How Does My Garden Grow -August 2013

by: Russ Morash

photography by: Terry Pommett

It’s a struggle to get people to garden, and I ought to know, for I’ve been trying to do so for nearly 50 years.

In 1975 we started to broadcast “The Victory Garden” on PBS. It was based on the simple idea that if we showed people how to garden step by step in real time and could produce a respectable edible harvest of fresh vegetables, viewers might get interested enough to try it themselves. Early on the show became a hit and a book we wrote on the process called “Crockett’s Victory Garden” became a New York Times best-seller.

The original garden was built on a section of the parking lot at WGBH in Boston not far from the Charles River, which had been used years earlier as a municipal dump site for all kinds of junk.

With all that removed, we set forth to build an ideal garden with a greenhouse that became a minor spectacle with the locals and the national TV audience who tuned in every Thursday night to see if the broccoli would head up, if the tomatoes would ripen, and if the pumpkin had turned orange.

They all did, of course, not because of any Hollywood magic but because good gardening was being practiced.

At about the same time as we were having a certain amount of success with “The Victory Garden,” my wife and I were starting our Nantucket journey, when after many years of renting in town we bought a small house overlooking the harbor in Shawkemo. Inspired by the TV garden we were growing in Boston, I hoped to replicate a decent facsimile out here in the poison ivy and Jack pine. Little did I know how many years it would take before I could even come close.

First of all, the native soil was fine for scrub oak and wild grape but absent of any useful organic material introduced plants would need to sustain good growth. I guessed wind-erosion, salt-poisoning and maybe all those sheep that once lived here had reduced the available green matter to almost zero.

There were some thin layers of peat to be found here and there but not enough to matter. I would need lots and lots of good compost to match the beautiful soil we were used to in Boston.

Fifty large bales of Canadian peat would be a quick and extravagant solution but was not in the Yankee playbook. A 30-yard trailer of aged animal manure, if allowed to cure for a year, might work, but there was none available on-island. I could make some myself and promptly proceeded to build a twin-bin composter still in use today that accepts all our green trimmings and can produce about 10 wheelbarrows of “black gold” per year, but not nearly enough to cover the whole garden.

Then I heard of the “free” compost they were giving away at the landfill to homeowners willing to haul it away. So began a 30-year love affair with this humble material which has transformed my poor desert into a fertile plain, the envy of all who see it.
But a thick sheet of compost laid only once on a garden will disappear if not renewed with additional material every year. So it is that once the fall crops are finished we always cover the bare ground with a winter-rye seed which comes up three feet high in a good year before being chopped and tilled under the following spring. This “green manure” builds texture, improves water-retention and adds nutrients to any garden soil. It’s a big benefit at a very low cost.

Another good idea taken from those “Victory Garden” years was raising the garden beds above the pathways to encourage good drainage. It gets the growing surface up a few inches which is easier on the back, and defines the precious growing area from careless footsteps that might compact the soil. We try to never stand on a bed, at least not without a board to spread the weight. So doing might seem like overkill, but the result is a soil that breathes and one that can be more easily watered.

It’s easy enough to create beds by taking soil from the paths and simply spreading it on the beds, not very different from the way real farmers do, but with tractors.
A successful farmer once told me he can manage the water but not the sunshine and both are needed for good results. Fortunately, our garden sits in full sun with only a few scrub oaks strategically left to provide a living beach umbrella for the sun-baked old-timer who gardens there.

Water is delivered by an automatic sprinkling system – a luxury, yes, but one which we’ve found is the most reliable method of getting 15 minutes daily of water to the plants. After years of dragging hoses around, I don’t miss that activity one bit and the results are much better crops.

Ask any gardener what the biggest obstacle to successful growing on Nantucket is and the response will be “the deer.” We have seen them destroy any unfenced garden, even climbing onto our back deck to feast on the containers of herbs. While some folks claim there are “deer-resistant” plants, try dining on lantana when you’re hungry for lettuce, tomatoes and beans. No, you have to fence them out.

But get the soil, the sun, the watering and the fencing under control and vegetable-gardening is not only possible, but a source of enormous pleasure and satisfaction. I love the way a well-tended garden looks with straight rows of edibles promising tasty meals to come. Filling a harvest basket with cukes and pole beans, a few red peppers, a bunch of leeks, maybe a new potato or two and some parsley, it never gets old. And I haven’t even mentioned the good exercise gardening provides.

I’m told there are some gardeners who know how to cook, but I’m not one of those. For that I am completely dependent on my wife Marian, or “Chef Marian” as her TV audience remembers. She wrote “the book” on vegetables and never fails to transform what comes from the garden, although not without some gentle scolding.

“I’ve already made scalloped potatoes, eggplant parmigiana and pickled beets for tonight’s dinner and now you bring me snap beans. I’m going on strike.”

But she rarely does and usually cheerfully takes whatever is ready and makes some incredible meals from it. I’m blessed.

We do try to plan the garden to give us as long a harvest season as possible from early May through Thanksgiving. Restraint is sometimes needed to grow only what we can consume while providing as diverse a collection as we can manage. We’ll use up a 10-footlong row of basil but three zucchini plants are plenty. Thirty well-grown tomatoes are all we’ll use, not 50. Open garden real estate is always at a premium so maybe next year three rows of potatoes will have to do, which means I can increase space for cukes and melons. It’s always a balancing act.

Wherever possible, I like to set out plants I’ve grown from seed. Doing so gives me the varieties I like without simply taking what’s offered at the store. The downside on that is learning how to do it and then maintaining the seedlings until they can go into the open garden without peril. But today, with all the free advice available on the Internet, these obstacles can be overcome and give the novice gardener another milestone to conquer.

Advice is also forthcoming from expert professional and amateur gardeners who are usually only too willing to tell you how they do it. Visit the local farms and get behind the sales desks to see the growing fields, but don’t stop there. Visit outstanding public gardens where vegetables are grown. The best would be The Royal Horticultural Gardens at Wisley, near London, but closer to home we have Colonial Williamsburg, and Sturbridge Village.

Gardening is not an expensive pastime when compared to other activities – golf or boating come to mind – but if you’d like an activity that will keep your mind, body and stomach full of the good things in life, try gardening. ///

Russ Morash is an occasional contributor to The Inquirer and Mirror’s “Gardening by the Sea” column.

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