Good Things Come to Those Who Garden

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Rachael Brown


So far, the only yield we've seen from our garden plot has been from those tenacious chives that stuck it out through the snowy winter, and in anticipation of the produce to come, we've been making great use of them. Those hardy stalks have found their way into omelets and onto toasted sandwiches, been added to homemade pho and sushi, and garnished our vegetable stir-fries and the odd salad. We even have a little vase of purple onion blossoms sitting on the kitchen table, a reminder of how we find any excuse to walk the couple blocks to our garden and "pick something for dinner." (Of course, for now, they're the only thing to pick!)

One of the most pleasurable things Bryan and I have discovered about working in a community garden is that the quiet joy you get from watching your seedlings grow taller and stronger is multiplied by the experience of watching your neighbor's efforts grow too. The plot next to ours has vibrant strawberry plants that are starting to form tiny fruits, and several tufted rows of carrots and lettuces. May 1 was the deadline for all plots in the space to be tilled and planted, and the difference in seeing all of the orderly, cheerful gardens underway is refreshing. Over the past few weeks, the Twin Oaks garden board has also hosted some garden-wide clean-up days, and as a result, the pathways are weeded and the storage shed neatly organized with shiny new locks.

The plants are coming along—our beets are sturdier by the day, the carrot tops are growing bushier and will need to be separated soon to give them more room. Even the chard, which took its sweet time sprouting, is looking determined. We've also been more vigilant about weeding, which seems to have made a difference. (A number of commenters have suggested mulching, which is next on our to-do list.)

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Rachael Brown

Not wanting the next round of more delicate crops—tomatoes, salad greens, beans, basil, mint, thyme, and dill—to compete with weeds, we decided to sow those seeds indoors to give them a head start, then transplant them to the plot once they were healthy, a method that a number of friends have recommended. There are a number of options for going this route. One Atlantic colleague swears by these inexpensive Jiffy peat pellets, and I have to admit I've long been intrigued by the striking design of hydroponic window farms made from recycled plastic bottles.

Ultimately, we kept it simple. Using regular organic potting soil, we gently sowed the seeds in Dixie cups, usually two or three cups of each type of plant. Bryan made little flags with toothpicks and masking tape so we could tell the cups apart, and housed them on an indoor window ledge. We watered whenever the soil started to feel dry, and checked the cups constantly for signs of life.

It's pleasant to watch things grow from within your home, especially the beans, which germinated and grew rapidly. Within a couple of weeks we had sprouts in almost all of our cups, and were feeling encouraged.

But overall, we have mixed feelings about this process. Most things were looking good, but then slowly started thinning out and dying. Roots never took hold, or perhaps they weren't getting enough light—our apartment windows look out on a dim alley. We're also starting to get a little worried about transplanting. For example, our beans grew so tall that last week we decided to move them to the garden, but after a few days in the soil, they looked wilted and weak. It was touch and go for a while, but finally they seem to be recovering. Now we're delaying moving our other indoor seedlings, some of which are still as frail as blades of grass. Obviously we want to get the plants in the ground so they can start to flourish, especially now that we no longer have any danger of frosts, but how does one know when they're ready? Any advice?

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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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