Zeal without knowledge is not good — how much more will hasty feet miss the way! Proverbs 19:2
I spent my childhood spring breaks and summers on my grandmother’s farm in Arkansas, snapping beans and canning tomatoes, locking chickens under the house to spare them from the axe. Her place was a lot like the one I have now — a house in the middle of a few acres, a big garden, red barn, ponds, even a creek with a little bridge, all surrounded by evergreen. Only difference was the color of the dirt.
The year we got married, Bryan bought me dirt of my own, two 1×3 foot plastic flower boxes for the fire escape on our apartment on S.Mathilda in Pittsburgh. Drawing upon my lifetime of gardening experience, I grew three very small inedible carrots.
Baffled by my failure, I did what the Browns always do next: built a library. I cleared out all the Half-Price Books in Western PA and by the time I’d read every book on gardening in the northeast, we moved back to Texas.
Drunk on my theoretical expertise, my Texas garden was slightly more ambitious, four 4×4 and two 4×8 foot raised beds in the front yard of our house in Smithville. By this time I was home with my first baby, and I parked her in a playpen on the shady front porch while I slaved over my perfectly mixed soil, picked off every last stinkbug, patched up squash stems after carving out vine borers, and trapped slugs with beer. She almost choked to death more than once on Japanese beetles who are mysteriously drawn to babies in cages. I, along with the majority of my brassicas, battled heat stroke as I figured out that “full sun” means something very different in Central Texas than in any of my pretty gardening books.
That year we ate arugula at every single meal, gave away 10,000 tomatoes, and never grew one single squash of any variety.
I dug my next garden on my hands and knees while pregnant with my second daughter. I ripped out a 20X4x15 foot section of Bermuda grass in the front yard of our house in Austin and built another raised bed (this one with some shade). Over the course of the next 7 years, that garden transformed over and over again, and eventually grew another two feet in either direction, and added two more 4×8 foot beds. Some years it was a spectacular scene — 15 foot tomatoes, pumpkins running halfway down the block, green beans for nine months straight, zinnias that made me weep for joy. Other years it was volunteer basil and Bermuda grass…again.
In truth, it wasn’t until maybe 4 years ago that I had any idea what I was actually doing. The bulk of my gardening career has been assuming I could assimilate hundreds of years of gardening knowledge by skimming books and websites and just going for it. The year round growing season in central Texas, my husband’s endless patience and bottomless pockets, and my tireless zeal have made me very lucky.
So when I showed up here, I thought the garden would be the least of my worries. Ten years of urban, raised bed, central Texas gardening under my belt! Of course I know how to transfer that to a rural garden in a maritime northwest climate. How hard could it be to go from year round square foot gardening to a seasonal garden planted in deep rows of soil, cultivated over 25 years, that don’t dry out till Mother’s Day? (MOTHER’S DAY!)
I spent the first month in complete denial. “Maybe the Mother’s Day thing was just because they didn’t want to garden before May? Or maybe they were too stubborn to embrace different techniques that would extend the season? Too chained to old ways. Maybe the master gardener and landscape architect we bought the property from just haven’t read the same books I’ve read.”
I put the garden to bed in the late fall, tucked in the overwintering carrots and kale, pulled the onions to dry in the barn, and felt more confident than ever that I knew exactly what I was doing.
But then the sun disappeared. And the snow fell. And when it washed away in the rain my boots sunk down six inches between the rows when I went to pull the frostbitten broccoli to feed to the chickens. I stared out over the over the rows of corn I had just learned to chop with a machete I had just learned to hold, and realized I had no idea what a person plants after corn when there’s only one season per year for crop rotation, or where one would plant that corn this year so that it doesn’t block the rest of the garden when the angle of the sun is such a factor here. Angle of the sun? Oh, Lord, where are the science books? Where are WE?
I looked down at my boots, sunk into most beautiful mud I’d ever seen, at the kale and carrots, beet tops still going strong in November. I looked up at the sky, past the trees that towered higher than the buildings in the city I’d come from.
And I began to feel very small.