The garden party

I brave the boisterous winds of March as cheerfully as the daffodils appear to; I wield my trowel with gratitude and glee. Another spring has cycled round, and with it comes another garden season.

When I first began learning how to make vegetable gardens without using pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers 20 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined how profoundly addicted I would become to my gardens and to the beautiful, delicious and nourishing leaves, roots and fruits that grow in them. I didn’t have a clue how therapeutic it could be to dance in harmony with natural systems and cycles; how entertaining to experience nature (myself included) as a vast web of relationships and interactions; how my creativity would flourish in my own back yard; or how downright interesting soil stewardship could be. Best of all, my young granddaughter, Ivy Rose, has proved to be as smitten as I am with organic gardening. Admittedly it has its frustrations, hardships and rainy days, but for us, it’s mostly great fun, an ongoing social occasion. Each spring, we feel like co-hostesses (together with the plants themselves) of yet another extended garden party.

The guests of honor at these gatherings are the decomposers — multitudes of invisible microorganisms, worms and sundry other soil alchemists who do their nutrient-recycling dance beneath the surface of the garden, transforming dead matter into humus (a plant banquet).

“Fertile soil is alive,” declares my granddaughter, waving a trowelful under the nose of her friend Shane (who recently helped us plant spring seeds). “There are billions of micros in a teaspoon of it.” Even at root level, the party rocks.

Above-ground energy systems are every bit as rollicking, but most party-cipants are more colorful, more visible and a whole lot larger. Getting better acquainted with the venerable vegetable-and-herb families — the brassicas, alliums, nightshades, goosefeet, cucurbits, umbelliferae and legumes; the sages, mints and comfreys — is as interesting to me as learning the histories, quirks, likes and dislikes of people. Some individuals just don’t fit in (and so don’t get an invite to the next year’s bash). Others become regulars: Cherokee and Roma tomatoes, Jimmy Nardello peppers, Tango and Simpson lettuce, French Breakfast radishes, Emerite pole beans, Inchellium garlic, lemon verbena, arugula, borage. The plants, in turn, invite birds, insects (in various stages of development) and mammals to the party. Some of them enliven the gathering; others just make trouble. Meanwhile, seasonal waves of flowers — the beautiful people — mix and mingle with the herbs and vegetables.

It’s a motley crew, to be sure. But variety is the spice of life for organic garden parties. A famous example of “polyculture” is the widespread Native American practice of growing corn, pole beans, and either pumpkins, gourds or squash together in the same plot. This companion planting, called the “Three Sisters” by the Iroquois people, is mutually beneficial to all three crops. The corn supports the beans; the legumes help fertilize the corn, and the prickly cucurbits, planted around the corn patch, discourage raccoon party crashers, prevent erosion, suppress weed growth, and attract beneficial insects. Corn yields are up to 50 per cent higher in a Three Sisters ecosystem.

Sustainable garden parties require an ever-deepening understanding of one’s particular eco-niche — its cycles, temperature ranges, soil types, frost dates, native plants (a.k.a. weeds), critters and weather; knowledge that, hopefully, is passed on and accumulates over generations.

My own garden parties are tucked away in a cove at an elevation of 2,500 feet in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Southern Appalachian temperate rain forest, where you can keep the party going through three seasons. I plant my last crop of the year — garlic — around Thanksgiving. And with the help of floating row covers or a greenhouse, many local gardeners carry on right through the winter (my own cove, however, grows too dark to do more than protect a little lettuce and some spinach, kale and onions that will mature in early spring). Besides, by the end of November, I’m ready for an intermission. Like the oaks, hickories and poplars that serve as a windbreak for my garden, I too need a dormant season. It’s a time to reflect and evaluate, a time when Ivy Rose and I can put our heads together over the seed catalogs and begin planning next year’s party.

And before we know it, March has arrived, along with packages of magic seeds. The days have lengthened, and once again we’re deep in party preparations: shaping up the sunken, lumpy beds; raking off the hay mulch to warm the soil; yanking the first weeds. Then the revels can begin. This year’s selection of tomatoes and peppers — planted in recycled cell packs on days when the early-March weather proved too unruly for us to work outdoors — germinates on sunny windowsills, prompting Ivy Rose to remark that the garden party is really an ongoing re-birthday celebration.

This is also the month when we harvest the first salads from those few, fall crops, adding young, tender, perennial herbs and wild greens — chives, sorrel, lovage, chickweed and dandelion. “Spring-tonic salads,” Ivy Rose calls them. On balmier days, we sow peas, more lettuces, spinach and onion sets, turnip, broccoli, bok choy and cilantro. We fertilize the garlic (now virtually leaping out of the dark earth) and turn the compost, having let it mellow over the winter. And while we work, we look, listen, sniff, nibble, point and smile. Early songbirds sound their notes, and the first wave of “decorations” glows around the edges of the garden: fountains of forsythia, candelabra of daffodils, carpets of periwinkle. The almond tree showers us with pale, pink confetti. We’re intoxicated.

“Do you know what I like best about garden parties?” asks dirt-stained, windblown Ivy Rose, munching a lettuce leaf and showing me a batch of volunteer potatoes and an enormous earthworm she’s discovered. “There are so many surprises. The guests are never boring, the refreshments are delicious — and you never have to dress up.”

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