17 April 2009

Garden Day

April at Longwood means Garden Day for us students (then again, isn't every day Garden Day at Longwood!?). One of the program requirements during our time here is that we each keep a garden. Vegetable crops are required and market crops assigned, and a certain part of our bit of earth must be ornamentals. Warm weather teasers had us chomping at the bit to get our hands dirty but the first scheduled Garden Day was rained out. It was rescehduled but we were warned that it ALWAYS snows on Garden Day. We didn't believe it so on April 7 we all convened at the field which was soon to become PG-B Garden Central, eager and ready to garden. First on the agenda, a quick run through of the equipment: Tractor 101, Roto-Tiller for Beginners, Ride-on-Mower Know How, and Don't-forget-to-gas-up-the-equipment-before-Show-N-Tell. So there we were, all set to get our hands in the soil and let me tell you, if we didn't believe it would actually snow on Garden Day, Mistress Nature let us know who's boss by turning a cold shoulder on our fun!

Still, we stuck it out while our instructor Harold and Farmer Nate tilled the field. Each plot measures 15' x 50' with an 18" maintenance path on either side. They run roughly north to south longways so our veg beds can be laid out roughly east to west. Two-thirds of the plot is for veg, the rest will be ornamental. Now, to a person who's never really grown veggies before, let alone tried to be a small-scale farmer, 525 sq ft seems like a lot of space. We're talking Acreage! And when I found out how many onion plants I have to grow for my market crop assignment, well, let's just say that every person within a 50-mile radius of me better love onions! This is some serious veg growing here!

This is what the field looked like before we descended. With each new class a field is tilled and prepared for gardening. When the class graduates and leaves Longwood (sniff), the field is cleared, sowed with a cover crop, and allowed to rest for a few years. The same process is applied with each successive class until the rotation comes back to the first field when it is again tilled and gardened. And so the cycle continues... Our instructor Harold demonstrates the fine art of tilling.
Greg checks his work...

And Emma gives a thumb of approval... But Gavin is a little more critical...

To determine who got which plot, Harold had us draw plant labels (you didn’t think we’d resort to the predictable use of straws here, did you?) then we all traded back and forth until we each had the plot we wanted. My address is PG-B Forest, Plot 8, The Row, Longwood Gardens. I'm neighbors with friends Suzanne to the west and Greg to the east.

Here's my bit of earth (you can just see the large plant labels to the right and left marking the paths on either side)

One of the coolest things about our gardens are these welded metal forms that had been used in the Christmas display in the Nectarine House. They stand roughly 8' tall and are maybe 4' wide, and look like the espaliered trees they were meant to emulate. When decorated with flowery Christmas lights and attached to the espalier frames in the conservatory, they really did the trick. After Christmas they were taken down and stored in the hort garage, where I was sent one rainy day to remove the lights. They were so cool, I started to Ask Questions. It's a dangerous thing, Asking Questions. Sometimes you get an answer you don't like. Sometimes you get an answer you don't want to hear and the hopes that inspired the Question are dashed on the rocky shoals of Despair. In this case, neither happened and I found myself in possession of eight such frames which would see new life as the coolest trellises (trelli?) in our gardens. Emma and I had to go dumpster diving for the last two and made such a racket that the shop guys came to see what we were up to. When we told them what we were looking for, one of them said, "Oh, THOSE frames!" and they both dove in and started slinging scrap metal like it was made of Styrofoam, finally uncovering our treasure. Mission accomplished, we delivered them to the Row and announced the find. Shannon clapped and said, "It'll be our own little PG-B forest!"

Fast forward through many rainy days, wild temperature fluctuations, veggie hunting, and design revisions. My humble little plot began to take shape one afternoon when the Easter Lilies were being removed from the Conservatory and the ones I brought home needed to go in the ground. Right. Now. Fast forward again through the confusion and frustration of locating the Alliums (‘onions’ for the botanically challenged) transplants that are one of my required market crops, finally placing my “tree”, and getting the onions planted. I decided that instead of capitulating to the tendency to make things as difficult as possible, I would for once in life make them easy. I released the dreams of tidy raised beds of lettuce and basil, woven willow hurdles hugging tomatoes, rustic benches tickled with lavender and rusted arches dripping with snap peas. Instead I am the proud owner of a bare plot perforated with bamboo markers delineating paths and simple grade-level beds. Oh, and 50 onion transplants!

The next step will be to mulch the paths, lavish compost on the beds, plant the cool season crops, and sow my Summer Squash seeds (another required market crop). I’ve also been scavenging bulbs as they come out of the display beds and was delighted by the gift of several dozen basil seedlings from PG Alum Adam, with whom I’ve been working in the Idea Garden. Today in a fit of optimism I bought sunflower and lavender seeds from the gift shop. I’ve never grown lavender from seed, so stay tuned for the results!

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