Friday, July 31, 2009

This Ain’t Eden

Reflections on a Vegetable Garden Part 1

We’ve had gardens in the past – small ones, usually with too many vegetables packed into too small a space. With the demands of kids and work, we often neglected them terribly, sometimes going for days without even watering them. Weeding, thinning and other more tedious chores were entirely ignored. Naturally, the harvest was pitifully small, both in quantity and in the physical aspect of the vegetables themselves. We’d get a few handfuls of lettuce, some minuscule beets and carrots too small even to be called “baby,” and pretty much everything else would fail entirely. As it should – a garden is not an automated process for most growers.

This year, we knew that I’d most likely be home through the Spring and Summer at the very least. We decided it was time to do a garden “right.” We sketched a layout on graph paper, considering the recommended planting patterns for each species along with how much of it we thought we’d want. We even accounted for the sump pump’s pipe that runs just below the surface in our back yard, leaving a path over where it ran. We bought fencing. Our neighborhood is rife with rabbits, as well as the occasional raccoon, possum, groundhog and skunk. Then we got to work.

The first chore was to remove the sod. It’s thick and dense and often appears to be about 80% weeds, which meant that we couldn’t just expect to throw some dirt on top of the grass and have the plants thrive. On the other hand, its compact, fibrous nature did make it possible to roll up and remove in chunks once we got the hang of it. There were plenty of spots in the yard that needed to be grassed over in a bad way, not the least of which being the back hill, where ivy and assorted weeds have been steadily encroaching on the lawn ever since I turned the job of mowing it over to hired hands. I used to mow more aggressively back there than they do, so the ground-cover is winning. Was winning, anyway. Several dozen square feet of sod did a nice job of fighting back against the oncoming green, leafy horde.

Removing the sod was back-breaking work and my first acquaintance with serious manual labor in a very long time. It took us several hours a day for weeks to get it all dug up, and this is just for a 21’ x 10’ plot. It wasn’t the digging alone that was hard, or even the moving of the sod and dumping it someplace else, though it was pretty heavy. It was also the chore of trying not to take any more soil along than minimally necessary, both because it made the sod sit funny when I laid it back down, and because we needed all the dirt we could get. We live in a town named Clay, and I doubt it’s named that because some popular fellow named Clay suggested it would be a dandy place for a town. Rather, the entire area seems to be deeply covered in a reddish-orange clay which is difficult to dig through and, I’m sure, impossible to grow anything in. Though if I ever decide to take up pottery… I’m sure it will be the wrong kind of clay for that, too. It’s just useless and annoying – there’s no upside to it. We have a thin layer of topsoil over this clay, not enough that I wanted to waste any.

After we’d removed all of the sod and assembled a fence on two sides (leaving the others open for access until construction was complete), the next chore was to buy some decent topsoil. I picked up six or eight bags at Loews and brought them home, because, after all, that was way easier than doing the math to calculate how much I’d actually need. More on that in a moment.

The bags looked pitifully small sitting there in the bare garden. Opening them up and disbursing their contents didn’t help much. It was immediately clear that I had a small fraction of the amount I truly needed. The result was nearly catastrophic.

Ok, I'll admit that math's not really my thing and never has been. Given sufficient time, I can always figure out what I need to calculate, but any arithmetic problem that I don't solve routinely is going to need some concentration and preferably a pencil & paper or even a calculator. This is just background info for the tale that follows.

We went to a nearby garden store where, it was evident, nobody has EVER tried to purchase topsoil in anything but cubic yards. I had calculated that I needed the equivalent of 50 bags of topsoil. The bags are each one cubic foot of dirt, or 40 lbs. So, at the garden store, I said I needed 50 cubic feet of topsoil. The woman reached for a calculator and said, "Hmm, what's that then?" and began to calculate. At this point, I saw the sign on the wall that listed prices of various goods sold by volume, all in cubic yards, and was able to deduce that she was attempting to convert my needs into that measurement. "So, let's see, we'd need to multiply by three?" she says. Now like I said, I'm no mathematician, but I'm quick enough to know that if I need 50 cubic feet of dirt, I certainly don't need 150 cubic yards. But I'm caught off-guard. I don't think I've converted cubic feet to yards since high school. Maybe middle school. It just hasn't come up for me, and I wasn't prepared. Plus, there were people waiting behind us and it was clear this was going to take a while.

