Getting Back to My Roots in the Garden

published on Mar 17, 2019


It doesn't have to be complicated.

"Put a seed in the ground and see what comes up. Now you're a gardener."

I'm paraphrasing wildly but that, in a nutshell, is from my dear friend Peter Fossel, and he ought to know. He's the author of Organic Farming: Everything You Need to Know from Rodale Press.

He advocates an approach of simplicity and respect for yourself and the Earth. Gardening, after all, is a primal activity. It doesn't have to be hard.

Peter and I met on an organic farming forum long before Facebook was a thing. His kindness, peaceful nature, and simple approach to gardening constantly inspired me. Later, I helped him set up his blog, and over the years we became fast and dear friends, despite having never met in person.

During all those years, I've lived in many different homes. I've always had plants, but rarely a great place to grow vegetables. But Peter's admonition to just plant things anyway and see what happens kept me going.

I've had tomatoes in pots on an apartment balcony; peas in a box in a postage stamp backyard; spindly tomato plants in a wooded backyard; cucumbers and beets in a community garden plot. I've helped establish community gardens and grown monster pumpkin vines that produced exactly one pumpkin.

In short, I've succeeded and failed and kept going.

And now, at last, I have a 1/2 acre yard with about 400 square feet of prime gardening area, and no intention ever to move away.

This means I can plan out a full-fledged, full-sized garden and expect to enjoy the fruits of my labor for many years to come.

It's time to go hog wild.

And yet. 

My body says no.

Not hog wild.

Maybe just... a little wild. Maybe wild, but wild slowly. Maybe, like, sloth wild.

I have dysautonomia and POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome). My symptoms include near-constant fatigue, dizzy spells, and feeling faint and nauseous for no apparent reason, as well as migraines that may or may not be related. All of my symptoms are aggravated by activities that require me to get up and down repeatedly.

Like gardening.

So. What do we do?

Well, we plant a seed and see what comes up. And we do it slowly. With respect for the earth suit I live in and gratitude for all that it can in fact do.

It's remarkable how much one can accomplish if one takes it slowly and steadily, does not get discouraged, and treats oneself and one's fellow beings (including the plant beings) with respect.

Last year, having just moved to this house, I did exactly nothing in the yard except talk to and eat figs from the tree some previous owner left for us (THANK YOU).

In January of this year, however, I bought English peas and I planted them. I have found that this type of pea can be planted in late Jan, early Feb, and do just fine if we don't get a hard freeze. Even if we do, they can be covered. Even if I forget to cover them, some will still survive.

So I set up a bed in the front, by the porch. There was plenty of light there when I did this, but I somehow managed to not realize that it will be fully shaded by a dogwood and an oak tree all summer. Fail.

But that's all right. Peas and lettuce will do just fine there–they don't mind a little gentle shade. Here's what it looks like today. I'm calling this a success after all.

Small steps. Tiny, itty bitty little bitty steps. The back row I planted in Jan. The row that looks just exactly like a strip of dirt, I planted today. I stuck stakes in the ground at each end and tied string between them to provide support.

When I put the seeds in the ground, I let each one know my intention to use its fruits to feed my family. I let it know I'll do my best to take good care of it and treat it with respect and I ask if it has any requests. So far, all the seeds have been delighted to be planted in this way.

I believe our plant friends appreciate being shown respect.

By May, we'll have peas.

The bed is next to the porch and under a trellis where I eventually want to plant clematis or some other fun purple-flowering vine. 

I went ahead and stuffed the trellis box with straw, too, to keep weeds down until I'm ready to do something with it. This is part of gardening with a chronic illness–doing things today to make the job lighter in the future. I know I can't plant peas and tomatoes and carrots and clematis all in one day, so I do the little bit I can and move on.

For those interested in the details, here's how I made the pea bed:

  • I took Amazon boxes apart, removed the plastic, and laid them over the existing soil, grass, and weeds. Cardboard is a wonderful base for a no-till bed, as it represses most types of weeds (bermuda grass being a notable exception, along with periwinkle which is the bane of my life and thankfully absent from this property) and attracts worms.
  • I bought a bag of cow manure compost and emptied it over the cardboard.
  • I buried some vegetable matter under the compost to compost in place.
  • I topped it all with a massively thick layer of straw. This further represses weeds and retains moisture in the soil, plus provides cover for earthworms and other beneficial critters. As it decomposes, it adds additional nutrients to the soil.

The particular compost or straw I used had a lot of seeds in it, so I've been turning the straw over regularly and pulling up seedlings every few days.

It's a small start, but it's a start.

Now, let's take ourselves to the backyard, where there is actual legitimate sunlight for sun-loving veggies.

It looks shady, but the photo was taken in late afternoon in early Spring. By midsummer, the sun will be directly overhead and the tree currently casting shade won't be in the way. 

The biggest challenge of planning this space is that our driveway is a little tough to get in and out of and I wanted to leave room for it to be widened substantially in the future. 

No worries. With Carey's help, I marked out the desired future driveway area, and then drew up a plan that will give me 96 square feet of intensively planted beds with wide pathways in between. Ease of use is critical–if I don't enjoy being in the garden or I feel like I have to squeeze around things, I won't spend as much time there. Thus, the wide paths.

The beds will be 6 x 4 feet each, with three feet between to make it easy to trundle along with a cart or set a low chair down and sit to weed. Also room for any enthusiastic tenants of the garden to spread out a bit if they want to without inhibiting humans from continuing to tend to them.

To create the beds, I'll collect Amazon boxes (not a difficult feat) and clean them up (i.e., remove plastic tape). I'll lay the cardboard under the whole area, including the paths. 

Next, I'll outline the beds with stones I plan to collect and bring here from Dragon Hollow. It will feel amazing to use stones from my land for this purpose. I may get up there to select some of them as early as this next weekend.

I will do all of this in stages out of respect to my body's limitations.

For the first two or three beds, I'll buy a trailer load of municipal compost and fill the beds with it, and then top the compost with straw.

The paths I'll mulch with municipal wood mulch.

I'll leave the next bed with just the stone outline and the cardboard at first, with straw to hold it all down. I'll leave one area open to the cardboard and we'll dump kitchen scraps there.  As that area fills with scraps, I'll cover it with the straw and move to a new area.

In this way, I'll be composting in place. I'll leave the bed fallow for a year and then start planting in it the following year. I have had success with this method in the past, though in the first year of planting sometimes a layer of compost is added on top of the half-composted scraps to give seedlings a strong start.

This practice both respects the land and the creatures in it (the earthworms and other beneficials who will eat the cardboard and scraps and appreciate the protection of the straw, and also appreciate not being disturbed and damaged by tilling). It also respects my body by allowing me to work in stages.

I'm thrilled to be getting back to my roots in the garden and excited to share my progress this year and in the coming years.

How about you? Are you gardening this year? A few small pots of cherry tomatoes or a giant sprawling market garden? I'd love to hear about it. 

TAGS: chronic illness
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Fen Druadìn

Fen Druadìn (they/them) is anamchara, storyteller, dragon, student of trees, and a breaker of generational curses.

Fen's mission here is to love and remember themself completely, connect deeply with the world, and help others do the same for themselves.

Fen connects deeply with the universe through their relationship with a sacred land in the Appalachians of North Carolina, and shares messages here and elsewhere. When not in the woods, they can be found on Facebook and Patreon.

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