(My) Tangled Garden (1)

The Tangled Garden, J.E.H. MacDonald, 1916, oil on beaverboardJ.E.H. MACDONALD “Tangled Garden”

My garden is probably too large for me to manage on my own, and I’m painfully aware that the garden I hold in mind has fallen short, far short of my own minimal standard of success in each of the last four gardening seasons.

I first time I’ve pushed my spade into to ground in our 100′ x 115′ “Food Security Garden” was in 2018, when we returned to the Valley of the Kettle River in Midway, BC in early July.

The only thing I planted that year were four traumatized tomato plants that I’d ripped out of the brick planter back at our old place. I thrust them into a niche I’d found in the back of the pickup truck, and them the 450 kilometers East about half way across the Southern Mainland of British Columbia to the Boundary region of British Columbia. I should have left them alone.

I thrust the transplants into dusty holes; I flooded them with water from pails. I demanded they grow.

They would have done better had they been planted here in mid to late May after six weeks or so of careful nurturing in a controlled environment. It is very difficult to prevail when the rules change in the middle of the game.

Three of the tomatoes died right away; only one plant made it until the first frost arrived in September. The only home-grown tomato I saw that year yielded a single, yellow flower before it, too, collapsed; it was a passive, silent rebuke to me for being a gardener with the disgusting effrontery to do what I had done to these plants andcall it gardening.

But I knew the potential of this ground because I had gardened there before. In 1990, I had grown some of the best Red Pontiac potatoes I’d ever seen. After weeks of careful nurturing indoors and hardening-off outside, I watched some of the greenest, most vigorous tomato plants I had ever started become established there; — but a late frost on June 12, 1990 took all of them as well.

Results of gardening in 2019 were better than in 2018. How could they have been worse? But the work mandated by the garden itself needed to be neglected in favour of building a perimeter deer fence. A week of cultivation, planting and watering was lost to the work of manually digging about 40 post holes, setting those poles, and stapling not quite 8 feet of fencing wire around the perimeter.

Another challenge was access to water. I knew there had been a proven well on the property, but it hadn’t been called upon to raise water since the turn of the 21st century, and the last time I had used it myself was in 1990. It had been at least half a century old then.

Running power to the well pump would have required either installation of a power pole to support the almost 100 foot span of the main power pole as well as the installation of a dip-service and electricity meter. In the end, In the end we decided to tie in to the village water main at an ongoing cost of at least $240 per year in exchange for a ready, constant supply of high-pressure water to meet the garden’s irrigation needs.

In order to tie-in to the municipal system we needed to provide a 5 foot deep by 30 foot trench which would have cost us about $1500, the estimated cost of a contractor equipped with a back-hoe, so we elected to try to dig the trench by hand instead.

This would be my attempt to wrest a small bit of control for our food supply back from the powers of finance, commerce, marketing and transportation.

Using a ‘Swing shovel’ allows two diggers working cooperatively to dig a long, narrow trench using only human, rather than machine energy. We saved at least CA $1000.00 digging this trench ourselves over the course of one day.

We were amazed at how easy the job of digging a 5 foot deep by 30 foot long trench was. The top 10 or 12 inches consisted of very fine dusty sand. The next 24 inches consisted of a coarser, more densely compacted sand. Both of these layers yielded to the point of the spade very easily.

Below 24 inches, digging required more cooperation between both of us. Digger “A” would take hold of the handle-end of the swing-shovel and aim it at a downward angle where it would bite deeply into the, now gravel-layer at the bottom of the trench. Digger “B”, hold one end of the rubber strap connected to the shovel’s handle just above the shovel-head, would then drag the spade forward until it was loaded. Finally, both diggers would swing their end of the gravel-laden shovel up and out of the trench. Somehow, we devised a system where we could raise and dump a loaded shovelful of gravel onto the ‘tailings pile’ in one coordinated ‘up-and-over’ motion. It was cool.

I realize the material we were digging into functioned as a silent partner in our efforts; it never required more than the odd poke from a pry bar to loosen the aggregated sands and stones. No boulders blocked our digging; no stones larger than a baked potato appeared. This made for easy work. Digging the whole 30 foot trench took us only 4 or five hours. We did most of the work in the morning and were ready to set the water-hydrant and run the waterline to the main in the afternoon. We called the plumber and he stopped by on his way home and connected our lines to the village water main about 5:00 p.m.

Part of My tangled garden in August, 2021: from left to right: Corn, volunteer Sunflowers, fresh weeds atop the compost heap, In the background the newly-installed poly-greenhouse.

All of this water-work happened in March, well before the main part of the 2020 gardening season, so I was pleased to know I wouldn’t have to be carrying water in pails from off site any more. Though expensive and less than ideal, I could use garden hoses and sprinklers instead.

In a future blog post I’ll write more about my tangled garden and the unrelenting struggle of growing food in a way that is both sustainable, reliable and cost-effective. I’ll also write about how I’ve failed to achieve any of these in over the past four growing seasons as well as the rare, but gratifying ‘wins’ I’ve had along the way: things that keep me going.

By Paul David Steer

Wu wei the live-long day.

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