Anxious to get as far away from the number 150 as possible, I respond "I'd think you'd have to at least divide by 3, not multiply." And I'm thinking Don't you do this sort of thing all the time?? So a quick calculation comes up with 16 cubic yards. She's going pretty fast and my mind’s awhirl with attempts to respond to her and somehow address the nagging feeling in my head that we've made a horrible error in our calculations.

Meanwhile, she's on the phone with their delivery guy, trying to figure out how to deliver 16 cubic yards of dirt to my house, asking me questions like "Can your driveway handle a full-sized dump truck? Otherwise we'll have to charge you four delivery fees and use our smaller delivery truck, because it can only hold 4 cubic yards."

A dump-truck? Four truckloads? My head is spinning. This feels wrong! I'm thinking 50 bags of topsoil could easily fit in their delivery truck (which is parked outside - she pointed to it). I'm thinking that at $30/cubic yard, I'm about to spend $500 on dirt, which vastly exceeds what I'd expected to pay if I just went to Loews and bought 50 bags. I'm thinking all of this while she continues to toss questions at me, constantly breaking my already feeble concentration.

I need a TIME OUT!!

I suggest that she wait on the folks behind me while my wife and I discuss the delivery. I drag my wife away from entertaining my 5-year-old to help me figure out what the hell is going on here. We start mapping out an imaginary Visio diagram of cubic feet stacking up inside a cubic yard, and we immediately find the error. We need not 16 cubic yards, but a mere 2. In fact, 16 cubic yards, assuming that the effort of carting it around didn't kill us, would probably be enough to cover our entire back yard in a foot of topsoil.

We buy our dirt, arrange delivery, and head for home, chuckling the whole way at the vision of a full-sized dump truck backing into our driveway and blocking both of our cars in the garage behind a mountain of dirt.

So kids, learn your math!

It takes us one more sweaty, dusty, crotchety afternoon to haul the pile of dirt out back and spread it evenly over the garden plot. I get mild hyperthermia and upchuck my lunch, which was a lot of fun. The next day I assembled the remaining pieces of fence, spread out the bark chips on the walkways, and fight with my wife over how best to implement a gate. Since the fence is only about three-feet high and my wife’s legs are about twelve feet long, she doesn’t see the need for a gate at all. She’d prefer to just stride over it as if it’s not even there, like some suburban Goliath. I’m David, though. I need a gate. I spend $120 buying supplies to build one. It’s not working – I need about another $50 in supplies. She goes out and buys $90 in gate pieces and we put that up. It doesn’t quite work, either, if by “working” you mean “the two pieces of the gate line up and close properly when you shut it.” But it was in and done, and most of what I’d bought could be returned. We built a planter out of the pieces that were left over. It’s the sort of planter you’d expect to get if you asked Lenny from Of Mice and Men to train a chimpanzee to do woodworking, then gave the chimpanzee all the wrong tools and some 4x4 fence posts. But I digress.

We now have an expanse of dirt, some neatly-manicured wood-chip walkways, a supposedly-rabbit-proof fence (to which I added some chicken wire after watching a bunny hop through the fencing) and a gate that kind of closes. Total cost so far: around $250. This after umpteen segments on Good Morning America about how much money you could save on vegetables if you had your own garden. Yeah, bullshit. It’d take us probably five years to go through $250 worth of fresh vegetables. I guess we should have planted fruit trees instead. Can you grow bananas in Syracuse? Anyway, the garden is in many ways an end in and of itself – I never really expected it to be a big money-saver for us, though I suppose there might be an ROI at some point, years in the future.

Meanwhile, there are seedlings taking over my library. The poor, poor seedlings. They were my first taste of true fear.

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