In the Garden: Out with the Old, In with the New

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Rachael Brown


My back hurts. As do my arms. When I stand up, I think I can actually hear my knees creaking. This is a bad sign when you are 26. Our garden, however, looks great.

Nobody told us gardening would be such hard work. I don't remember being sore after helping my dad plant our flower beds as a kid. (This is likely because my "helping" largely consisted of jumping around and maybe watering once all of the work was finished.) This time, a little more effort was required.

After Bryan and I scoped out our assigned plot in the Twin Oaks Community Garden, we started daydreaming about seeds. Our initial speculations on the subject hinged on wild overestimations of what would fit in our 11- by 14-foot plot, and were quickly tempered by conversations with other local gardeners. We were cautioned to stay away from things like squash, which had overwhelmed a neighbor's garden the previous summer, and corn, as its copious nitrogen needs and height might weaken neighboring plants.

Our friend Eric turned us on to Southern Exposure, a Virginia company that does all its own seed harvesting and emphasizes open pollination and heirloom plants. Since the company was local, its growing guide was helpful for our region, and we liked the idea of using seeds that weren't modified and would be a little more special. Southern Exposures's catalogue, with its lovely, hand-drawn illustrations, is worth perusing.

Here are the seeds we ordered:

    • Dr. Carolyn Tomatoes, 65 days
    • Cherokee Purple Tomatoes, 85 days
    • Contender Green Beans, 42 days
    • Rainbow Chard (Five Color Silverbeet), 60 days
    • Summer Mesclun Mix
    • Chioggia Beets, 52 days
    • Scarlet Nantes Carrots
    • St. Valery Carrots, 70 days
    • Dry bulb Granex Onions
    • Lettuce-Leaf Basil, 85 days
    • Dukat Dill
    • Peppermint

Bryan has posted more detailed descriptions of each of these varieties over at his site, Knock Twice Food. Altogether, we spent about $56 on seeds, not too bad for what we hope will be a summer of fresh produce.

Saturday morning, we got to work. First, we simply got down on our hands and knees and started pulling out weeds and old crops, along with debris like dried leaves, twigs, rocks, and garbage that had blown into the garden from nearby 14th Street. This took a couple of hours, after which we were filthy. I honestly can't remember the last time I was literally covered in dirt, but it was wonderful. The smell—rich and loamy, like outside—took me back to my childhood in Texas, where my sister and I would play hide and seek by diving under bushes, and pull up our father's carefully planted grass to braid crowns. There were worms everywhere, which Bryan and I took to be a good sign.

Next, we grabbed a couple of hoes and started tilling, chopping out old roots and trying to turn the soil. That would have likely taken a couple of hours more, but for a fellow Twin Oaks gardener, a.k.a. our savior, who offered to loan us his gas-powered tiller, making short work of the job.

Sunday was planting day. After digging several furrows, each approximately one foot from the next, we set about nestling the chard, carrot, onion, and beet seeds into the soil, skipping rows here and there because we'll have to thin the carrot and beets plants once they start to sprout. (Later in the season, we'll plant the warm-weather crops, like tomatoes and herbs.)

I'll admit to feeling pretty nervous about the carrots, whose seeds were tiny and supposed to be planted only a quarter inch below the surface. It seemed like pretty paltry cover from birds, rodents, and weather. We also replanted a row of green onions that had been left over from the previous garden tenant and made it through the winter. I had no idea that green onions could be so hardy, but the scallions in fellow Atlantic staffer Katie Mathy's garden also survived, so it only goes to show how much I have to learn. (You can read more about Katie's garden on her site, Sunshine Design.) Seeing the green among the mounds of earth felt encouraging, like a reminder of good things ahead. Once we had finished, Bryan and I watered our hopeful little furrows, rinsed off our hands under the spigot of the garden's rain barrels, shook the dirt off of our clothes, and went home to wait.

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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