It's an adventure growing your own in a community plot

With planning, vegetables sprout

In The Garden

April 11, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,Sun Staff

I'm stooping next to a shallow soil bed, dropping a lettuce seed into a furrow that I just made with my finger, when it hits me.

I'm planting this thing, and it will grow.

Never mind that it's been thousands of years since a human being first found out that putting a seed into the ground could result in a new food-bearing plant.

I feel like a pioneer, and I'd like to shout my discovery to the world. But because I'm in the Hampden community garden, and there are children in a playground nearby, I don't.

It's an especially meaningful moment for me because, until now, I haven't been able to keep so much as a houseplant alive.

My foray into gardening had begun a few weeks before. A friend looking for a new gardening partner persuaded me to share a plot in the community garden on Falls Road, just off the Jones Falls Expressway.

In exchange for $30 in rent, we would get the rights to a 400-square-foot piece of land and as many vegetables, fruits and flowers as we could coax out of it.

My friend assured me that it was easy. So I agreed.

We sat down over mugs of tea and pored over seed catalogs. Because both of us are food lovers, we drew up a list of no less than 24 varieties of common and heirloom vegetables, strawberries and lots of herbs we wanted to try.

Once our seed orders had been dispatched over the Internet, it was time to make a garden plan. With the advice of friends who are experienced vegetable growers, we drew a diagram of our plot and labeled it with plants and planting dates. It would consist of six plant beds and a three-tiered herb box.

Radishes, carrots and red and green onions would go into the first bed. Lima beans, green beans and soybeans would go into a second, and tomato and basil plants would fill up a third and fourth.

A fifth bed would contain zucchini and cucumber, which grow in vines, and eggplant, which grows in bushes, and a sixth bed with a trellis would be reserved for climbing snap peas, broccoli, spinach and salad greens.

We found a few round planters left in the garden by previous gardeners, and designated them for jalapeno and cayenne peppers and cherry tomatoes.

So far, so good. But now what? I had no idea when our plants should start going into the ground.

My friend said all the basics we would need to know would be printed on the seed packets. Once I started getting the seeds in the mail, I read instructions on what time of year to plant, how deep and far apart to sow your seeds and the number of weeks before I could expect a harvest.

The instructions were a little daunting, but at least we would not have to worry about them just yet. The next step, preparing the soil, was more physical than cerebral.

The plot had lain dormant all winter, and the surface was dry and hard and overgrown with weeds.

There was some stray mint, a hardy little plant that can multiply without assistance. We pulled those up along with the weeds, and loosened and turned the soil using small trowels.

Below the surface, the soil was dark and rich-looking and released a fragrant scent and the occasional earthworm, twitching unhappily. My back ached from the work, but the rest of my body thanked me for being outside on this warm and sunny March day.

The following week, I returned with a 40-pound bag of humus -- a moist, claylike substance made of decayed organic matter -- to mix into our plot. Experts recommend nourishing garden soil before each planting season with an inch or two of organic matter such as compost, aged horse manure or humus.

Although we'd seen none of our fellow gardeners yet, the place was stirring with other kinds of life. Near the gated entrance, a couple of tender-looking purple flowers bloomed at the edge of an unclaimed garden plot.

We sowed some seeds directly into the ground: carrots, radishes, snap peas, arugula, mache lettuce and onions. And we agreed on a watering schedule so that one of us would check on the garden every couple of days.

In the meantime, my friend started sowing indoor plant trays with eggplant, chili pepper, cucumber and tomatillo seeds. These plants grow stronger if kept out of cold temperatures when they are young.

About a week after we had sown seeds for Cherry Belle radishes in the garden, they sprouted. But the seedlings soon fell victim to an unexpected cold spell that brought snow flurries.

It was a big disappointment. I was consoled only when our French breakfast radishes began to sprout. They had been planted a week later than their departed brethren.

The seedlings are now looking like a small army of green clovers, and I am waiting for their true leaves (the second set) to appear so I can stop worrying that they will die. When those new leaves appear, the seed packet indicates, it'll also be time to thin out the seedlings, sacrificing some so that the rest will have the room to form healthy bulbs.

Late last month, the arugula also had sprouted, but we've seen no sign yet of the onions or carrots. And the snap peas appear to have been dug up by some animal.

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