Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Art is the Garden you Grow or the Farmer I Wanted to Be (Isn’t art a bit of farming anyway?)

I always wanted to be a farmer, I hear myself saying and in that remark are the echoes of very familiar voice. My father walked down through the backyard to the vegetable garden, picked a red ripe tomato off the vine. He brought the fruit it up then and without a work; instinctively, he bit right into it. As a child this was a revelation to me. I always wanted to be a farmer, I hear my father saying offering me a bite of tomato with a little salt. From that moment on I have been fascinated with gardens and gardening.

Capsicum annuum ‘jalapeño Pepper’

In Georgia I am gardening by moonlight in the balmy summer air. I have made many transient gardens in bouts of moves, always with some success but never perfect and have been known to create some unusual designs, but this spring I wanted to try something a little different. I was to make my first raised beds.

Salvia Officinalis, ‘Tricolor Sage’

Designing a garden first by taming the wild—the soil, is no small matter. But there is something so gratifying about digging up matted turf. And doing so always signifies that it is spring for me, dirt in my nails, muddy sneakers, the shovel like a lone flagpole or a ballast to some dry docked boat marking where the garden would then grow from.

Gaura Lindheimeri, 'Karalee Petite Pink'

Ocimum basilicum, ‘Sweet Basil’

My idea for a raised bed was this; first, because I had never done it before and it would be a new adventure. Next, they are pragmatic and I am so very thrifty these days. But also raised beds can be set up almost anywhere and with less effort than digging and regardless of soil conditions. Raise beds have the ability to produce more vegetables per square foot. This makes them ideal for a wide range of applications from backyard gardens to urban rooftop gardens, agricultural gardens, community gardens, and I was thinking about my heirloom tomato garden on my fire escape in Baltimore. I also found that raised beds warm more quickly in spring, allowing you to work the soil and plant earlier, they drain better and they will not get compacted, because, well in my care, I was constructed with accessibility in mind.

Achillea X, ‘Moonshine Yarrow’

Genius Loci, Spirit of Place

Consult the genius of the place in all;

That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;

Or helps th' ambitious hill the heav'ns to scale,

Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;

Calls in the country, catches opening glades,

Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,

Now breaks, or now directs, th' intending lines;

Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

—Alexander Pope from Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington

My “Homestead” garden was going to be a little more public than I am ever used to. I was thinking about the lay of the land around my cottage in Athens Georgia and the only spot of full sun was at the very front of the house.

Clippedwing Grasshopper (Metaleptea brevicornis) maybe or Katydid

The rest of the yard is shady with tall oak trees and maples that I didn’t have the heart to clear out. But, lucky for me, the location was garden perfect. A north-south orientation is best for low-growing crops, allowing direct sunlight to both sides of the bed.

Ocimum basilicum, ‘Thai Basil’

Beds that will contain taller crops such as pole beans, trellised peas or caged tomatoes might do better on an east-west axis. Thus, lower-growing crops could be planted on the south side of the bed and still get full sun. Mine was a combination of both. This was the right home for Homestead Garden Athens.

Capsicum annuum, ‘Pimiento Pepper’

Delphinium Elatum, ‘Guardian Blue Larkspur’

Echinacea, ‘Purple Coneflower’

Number One: the Lumberyard run.

I was again thinking with thrift in mind. I pondered over nice planks of cedar (kiln-dried Port Orford cedar I was thinking would be the best) but they were so costly. I knew treated lumber would be unsafe even though it is often used for outdoor projects. Chemicals used to preserve lumber include organic compounds such as pentachlorophenol, creosote and coal tars. Other preservatives contain chromated copper arsenate (CCA), ammonical copper arsenate and acid copper chromate. There is growing concern about the dangers of arsenic leaching into the ground or rubbing off on people's hands from CCA-treated wood.

So a naturally rot-resistant wood like red cedar, black locust or redwood, under most circumstances, will last 10 - 20 years when used for raised beds. Others could be recycled composite plastic lumber or cement block or brick (be aware that the cement in block will raise soil pH over time), but I am an artist and I was thinking aesthetically. I decided on pine bookshelving because I found perfect pieces of 12” x 8’ pieces. All I would have to do is get three and cut one in half for a 4’ x 84 bed. The structure would not last ten years but I am still a transient and didn’t need it to be.

