Laying The Groundwork

THE REAL DIRT

September 26, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

We met in the checkout line at the supermarket. His cart wa ahead of mine and full of cellophaned fruits and vegetables, most of which were harvested during the Jurassic Period.

He tossed the tomatoes on the counter, where they bounced toward the cashier. The cucumbers could have been dipped in floor wax; the string beans appeared limp and lifeless.

The man glanced at the beans, shrugged resignedly and kept unloading his cart. The remaining produce looked no better. He'd even bought several beat-up looking zucchini. Zucchini! Imagine that! Most people are swimming in fresh zucchini by September; one family I know likes to "bob" for zukes in their backyard pool. Yet this man was about to pay for squash that had been trucked clear across the country . . . and looked it.

I sighed and shook my head. What others eat is their business. I've quit trying to convert nongardeners, many of whom give up quickly and then blame me for having talked them into digging up their lawns. So I said nothing until the man turned and said, "Fresh vegetables are good for you."

Excuse me?

"Fresh fruit is good, too. Don't you read the papers?"

Dumbfounded, I nodded agreement. Then I realized what had happened: While I had been examining the man's purchases, he had also been ogling mine.

All he found in my cart was a bunch of bananas which, despite my best efforts, I cannot raise at home.

I explained that I have a garden, and ticked off the crops therein. The man listened with envy.

"Wish I had a garden," he said. "Every spring I plan to start one, but there's never any time to do it. The lawn needs mowing, the garage needs cleaning and the kids need rides to Little League."

No argument there. With other pressing chores, it's easy to ignore the garden in spring. But what about fall? By now the lawn is dead, the garage is clean and the kids are back in school.

Spring isn't the best time to start a garden; fall is, I told him.

The man looked confused. "What can you grow in the fall?" he asked.

I repeated my claim: Fall is the best time to start a garden, not plant it.

Now is the ideal time to break up sod, turn over soil, and fertilize and lime the new beds. The ground is dry, the weather good. Preparing a garden in autumn allows enough time for those nutrients to seep deep into the soil.

Why wait until spring, as many newcomers do, to start a garden? Why battle swirling winds and wet ground to carve out that first vegetable patch? All you end up with is soggy soil and a bad cold -- lousy keepsakes, both.

Rarely can you build the perfect garden from scratch on one day in May, especially with other family members vying for attention.

The truth is, good soil preparation is 90 percent of gardening success; anyone can open a packet of seeds. All the hard work can be done in fall. Laying the groundwork now allows the newly cultivated ground time to "breathe" for several months, prior to planting. All that's required thereafter is to sow a row of seeds come spring.

I fashioned my first garden the fall we moved into our house 18 years ago. The land was sloped and full of rocks, though not enough to deter a new homeowner from creating his first garden.

I remember the joy of sinking my shovel into the ground for the first time, then again and again. The dirt flew that warm September day, and by dusk I'd nearly carved out my first tomato bed.

There was just one hitch: I'd been digging up someone else's lawn. The property was not yet ours. In my excitement to get started, I'd begun shoveling one week before settlement. With the previous owners' consent, of course. I'd plied them with a basket of home-grown tomatoes and asked if I could play in the back yard. Grudgingly, they agreed.

I had a grand time digging that day, though I celebrated alone. The old owners stayed inside the house the whole time. Once I saw them peek out the window to see who was whooping outside.

"Found a worm!" I cried, triumphantly holding it up.

That's when they locked the door.

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