By: Kristin MacLeod
Recently I took a trip to Baltimore, Maryland. This is the city of my childhood, a city of many of my firsts—first food, first steps, first school. But it is not the city of my first garden. No, only Asheville holds that honor.
I suppose that isn’t entirely true. My sister and I did plant corn, once, in our backyard. One tall, skinny stalk grew. Eventually it drooped limply to one side. Needless to say, we never smothered any ears in butter from that crop.
While visiting Baltimore, I stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house. I came bearing a baby hibiscus plant.
“That won’t last long,” my uncle said. “Brown-thumb Bonita over here.” He gestured to my aunt.
“It’s true,” she confided.
“But, your deck,” I went on, “It gets so much light! It’s the perfect place for a number of wonderful container gardens. You could even propagate plants out there on that worktable. You could even sell the starts—for money!”
“No,” my uncle said. “Plants are stupid.”
Plants are stupid?
They might be quiet, but they’re definitely not stupid. Plants are generous, giving, resilient, strong, beautiful, magical.
“I’m just curious,” I asked, “what you think is not stupid?”
“Football,” he replied plainly.
Does football feed the nation?
I had some beverages with some of my old friends in Baltimore.
“I’m a farmer,” I said sunnily.
“A farmer…” they said, both with interest and skepticism, as if they wanted me to have a cheek full of chaw, overalls, and a piece of hay sticking out of my mouth.
“Is that what you do for a living?” someone asked.
Well, no. But it certainly fed my living, quite literally and seasonally.
I went on to list some of the crops we were attempting this year: potatoes, tomatoes, mesclun mix, kale, lettuce, edible flowers, lima beans, corn, squash.
“You know,” a friend mused, “People keep telling me I should be a gardener.”
“You should!” I replied enthusiastically
It seemed like I was on a crusade to turn everyone into a gardener. This was because I was of the belief that gardeners are made, not born.
My husband and I first began our adventures in gardening here in Asheville with an ambitious container garden on our deck. It was a collaborative effort, surely, but back then I was still in the “I don’t like to get dirt under my fingernails” phase
Then, through a twist of fate, we moved to an old farmhouse on a beautiful parcel of open land with ample space for gardens—and we became obsessed.
This was roundabout the time I refer to as “The Year of the Lasagna Garden,” which was when I also penned an entry in my journal entitled: “Why I Hate Gardening.” What?! I know: aren’t you so accustomed to people waxing lyrical about the miraculousness of seeds and the peaceful serenity of gardening?
A lasagna garden is not a garden that grows stuff for lasagna. Rather, it is a technique developed by Patricia Lanza (who I came to know through my reading as Patricia Lasagna), involving layering organic matter—many, many types of organic matter. My eyes lit up when I saw the acceptable list of materials. I was living on an organic matter goldmine
Lanza’s book, Lasagna Gardening, listed a number of praises for the technique on the back of the book and in the introduction. In fact, someone even called Patricia Lanza a genius. I eyed that dubiously. I didn’t want to use a method for or by geniuses. No, I wanted a method that was for really, really dumb people.
Still, I got to work. Step One: lay down a layer of cardboard.
I arranged some flattened boxes in a rectangle, and watered them prodigiously. This was the base for the garden. The cardboard would kill the weeds and eventually break down.
Step two: find some organic matter. I went organic-matter-crazy. Leaves, cow manure, sawdust, wood ash, forest litter, sand, compost, mushroom compost, horse manure, straw, grass clippings, peat moss. I was hauling much of this from all over the neighborhood.
I had visions, too, for these lasagna gardens: lettuces like emeralds; myself, attractively weathered, in a fashionable straw hat, holding a perfect bunch of carrots by their feathery green tops. But, when I wielded the hose to water the final top layers, which consisted of pricey peat moss from Lowe’s, the water beaded and pooled on the surface. The stuff was impervious to water. To placate my nervousness, I pre-germinated some peas in a wet paper towel. A few days later, they looked like adorable little sperm. I popped them in the ground with high hopes.
“Do you think it’s going to work?” I asked a friend. (I asked that question a million times to a million different people during those nascent stages.)
“Sure,” he replied.
“I mean,” I said somewhat desperately, “I just want it to be really good, you know?”
“Ahhh,” he said sagaciously, “Ambition. It does not belong in the garden.”
I looked at him archly. Who did he think he was? The Buddha?
