Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A real kitchen garden

Trent, from The Simple Dollar, has posted a nice entry about starting a kitchen garden. But I am one-upping him: I have a real kitchen garden.

Now I'll admit that the potting soil in the sink takes some getting used to, and the drawer of seeds and verbena starts is where you would expect to find silverware. Fortunately, this is only temporary. Tomorrow, my kitchen garden will dwindle back to seven plants, and the geraniums, seed trays and so forth will migrage to a set of shelves upstairs by the window.

There's a lot to be said for gardening. By February, I have sickened of winter. March 1 is time to reclaim the world for human habitation. Unfortunately, the world is seldom taking my phone calls, so I have to resort to creating my own habitat. I keep a large bougainvillea plant in my kitchen over the winter, where it stabs the unwary passer-by and blocks access to the garbage can. (That's it, above, last summer.)

I am too cheap to buy herbs at the grocery store, so I also have a nice pot of basil, oregano, parsley and chives. Thyme and rosemary each deserve their own pot, as both are low-water items. I'd plant sage, but that's getting too Simon and Garfunkel.

This week, I picked up five geranium plants at the local grocery store for $3.75 apiece. They were in four-inch plastic pots, and you could almost hear them begging to be released from their prisons. They have been rescued, repotted, and are cheerfully awaiting placement on the shelf outside my kitchen window as soon as it's warm enough.

I bought a dozen seed packets on sale ($1 each) to supplement last year's stash. Technically, seeds should be planted in the year in which they were purchased, but last spring was a frenzy of moving and home purchase, and my opportunity disappeared. So I've started a flat of test seeds, using last year's packet. If they germinate, I'll plant the rest; if not, no harm's done. I still have time to get a nice bunch of seedlings before it's time to plant outdoors.

Ah, gardening. Springtime is come.

Gardening is a wildly expensive hobby. Probably more expensive than skiing, if you have a ski hill within driving distance. Not as expensive as golf--but then, what is?

But gardening is the fine art of getting something out of nothing. By nothing, of course, I mean a huge capital outlay in soil amendments, plants, sweat, tears, and dirty fingernails. On the other hand, you finish the year with beautiful plants and flowers and food, where before you had nothing but dirt. No wonder it appeals to us frugal people.

There is money to be saved, though, if you know what you're doing. Gardening abilities were part of my genetic inheritance--my mother kept us busy outside, and you can't spend years grumbling about yard work without picking up some basic skills. Here are a few important starters:
  • Know your climate and soil. I will never have a hydrangea. It's sad, but I have accepted it. On the other hand, tulips flourish year after year from the same bulbs, and pink and white honeysuckle lines the canyon edge.
  • Know your frost date. This is actually the first day on which there is less than a 50% chance of heavy frost. In my area, it's mid-May. Don't plant tender young things before that date, or you will waste your money and curse fate. Cursing fate is an integral part of gardening, of course, but you needn't set yourself up for it.
  • Prepare your soil. New gardeners cheap out on soil prep, because it seems so wasteful to buy dirt. Don't do it. You may live in Eden (aka Iowa) and your soil may be rich black loam. In that case, you might be home free. But call your local extension agent anyway and see whether there are things you need to add for better drainage or production. If you want to be cheap, there are cheap sources for manure and compost--check with your local sanitation people. There is nothing more frustrating than having your pretty new plants wither up and die because they can't get their roots from the potting soil into your nasty clay backyard. I live on a rock ledge in a desert, so I have the whole regimen: compost, water-conserving crystals, little bacterial soil improvers, old potting soil.
  • Spend the money to buy perennials at a good greenhouse. Home Depot has those cheap roses, or saplings, or bushes. Run screaming. A good greenhouse can sell you plants that have been kept watered and fed and properly potted. Remember the geraniums, above? They were all nearly dried out and should have been transplanted weeks ago. They will do fine, now I've got them repotted, but you don't want the quality of your long-term garden building blocks to be compromised by a poor early start. If a tree you bought three years ago starts showing signs of weakness in the base, you've lost three years and a good tree. A reputable greenhouse should offer a year-long money back guarantee on trees and other large perennials. As in, if it dies, bring it back with the receipt and get your money back. It can also provide you with the right variety of plant for your altitude, growing zone, and light.
  • Go ahead and get annuals wherever they're cheapest. That flat of petunias at Lowe's may be just what you're looking for. This does require knowing how to assess the health and quality of a plant--if it dies the week after you bought it, it was no bargain. Look for heavy flats, which indicates that the plants have been watered. Avoid truly top-heavy plants, or check them for root-bound conditions. (You will want to google this if you don't know how to assess it.) Look for generous foilage and stems, not heavy blooming. Blooming weakens a plant, and a plant in a nursery flat is pretty weak already. Plant right away, and make sure you loosen the roots and plant in well-improved, watered, non-compacted soil.
  • Plant from seed, and you've hit the cheapest method of all. Seeds are a pain in the tush, but they're (almost) as cheap as dirt, and they are a legitimate outlet for the frustrated gardener in early spring. Remember the frost date? Most seeds should be started inside 4-6 weeks before. Seeding outside has never been a big success for me with anything but weed flowers (cosmos, hollyhock, yarrow--not weeds, but non-hybrid heavy seeders.) But seed cultivation inside is fun, cheap, and gives you an excuse to get your hands dirty. I've started a bit early, but I wanted to know whether my old seeds were still viable. I also planted long germinators--the verbena in the drawer requires 10 weeks, and it has to stay in complete darkness until it sprouts. The payoff? Those little 2 inch nursery cups of flowers run about $2 apiece. Starting a dozen cost me a grand total of $2.25. That's a $21.75 savings.
The garden, the vinyard, and the harvest have long been used in parables and fables. Gardening lends itself to moral lessons on patience, investment, hard work, and personal responsibility. A tiny mustard seed grows into a huge plant. The seed that falls on rocks never grows. The one who plants the wheat, tends the wheat, harvests the wheat and makes the bread is the one who eats the bread.

Gardening is a nice money-saver if you stick to herbs in a pot. If you get more elaborate than that, the cost/savings ratio gets fuzzy. How much time did you put it? How much did you spend on water? How are we going to use all this zucchini? What did that MiracleGro cost, again? But it has huge rewards.

Gardening has a meditative and artistic aspect for its true devotees. There is no get-rich-quick option in gardening. There is no credit. There is no shortcut. Those of us who want to retrain our attitudes about money could do worse than to turn to cultivation in the natural world to remind us of the Law of the Harvest.

Besides, with all that weeding to do, who has time for golf?

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