Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Baltimore Garden Goes to Bed, and Lessons for Community Gardeners

This is one of Baltimore's Most Beautiful Gardens, two years running.  It ain't real pretty right now, that's for sure.  All the veggies, the flowers, the bees are gone.  The snakes and rabbits too.  I've planted winter peas and oats twice, in hopes of stabilizing the soil over the winter.  The rats and rabbits made quick work of them both times, leaving me with a few sprouts, and a weak hope that more are coming up behind them.  The lettuce and beets are having a rough go of it this fall, as well.

A few insects remain on the warmest and sunniest days. The swallowtail caterpillars.  The carpenter bees. The wolf spiders.  But they move slowly now, only moving when they must, to find more food.  Soon, they'll be gone for the winter, too.

We have had a warm, wet autumn, and now it appears that a particularly cold and snowy winter is beginning to draw near.   I'll lay down some more mulch, to keep my soil in place.  I'll put up my garden hoops, to keep the lettuce free of ice, and hopefully free of rabbits.  I'll cut back the last of the peppers, the wildflowers, the millet. It feels like dressing a corpse for a funeral. 

But it shouldn't.  I've already stopped spending time at the garden (located in one of Baltimore's City Farms), because there's almost no work to be done.  Most of the other gardeners have - quite foolishly - tilled their gardens in the middle of the autumn rains, but I don't.  I don't feel like giving away my soil to our local creek (Herring Run).  I want the soil more than the creek does.

There's still a tiny bit of food coming out of the garden.  Recently, it was the last of the sweet potatoes.  Now, it's the last of the tropical peppers.   This year, we did Congo/Trinidad Habaneros and the Kellu Uchu (Lemon Drop) Pepper from Peru. I love the flavor of both. And both are ridiculously hot.

I haven't had the free mental space to think about what I'll do differently in 2012, and let me tell you, 2011 was sure a mixed bag.   So maybe I'll end with a few lessons I've learned from 2 full years in a community garden:

1.   Do your best gardening and be confident in it.  There is a 100% chance that someone else will tell you that you're doing it wrong, so just get used to it. I revel in it (see: Most Beautiful Garden, 2010, 2011).

2.  Don't act like an extension agent.  If you have strong opinions about pesticide use, nobody wants to hear them while they are dumping giant piles of neurotoxin on their vegetables that haven't been attacked by insects yet.  Either leave it alone, or take the issue to the garden superintendent/manager.

3.  Don't assume that people are gardening idiots or geniuses.  Ask what they are doing.  Maybe you'll learn something. Or maybe you'll find out they are idiots.  Could go either way.  But you'll know for sure if you ask.

4. Do be committed.  If you abandon your garden in the third week of July (very common), people like me will make fun of you, to your face.  If for no other reason than I hate stepping on rats that are on their way to eat your rotten tomatoes.

5. Do revel in your successes.  Aside from the "even a blind squirrel finds a nut" deal, you'll need decent luck, timing, and skill to grow any successful crop in a community garden setting.  Enjoy it when you get it, even if you don't know what to do with 500 African Biohazard Zombie Peppers.  That's right, you're making enough jerk seasoning to supply the Japanese whaling fleet.  That's what you're doing.

6.  Do not languish in your failures.  Cut them down, compost them, and move on. As the Bottle Rockets once sang, "Hope for the best, and mop up the rest."

7.  Do be a good neighbor.  If your neighbor's garden is withered, water it a little bit. If a noxious weed pops up in his garden, kill it....before it goes to seed and the seed lands in your garden.  Pay it forward, Brocephus!

8.  Do advertise your skill and your helpfulness.  Something like, "I was picking my 2 bushels of bell peppers and I noticed your garden was all dried up, so I watered it for you" can go a long way.  Hopefully they'll offer to water yours, the next time you can't get to the garden during a hot, dry week.

9.  Do watch and remember other people's mistakes for your own education.  Bob or Karen's mistakes are easier and cheaper to learn from than your own.

10.  Don't give up.  If your entire summer garden dies off, throw out a cover crop or wildflower seeds.  Start again in the fall.

You can do it.  Don't be afraid to fail.  Take a quick look at what the garden looks like in the top image.  Again, it looks pretty sad.  Now look at the condition in which I inherited it in March 2010.

And now take a look at how it was doing in early September, 2011.

Like I can do it.


Jodi said...

Good job gardening! Thanks for sharing your hard-earned wisdom. I'm fascinated that you still have swallowtail caterpillars left, mine have all gone into chrysalis by now. Guess there's always a few procrastinators even in the insect world. :-)

Happy planning for next spring...

Alex said...

I'm confused now. This garden isn't in your backyard? It's with a bunch of other gardens?

Bill Trussell said...

Just found your blog, intresting piece on gardening. I for one have never had a green thumb. Trust me it is not for the lack of trying. Going through your blog I notice you do lot of warm water fishing with the fly, I am into that too, and always like to read post that relate to warm water. I am joining up with blog and hope to see and read more of your great post. If you are interested in joining up with my group the link is

Kirk Mantay said...

Alex - we live in an old neighborhood with big trees and almost total shade, so I gave up trying to have a really nice garden in it and joined up the community garden. Has its pluses and minuses!

Kirk Mantay said...

Thanks Bill, I'll stop by!!

Kirk Mantay said...

Jodi - yeah, that caterpillar was making pretty slow work of that parsley. Not moving fast at all!

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