Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Gardening the Hard Way, Part One: The Money Pit

When we moved to our house in Lakeside, we started landscaping the yard. We had two goals: create a yard that is pleasant for us, and do what we can to attract wildlife, being that we're wildlife people. First out of the chute: bird feeders (and, of course, tons of seed over the years; cha-ching). Then, grass was planted (cha-ching), mostly to keep our dog from tracking in mud and dirt, but it's also pretty when summer comes. It required an extensive underground sprinkler system (cha-CHING), weekly mowing, and all those suburbia-life things that go with having a lawn. We also planted flowers; lots of annuals to begin with, and then Bruce started in on building flower beds; lots of them. So perennials went in (trial and error showed us what works and what doesn't). After flowers and flower beds, it was a short leap to putting in water features (cha-CHING) like a pond and a barrel fountain. Which require extensive cleaning from algae buildup; plus sometimes the pump needs repairing from the raccoons that come in at night and think the pump is a vibrating crayfish or something, pull it out, and leave it out of the pond, where it struggles like a fish out of water. But we want wildlife, we tell ourselves. Whatever we're doing, it's working, and I will soon do a blog entry on our wildlife escapades.

Lovely! Rewarding! Wildlife welcome!
So we've figured out the flower gig. A few years ago, we planted a cherry tomato plant. One cherry tomato plant. After one season with lots of cherry tomatoes, we were hooked. WE MUST GARDEN. We did flowers OK, right?

Well, gardening for vegetables in the White Mountains of Arizona is a totally different ballgame. We live at 7,000' elevation (think of it as 2,000' higher than Denver) in a lower latitude than most of the country. And, we're in the middle of a forest, without alot of sunny, open spots. It's a hard place to grow anything because:

1) We experience freezing temperatures well into May. Memorial Day is usually the "safe" date to start planting, but one year we got two feet of snow over that weekend. It also starts to freeze early, around mid-October, so we have a very short growing season. Lots of green tomatoes at the end of the year.

2) At our elevation, there is less oxygen. That means it gets cold at night easier--I don't honestly think there's been one summer night since I've lived here that I haven't had to at least put on pants and a coverup sweater/jacket at night. This affects the growth rate of our veggies.

3) At our latitude, we don't get the tremendous amounts of daylight that places like Alaska, or even my home state of Minnesota, get. So, we don't get those huge cabbages like people in Anchorage get (I've seen those puppies).

So why bother? Why get into the vegetable thing, when there's a new local Farmer's Market? The answers: I don't know. It's something to do. We like homegrown tomatoes.

And it's the tomato thing that got us. After that first Year of the Cherry Tomato, we planted four tomato plants. It worked again, but we did notice that there were tons of green tomatoes that we tried to save before the first frost. So last year, we wanted to be able to get our tomatoes going earlier. We tried a few of those hanging upside-down thingies (a waste of cha-ching), figuring we could plant those early, and take them in at night to our shed or garage to keep them from freezing. That worked until we got a hard freeze in May, and the shed where they were hanging froze all the way through and they all died. We had to start again and managed to get a few tomatoes, some zucchini, some green beans, and I think one actual snap pea (not the plant, just a total of one pea pod was produced from six snap pea plants) to grow.

Now, it's more the challenge and the principle of the thing that spurs us along. However, my husband isn't one to do something halfway. If we're going to do it, let's do it.

Water barrels in our backyard
First step: start planning a year in advance. That's good. Idea: let's put in some rainwater harvesting barrel systems on our roof and the roof of our shed (CHA-CHING). We have to do it in the fall to be ready to catch any spring moisture. Then, we located where we wanted our garden--this little itty bitty grassy area that seems to catch more sun than anywhere else.

Here are two of them; we actually have four:

Such a simple picture: raised beds. Well, that was a few weekends of work for Bruce. Leveling the ground, constructing the beds, getting piles of dirt, manure, mulch, etc. delivered because our native soil is lousy for growing vegetables. Oh, and they had to be evenly spaced apart, lined up exactly, leveled, and basically perfect.

Can you not see the dollar signs on this project growing (cha-ching)? Well, we can.

Speaking of dollar signs, the above description of just getting the beds ready didn't take into account the seeds, the germination trays, little peat pots for the germinated seeds--oh, and the stuff that didn't work, like one germination tray (we got three green bean shoots out of 55 holes) that we bought for $40 because it had soil plugs all ready to go. Oh, and the fence that we're going to have to erect to keep the wildlife out (yes, the very same wildlife we try to attract in the other parts of our yard). And the starter tomatoes we're going to have to buy.

Three little shoots out of what, 55?

This is just the beginning. I have no idea what's going to happen once we get plants in the ground. Will we get snow the day after we plant? Will the rains come in July and fill up our rain barrels, or will we have a dry monsoon season like we seem to always have? Will we have at least one dinner with fresh steamed green beans and sliced tomatoes? All are possibilities.

Why are we doing this? Because it's a part of life, I guess. Experimenting with something new to keep our life interesting and eventful. If worse comes to worse, I can at least sit by our pond and ponder the meaning of life. Or drink a glass of wine.

Stay tuned for Gardening the Hard Way, Part Two: Fish Guts, Cow Poop, and Seeds

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