How to adopt a garden

by Ari LeVaux




The pioneer archetype looms large in the West. Strong and largely fictional, this heroic frontiersman delivered a calf at midnight in the blowing snow, mended fence all day and still had time to ride home into the sunset.

Yet while one pioneer tended the herd, you can bet another was tending the garden, making applesauce, shelling peas, and raising hens, activities just as gritty and heroic. Indeed, the garden is every inch the elemental battleground as a cattle range. You’re out there, exposed to the elements, growing enough food to survive the winter.

In my romanticized version of this myth, vertical integration is key. Building your house is good, but even better if you felled the trees and peeled the logs. In this spirit, I’ve always made it a point to grow my garden from seed.

My wintertime seed-ordering ritual involves getting cozy with a cup of tea and a stack of catalogs. I read the descriptions of the various plants, plan my garden and dream of summer. But things get serious when raising seedlings, because it’s not enough to be pretty good; even a B+ amounts to a failing grade.

Any number of factors can cause the little plants to get stressed, which will set them back days, weeks, months or forever. Too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold, too bright, too dim -- any of these circumstances can hurt plants. Once they lose their momentum, it’s nearly impossible to catch up. A plant, a tomato, say, that’s behind the eight ball when you put it in the ground might be too small to bear much fruit when summer hits. Maybe you’ll get a few tomatoes, but not what you need to survive the winter. A well-developed plant will hit the dirt running.

Clearly, if you want a fantastic August, you need a perfect March. And if you don’t have a perfect March, you’re better off buying starts from someone who did. Last year my seedlings lived like orphans bouncing around foster homes. They started in the basement under grow lights, moved in front of a big window when the days were long enough, and once in a while the trays spent an afternoon outside for some fresh air. Finally, they went to the greenhouse, where cold nights, hot days and erratic watering slammed the starts into survival mode. They survived but they did not thrive -- a condition exacerbated by store-bought potting soil. But it’s a poor workman who blames his tools. A real pioneer, of course, or a real farmer, would have made his own potting soil.

Every spring when the farmers’ market opens, I come face-to-face with plants raised in stable homes by growers who really know what they’re doing. It’s humiliating, and it’s instructive.

On paper, it makes questionable financial sense to buy starts at the market, where one plant might cost more than a whole packet of seeds. I’ve fallen prey to this logic for years. I’ve even clung to this failed logic to the point where I’ve put my sorry plants in the ground anyway, just about dooming my garden.

So this year I’m going to restrain my pioneer impulses and buy my starts from the experts. Instead of wasting time and money what could be a romantic exercise in futility, I’m going to make my garden into the best home possible for the starts I bring home from the market.

In plugging into my local economy this way, I’m embracing my community, with warm and fuzzy paybacks like the relationship that can develop between the gardener and the greenhouse whiz. Imagine knowing that all across town, people have planted the starts you raised. It’s like they’re raising your children. “You get updates all summer long,” says one farmer friend. “They’ll say things like, ‘That Sungold tomato plant you sold us; the tomatoes taste like candy!’”

So, while being a go-it-alone pioneer is a cool concept, being a player in a vital community is even cooler. And instead of studying seed catalogs, I’ll be scheming about the drip irrigation system I’m installing this spring. I want it to be water-wise, easy to manage and ready to go when I bring home my adopted garden.

Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a syndicated food columnist who lives in Missoula, Montana. © High Country News