The Dance of the Garden Fool

One of the great resources for WNC gardeners is the Organic Growers School, presented in early March each year. There’s always a killer lineup of solid presenters, carefully chosen for the broad base of experience they bring to their workshops. In the end, however, their wise advice is only as useful as we in the audience deign to make it by choosing to listen to it.

I got to thinking about this recently while doing some carpentry work at the house we will soon be moving into. While daydreaming about various gardening possibilities at the new place, I began compiling a mental list of mistakes I won’t make again. One of those mistakes would not have happened if I had followed the sage advice I’d heard at the second annual Organic Growers School the first spring we were living here.

The presenters were Susan and Franklin Sides — Fairview-area gardeners who were, for many years, the garden writers at Mother Earth News when it was published in Hendersonville. I’d known of these folks through their writing before I ever moved to WNC, and I would go so far as to say that I idolized them, figuring that anyone who actually wrote about gardening must have a real handle on the subject. Nonetheless, there was one piece of advice they shared that day that I chose not to follow — and I’ve regretted it ever since. During their workshop, Franklin said he didn’t use manure in the garden (for some reason that soon escaped me).

Deferring to my own reasoning, however, I ended up loading up my garden with several-year-old cow and horse manure that had composted slowly into some terrific organic matter. The first couple of years really showcased the benefits of those loads of manure: The garden produced like mad. The dark side, however, is that the manure hadn’t heated up enough to kill the weed seeds, which easily survived both the journey through the source animals’ digestive tracts and the transformation into organic matter in the pile from which I shoveled the finished product into my truck. A decade later, the fruits of my short-sightedness are still with me in the form of pigweed and some sort of nasty grass, both of which relentlessly rise again each year. I have vowed never to use manure in my new garden.

Another mistake I made at Jardin Fou was starting the garden in the fall without allowing myself some time to observe and think about the new property first. My enthusiasm and lack of patience produced a garden that’s significantly farther away from the back door than it would have been if I’d given myself the winter to ponder its placement. True, the garden does occupy a flat part of the yard that gets sun all year long. It has served the family as a terrific producer of food and has been a real source of joy for me. But during busier-than-normal periods, Jardin Fou has also seen more neglect because it’s 120 feet from the back door. This time around, I’ve vowed to keep my garden fork hanging on its hook until I’m darn sure about the placement of any new garden beds.

I have inaugurated about a half-dozen gardens in my life. Based on some rough calculations, I figure I have set up and worked about 4,000 square feet of veggie-garden space. And every square foot was established reflecting the preconceptions stemming from my experience with previous gardens. In retrospect, I see that the steep, south-facing hillside where I’ve lived since 1994 would have served very well for a garden, but I set up beds in a flat area farther downhill because I’d previously gardened on flat ground … and in my rush to get the new garden going, I wasn’t thinking outside the box.

But change is in the wind. Eleanor and I actually hired a friend who’s an interior decorator to suggest colors for the new house. As it turns out, neither of us would have chosen the colors we’re using at the new place, based on Liz’s suggestions. Nonetheless, the new color scheme is liberating: Because we put ourselves in someone else’s capable hands, Eleanor and I didn’t have a single argument over colors. That alone is a remarkable achievement. And if we find we don’t like any or all of the colors after we’ve lived there awhile, we can change them — once we’ve taken the time to make well-thought-out decisions.

For me, Jardin Fou has been as much a state of mind as a place to grow food. In fact, every garden I’ve conceived has been “Jardin Fou,” because that’s where I’ve danced the erratic steps of the Garden Fool … rushing in with blind enthusiasm and then laboring to fix the mistakes later, after I’ve conducted the investigations that should have been done before succumbing to that seductive green music.

This time, however, I’ve vowed to do things differently. I’ll make my peace with eating veggies from the Co-op until I have a coherent plan in place. And when it all comes together, the new Jardin Fou will be only the name of my garden — not the deranged state of mind that it’s been in every other place where I’ve cultivated food and personal satisfaction.

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