Mighty things are grown from a single tiny seed – including nascent gardeners
One of my garden-writing friends, Rosalind Creasy of Los Altos, once told me she thought that within all people there is a “seed” that can transform them into gardeners, given the proper environment.
There they are, showing little or no interest in gardening and “POOF,” they’re suddenly reading the fine print in the Peaceful Valley Farm Supply catalog and moving among flats of vegetable seedlings at the nursery with the same interest and reverence they once paid to jewelry or fancy automobiles.
Take my friend Dick Etlinger, for example. A retired attorney in his “senior hood” with a specialty in music law, a whitewater canoeing enthusiast, an avid horseman … all of a sudden he’s talking about compost, comparing the performance of “Ace” versus “Early Girl” tomatoes, and constantly seeking advice on what to plant next, when, how many, how deep … and on and on.
And it happened all of a sudden. One day his favorite reading material was “The Chronicle of the Horse” and the next it was the back of a Burpee seed packet. “I love GOOD tomatoes,” he says, “not the plastic kind you get in supermarkets. So with the help of a dear friend who helps me when I need it, we built the beds and I decided to throw some seeds in the ground, plant some seedlings and see what comes up. It was really a lark.
“I read a lot about gardening,” he admits, “and obviously the answer is to read as much as possible. And the UC Master Gardeners who staff the telephone at the Cooperative Extension office have been very helpful with my questions. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that if you’ve got good soil, you’ll get good production.”
The soil that fills the two 9-by-35-foot raised beds (2 feet tall) at Etlinger’s home on Havlan Lane in the south county came specially blended from The Soil Broker on Wolf Road. When I first went to inspect the garden in late spring, I was impressed to find his tomato plants were easily half again the size of ours. And they’ve kept that advantage, but it’s hard to see that on two of them, because their sheer weight caused two of the four sturdy wire cages to topple over.
“I had no idea they’d get so big,” Etlinger says, laughing. “Next year I’ll reinforce the cages.”
As it is with many first-time gardeners, pests have been forgiving. Etlinger says he hasn’t seen any tomato horn worms thus far, and while there are gophers active around the outside of the beds, they don’t seem to have penetrated the hardware cloth placed on the bottom of the beds. Plus, the numerous deer on his property have yet to clear the 8-foot wire fence that surrounds the garden. Irrigation is by the drip method, on timers, hooked up to soaker “tape.”
But all is not perfect, by any means. Etlinger got over zealous in planting cucumbers and now has a score of very large yellow fruits (“I let them go too long. That’s one of the things you learn about, when to pick and how long to leave them in,” he nods) lying amidst declining vines; the basil that he planted for culinary uses has flourished to such a degree that he could supply all of Northern Italy, and then there’s the disappearing potatoes.
“The potatoes are in there somewhere,” he insists, “but they got overwhelmed with all the other things. I just can’t find them. I made the mistake of putting plants too close together and putting in too many plants! My sweet peppers are really nice, from just two plants, but the cucumbers proliferated incredibly from seed, exceeding all my expectations. And I didn’t put in enough broccoli this year.
“The same goes for spinach, and although I planted asparagus, I don’t think they made it. I had some very nice beets, but the radishes got pretty fiery. And I put in my lettuce too late, so it bolted pretty fast.”
Etlinger admits with a laugh that his vegetable garden has not been an economic model thus far: “Of course, being single, I can’t eat all of this, and when I try to amortize all the costs, including the fencing, the beds, the tools, fertilizers (including all-important rock phosphate for foothill soil), the plants, I’d estimate each one of my wonderful tomatoes costs only about $42. Which I think is a bargain, don’t you?”
Naturally, a compost pile holds an important role in Etlinger’s garden, and he plans on recycling all of the dead tomato, cucumber, squash and other vines there once production comes to a halt.
And then? On to a winter garden. He’s reading all about it: “Next season I’ll have fewer varieties of just the things I really enjoy. I’m thinking of planting corn next summer, but I don’t think I’ll plant cherry tomatoes again. There are too many little things to pick. It seems like a lot of effort for what you get.”
The seed has sprouted. A gardener is born.
“By next year,” he says, smiling, “maybe I can get the per-tomato cost down to $38.”
Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, Master Gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
Need help with a gardening question? The UC Master Gardeners for Placer and Nevada counties are excellent at diagnosing problems and supplying free information on a wide variety of topics. They are located at Cooperative Extension, DeWitt Center, 11477 E. Ave., Auburn 95603.
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