Gardening was not drawing my husband and I closer together. We were not quietly hoeing side by side. Instead, we argued, namely because of my intense, analytical nature and non-stop questions. Every day the litany went something like this: I wonder: are the birds eating the seeds? Is the soil too acidic? Too alkaline? Did it rain too much? How do onions grow if not from seed? These questions came from the same person who raised her hand at the Buncombe County Cooperative Extension Spring Gardening School and asked, “What exactly does work the soil mean?”
Days passed, then weeks. None of the seeds I planted grew. The cabbage transplants had burnt-looking leaves and the pea shoots looked like H-E-double hockey sticks. Apparently, the dirt I created was a toxic mass.
“Doesn’t hard work equal success?” I moaned to another friend.
“Not necessarily,” they said.
Why was everyone wiser than I ?
I was prepared to write a very nasty letter to Patricia Lasagna. I followed her instructions to the best of my ability, expended time, energy, and money in the expectation of a garden, not a barren wasteland. God must’ve taken pity on me because it was during this time he sent me a garden mentor, Susan Mallard, who owns and operates Blue Heron Farms.
“So, I planted radishes and they’re not growing,” I said to Susan.
“Ok,” Susan said, “You might have a problem. Radishes are pretty easy.”
“Do you think adding two five-gallon buckets of ash from the fire pit was a good idea?”
Susan looked at me like I was crazy. “Probably not,” she said
So, at home, I had a hissy fit of sorts. I dismantled all but one lasagna garden, heaving the infamous “organic matter” onto the compost pile. The first layer of cardboard was already beginning to break down, and I peeled back what remained only to find hundreds upon hundreds of wriggling, bucking bronco worms. The old me would’ve shrieked, but the new me looked on with fascination. You know you’ve become a gardener when you see worms and you think to yourself: jackpot. Those worms worked hard to break down the dirt and the cardboard. A major key to healthy soil, they aided immensely in the decomposition process. And, between the cardboard and the worms, I was left with a rectangle of weed-free, nearly crumbly dirt, ready to plant again. Suddenly, Lloyd and Harry’s idea in the movie Dumb & Dumber, to have a store called “I Got Worms,” didn’t seem so dumb any more.
One year later, the one lasagna garden I left standing hosted a healthy, expansive strawberry patch and some very minty mint. What originally was lacking in my lasagna garden was this: patience. The organic matter needed time to break down.
A garden is an ever-changing experiment and a green bed of endless knowledge. They are dynamic, mutable places where there is always something to be done or learned. Just as there are many different people with different homes, families, lifestyles, and beliefs, so too are there many different ways to have a garden and be a gardener. Gardens are not prescriptive; they are open to interpretation. They can be anything we want them to be.
Every year a garden is different: different plants, seeds, soil composition, and that great big variable that is the weather. We can plant the seeds and work the soil, but when it comes to the sun and rain all we can do is pray.
I don’t believe in phrases like ‘brown-thumb’ because anyone can grow or care for plants. They are beings that respond well to quiet observation, minimal nurturing, and they are fairly forgiving in that they want to grow, they want to thrive. It is really their main purpose.
Perhaps many people are hesitant to begin because of a need to be “perfect.” I say this: shake off the intimidation. No person, no garden is ever “perfect.” The word itself derives from the Latin meaning “complete.” It is completely okay to make mistakes. This is a part of learning. A fine example: for three years I attempted to start seeds indoors. Every year it was the same story: tiny, leggy seedlings that, shortly after sprouting, croaked. It was only after three suggestions were made and implemented that my attempts became successes. 1.) A seedling-heating mat was used to heat the flat from the bottom, thus aiding in germination and root growth. 2.) A fluorescent light was used to supplement natural sunlight. And 3.) A plastic cover, to keep moisture in, was used over the germinating flat. The book of gardening is long. But the sharing of both the fruits and the efforts is necessary for our growth, too.
This year my mantra was: I did what I could do. I made one wish, that our garden would be a bountiful one. So far it is. I’ve seen this in the bright red heads of the poppies, in the neon green curl of the lettuce, and the long hill of potato plants.
My husband’s friend said something like this a while back: I’m thirty now, if I live to be eighty that means I only have fifty tries left for a garden.
He’s right. So we all need to get started. Now.
Kristin MacLeod enjoys growing a variety of things. She is a graduate of Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia, and is available for freelance writing.