“I want my own patch!” Angus said every spring. “I am going to have carrots, lots of carrots. They’ll be mine.”
“Me, too,” my other son, Charles, would chime in. “But I am going to have lots of vegetables, like tomatoes and radishes.”
Every May we stand, looking at six raised beds in a part of the yard that was a driveway when we bought the house. The first thing we did that April, 1996, was move the 10-foot-high arborvitae hedge that ran between a little garage and the house to the far side of the driveway, to create a sheltered, south-facing spot for a vegetable garden.
To the excitement of two boys, five and eight, the man who moved the hedge came to Middlebury all the way from Newport, Vermont, hauling a goose-necked trailer on which perched a Bobcat with a cone-shaped tree digger on the front. As the driver settled into the cab to drive the rig off the trailer, loud music suddenly erupted from two speakers on the side of the Bobcat.
“What’s that?” yelled the boys. “I like to work to music,” the driver shouted, as Puccini’s “Tosca” poured forth, each aria soaring above the houses in the neighborhood as the machine twirled back and forth across the driveway, first toward the hedge, digging down four feet, precisely, delicately, then scooping the tall green columns up, one at a time, each with a cone shaped root ball below, then dancing across the gravel to settle the cones gently into the ground at their new site.
Three hours later, it was suddenly quiet, the hedge was moved and we had a place in which to build our raised beds.
“We’ll have many patches to share — for all of us. Which part do you want to plant?” I asked.
This was where I had been planning to garden with my sons. Young children love the magic of putting seeds into the ground and waiting to see what comes up; they know it is a miracle without our telling them. Beans bust out of the soil quickly and twirl up posts. Baby carrots and radishes can be plucked out of the ground, wiped off with fingers and eaten on the spot. Peas pop out of pods. Zucchini turn into baseball bats. In late August, there’s corn to be husked, picked only just as water comes to a boil.
As a child, I spent hours in our vegetable garden in Connecticut, planting the seeds in late May, weeding beside my mother (or lying on my back, looking up at the clouds), or running down to pick the corn when she put the water on to boil. We had been loaned a patch of dirt in what had been an estate garden for the grand mansion next door, now occupied by a very old widow. Ringed with fruit trees, the ghost of a semicircular kitchen garden was fenced with grape vines and long rows of dipping yellow lilies. The remnants of four huge beds sprawled, separated by wide grass paths with an old well in the middle, then filled with stones. One of the beds was filled with a forest of asparagus fronds, but at age five, when we first went to plant, I didn’t know what asparagus was.
In a yard as small as ours on South Street, raised beds are the way to go. Drainage, vital for healthy plants, is good. You can plant many more plants in a raised bed than in a flat garden. It is easier to tend because of the height. And you can organize the soils and the plants by variously amending the soils in the different beds depending on what you plant.
We planned the dimensions and lay out of the beds on graph paper. I needed to be able to reach the plants easily without walking on the soil so it would not be compacted. Then, after plotting out the beds with measuring tape and string, we dug down 12 – 15 inches in each rectangle, removing either gravel from the old driveway, or sod from the former lawn. We nailed together rough-cut fir boards for the sides, 2 X 12’s, 7 and 8 feet long, from K & B Lumber in Bridport, and placed the rectangles on the ground. We shoveled topsoil, delivered from Green Haven Nursery, into the four (now seemingly enormous) holes. Then we top-dressed the beds with composted sheep manure from Alden Harwood’s farm in Addison.
We top-dress the beds every year with ground up leaves from our yard, compost from the kitchen along with garden clippings. We also add ashes from the woodstove from time to time, or lime to sweeten the soil. We added sand to the bed designated for herbs, many of which prefer somewhat less rich soil.
That first year garden, fifteen years ago, was miraculous. There were no pests, no rodents, no bugs, no woodchuck (they all arrived the second year) — the garden was new, and the word had not gotten out. The amount of produce, using a square foot gardening system, was astonishing.
The boys are no longer home, come planting time. But Charles, who is studying ethno-botany, planted seeds this winter inside his college’s greenhouse. He rang up the other day to say he’d just plucked a couple fresh radishes out of the soil on his way to class.