To my surprise my first bed went together with such ease. I reinforced the corners by gluing and screwing a support and then carried it to position like a giant kite. I stood back and admired it from a bit of distance at. I came back, jostled it over some and went to the road to looked at it from the neighbor’s perspective and then I moved it slightly gain. But what I was realizing, what I was envisioning was a garden that needed to be larger. So I moved it once again with the notion of another and went back to the lumberyard.

I then stapled underlayment mesh to the bottom of each bed. This can really be as simple as newspaper to block grass and other tenacious weeds or as elaborate as my landscape cloth or even metal mesh.

Finally, I filled them with inexpensive top soil, a good layer of composted manure—providing roots with a nutrition boost, then a mixture of more topsoil with humus for water conservation. Before the day was out I had two 8’ x 4’ beds side by side ready for planting.

Except that there was something missing...another bed…and then…another.

And when the second day was through I had the right amount of space in a perfectly symmetrical garden complex of a total of four 8’ x 4 raised beds.

Next was the fun part, planting!

Gaura Lindheimeri, 'Butterfly'

The Color in My Garden

I can’t help but think of Emily Dickinson up in Amherst Mass and that her whole life spent there tending to her art work, her poetry, correspondence and her garden and that not a strain of her garden remains but for her art. As a pragmatist I am tending some fruitful vegetables and useful herbs, all for consuming but as an artist I need color in the garden.

Canna 'Yellow King Humbert'

Capsicum annuum, ‘Sweet Bell Pepper Red’

I think it’s very important for that contrast, life is full of contrast and really believe it takes the contingent of plants to harmonize and grow bountiful. That is despite possible root starvation but I was willing to the risk, I was banking on it, really I was pushing the limits here…because of the potential higher yields…higher densities - ideally spaced just far enough apart to avoid crowding.

Salvia elegans, ‘Pineapple Sage’

So Interspersed throughout are some of my favorite perennials teeming the garden with vivid color, sudden movement and dashing with butterflies and bees alike. My inclusion of perennials is no random choosing either. Years of fleeting garden across my sudden living environments I have adopted some favorites, noted for their beauty, spirit and, hearty blooms.

Digitalis Purpurea, Purple Foxglove

Cucumis sativus, ‘Cucumber’

Foeniculum vulgare, ‘Fennel’

Gardens are not just beatificiaries but they are personal emblems. On one of my runs through Five Points I came across a pile of just-cut bamboo stalks and came up with a good visual idea. I rushed back with the wagon and loaded it up with their tips so long and practically dragging on the road behind me to Sunset.

Dianthus plumarius

Coreopsis verticillata

More Floxglove

Cucurbita pepo, ‘Yellow Summer Squash’

Echinacea, ‘Purple Coneflower’

The visual focus of the garden would be arches I envisioned, a bit of structural madness, but not so much as to scare the neighbors too much. They were fun to build and made me think about Gaudi again. And they are structurally sound and worked terrifically as tomato trellises.

Tropaeolun, ‘Nasturtium’

Cucurbita pepo, ‘Zucchini’

Achillea X, ‘Moonshine Yarrow’

This Father’s Day I went out to the garden. With my father in mind, (just after I had called him and we talked about our garden progress) I picked my first ripe tomato—I have been eating garden salads and peppers for the past whole month.

Lycopersicon esculentum, ‘Homestead Heirloom Tomato’

I took a little bit of salt and…

It was delicious! We always wanted to be farmers. I am a farmer! Well…kind of.

Malus Domestica or 'Apple Flower'

Homestead Garden Sunset, Athens, Georgia, June 2010


Olivia june said...

RJS- you amaze me! Your beautiful garden and efforts and enjoyments have brought much joy to me today.
Thanks for sharing. Hearts to you.
PS. did you know that many of your plants are very medicinal? add alcohol and make medicine!

Anonymous said...

Very nice Bobby Jones.
I am proud.


Laurel said...

Really, really impressive! A knockout. I want to grow a ridiculously cute Apple flower, too.

Anonymous said...

awesome! Excellant work my firend it looks like paradise. The apple is my favorite.


JazzyRabbit said...

I love it & of course the "Apple Flower" truly was the most wonderful!! Thank you so much for sharing, & yes that Tomato did look delicious... I liked it & its meaning :)

And Olivia was correct in pointing out that you have many medicinal plants. Great garden, and if I ever make it out of Pa & get the chance to visit you I am hoping to have the opportunity to eat a nice red juicy tomato with you, sitting in the glorious beauty of your garden while basking in the glow of great company!!

Jess :-)

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