another part of the yard, and now it's dying too. In the early summer, the plants grow faster, and later, the black death overtakes them. Quite sad, really. Spraying with antifungal helps, but it really violates the maintenance requirement. And I figure if it needs chemicals, it's in the wrong spot. (The parsley thing sounds exactly my speed though.)

Would of course like to see switters work that one. In his own time, I imagine.

artandsoul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
artandsoul said...

Try knockout roses. They're not as satisfying but they also require zero upkeep.

We grow herbs and parsley, rosemary, basil and lemongrass thrive. They just grow every which way and where. Broccoli does too.

Mostly I prefer bird feeders and use a lot of sunflower seeds so the summer is filled with gorgeous 7 foot tall sunflowers all over the place.

You are a genius! I love your stuff.

(reposted with an edit)

Keifus said...

(I didn't get around to commenting earlier--damned employers, you know?--but I meant to. I guess I won't say anything wise about outdoor activities that appeal to men...)

I'm liking the idea of knockout roses. I looked up growing lemongrass too (because it's also annoying to buy where I live), but it seems out of my league to make it happen in the northeast. Nothing lives indoors.


artandsoul said...

It seemed so natural and funny when I first wrote it.

But after a few days it began to seem rather crass and presumptuous and well... I appreciate the ability to edit.

Too bad about lemongrass. I'll ask our garden expert what she knows about northeast varieties. She really is the expert... I wish I could take the credit.

As it is, I just take the produce ... right out of the ground.

catnapping said...

There are some great veggies that will grow in containers for those folks living in the city: carrots, peppers; radishes; chives; and onions all do great in containers. I've grown them that way.

Also, tomatoes. The reason I grow tomatoes in containers is so that I can move them if a frost or freeze threatens.

Root veggies are cool to grow in enriched potting soil...no rocks to mar or even pit the root...so they look...rather perfect?The only kind of carrots I really like are the very young ones, so planters are perfect...I just pull them, and sow some more...I love 'em steamed.

Keifus said...

Thanks cat. I like the idea of working root veggies in the mix. Was looking at this little paved space I'm sitting these things on, and I could definitely add more of them without messing up my aesthetics.

(Anything that has to be taken in is defintely not minimal maintenance though.)