The soil has been amended and tilled. The smell of freshly worked earth is a turn on to me. I eagerly await the day Mother Nature allows me to create my annual masterpiece, my vegetable gardens. I’ve pretty much designed the layout in my head over the winter, taken into consideration crop rotation patterns. Sitting cross legged in the warm earthiness, I go over the rules as vegetables are a bit like high school girls. Potatoes do not like tomatoes. Potatoes don’t like cucumbers. Do not plant beans with onions or beets (I love me some beets). Beans love carrots. Beets love onions and potatoes. Tomatoes love carrots and peas. Beans and cucumbers are not friends. Carrots and onions do well together. Those are the basics and there are more rules. Sounds complicated, but the rules shape the architecture of the gardens.
Growing up my Dad and six siblings always worked in the yard, my Mom not so much. We had fruit trees, large front and back lawns and beautitul flower beds. Most of us still grow cuttings from the jade plant my Dad planted about 60 years ago. We didn’t grow vegetables though. I grew up in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. Santa Clara County had lots of citrus and vegetable fields. On weekends we would pile in the station wagon, find a field where the farmer allowed locals to pick and keep the fruits and vegetables. We could spend all day filling our buckets with oranges, apples, lemons, plums, cherries (my favorite), veggies, all kinds of legumes and more; eating some on the spot, unwashed; staining our faces, hands and clothes. Eating food fresh off the vine is a spiritual experience. Maybe that’s why I started to grow vegetable gardens fourteen years ago.
Of course, I couldn’t have picked a more challenging place to grow than Montana. I’m a native Northern Californian, transplanted by love to big sky country fourteen years ago. In Cali, you can plant a seed in February, basically spit on it and enjoy its yield in May and pretty much grow through three seasons. Not so for me. Montana’s grow season is generally mid-May through September with several cold weather hiccups thrown in. It is not unusual to have snow in June and hail in August. Oh, and the wind. I live 20+ miles outside of the windiest city (no, it’s not Chicago as everyone thinks) in the United States, so there’s that. The fierce winds sculpt the body of the gardens. The gardens are surrounded by plastic wind stop. Planting corn in the northwestern corner helps to decrease wind damage and to protect the more delicate veggies. Weather.com, The Farmer’s Almanac and the local weather reporter are mostly useless. There can be sunshine, snow and hail in the same day. The temperature can swing 60 degrees in a day. I keep both flip flops and Mucks in my vehicles.
Back to garden preparation. The greenhouse shed is my bestie during the grow season. It’s custom made of heavy corrugated plastic with metal seams secured to a cement pad (built originally to park the fifth wheel) because of the wind, remember? My first greenhouse was of a lighter material which the wind ate for lunch. My current, more sturdy one serves so many purposes. It’s a grow house to start seedings. Since it’s on a cement pad it gets hella hot, so I dry Roma tomatoes for sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil. There is a file cabinet for all the gardening articles I’ve collected over the years. Bamboo sticks to delineate rows, tall poles for tomato plants and sunflowers, plastic borders, metal shorter poles for water hose control (I don’t want to crush plants while watering), a myriad of gardening tools, organic fertilizers, seedling containers, flower pots and bags of potting soil for the flowers on my decks all share the same space. And more stuff. The greenhouse starts off well organized; it’s total chaos by the end of the season. Mid-season, I have to fight to get to the lawn chair in the back corner for a respite.
Putting seeds in dirt is like foreplay. Growing is slow, revealing a little something new each day, build to the climax of delicious edibles. Sowing a tiny bit of dried life into the amniotic soil knowing it will push its way up through to the sun is a miracle. Each seed knows what it is, what it needs to do. Each seed requires special attention. Egg shells benefit this plant, nitrogen another. This one more water, another one less. Coffee gounds make some burst with flavor, others not so much. Prune some leaves to allow more nutrients and sunshine to the vegetable or allow some leaves to grow large to protect those veggies emerging underneath (I’m looking at you zucchini squash). The relationship between plant and grower is symbiotic. The plant needs me to be as fruitful as possible. I need the fruitful vegetable for my sustenence.
Sustenance brings me to the point of this story. I moved to Montana from the San Francisco Bay Area 14 years ago, from business executive to country girl. Moving here has given me a respect for life and Mother Nature even more intense than I had in my liberal but unknowing lifestyle. I see and am in awe of farmers and ranchers who work day and night to put food on our tables. The earth is everything. I eat and share what I grow. If each of us grew just one edible we would be united in supporting growers and protecting Mother Earth. I have a vast appreciation of life and my part in it.
Gardening is labor-intensive, time consuming, some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on, educational and deeply rewarding. I did not include reaping, canning, sun-drying, grinding, processing and storing my yield; or about making sourdough boules and kombucha; that’s all fodder for other stories. My life is crazy and amazingly beautiful and off grid…and I’m a better person for it.