Heirloom Gardener Blogs > Barefoot and Dirty

"A master's degree in horticulture means you can grow everything!" Or not...

Well, it’s mid-March and Spring Break on the coast. I started my seeds for my spring garden at the end of January and I have nice healthy plants ready to transplant. The bed of red mustard is ready for harvesting, as well as the lettuce and spinach. We got hit with a hot spell followed by a cold spell followed by another hot spell, so the Chinese cabbage has bolted, but the chickens (the chickens that aren’t allowed in the garden…insert eye roll here) are quickly taking care of that. The Wheel of the Year has turned once more.

Having a degree in horticulture, the one thing I get a lot is the whole “that must be so awesome to be able to grow anything you want!”. Well, yes and no. In fact, yes, I have the knowledge and skills that say I should be able to grow anything and everything. I also the have the passion and desire to grow anything and everything. For example, my husband (being from the Midwest) had never experienced growing cotton, so he wanted to grow cotton. I, of course, grew cotton. Now, I have bushels of cotton that I’m not quite certain how to utilize. I will figure something out, though, rest assured. That will likely be a topic for a future blog. In any case, the fact is that as skilled a horticulturist as I may be, there is no such thing as fool-proof gardening. No matter how skilled you might be, you will have failures.

Nature often has a way of keeping us humble. No matter your skills at growing things, in a single day, Mother Nature can throw you too many curve balls to handle successfully. Take our Chinese cabbage for instance. This winter has been mild even by our standards. We have had warm weather all winter, and we admittedly became rather complacent. When we had our two days of cold weather, the Chinese cabbage was fine. It wilted a little, but quickly perked back up in the warmer days that followed. However, by the end of that same week, we had temperatures soaring in the eighties. Yes, the lovely green Chinese cabbage quickly bolted before our very eyes. I was very sad. While we can protect our crops from cold snaps, it is next to impossible to protect them from hot spells down here. I’m thankful that our other greens didn’t suffer the same fate.

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A box planted with spinach

Another issue that often interferes with gardening success is the fact that other creatures love fresh fruits and vegetables as much as we do. We have a small homestead, raise our own chickens, have dogs, cats, etc. The issue we have is that all of these creatures are a bit on the spoiled and unruly side. In our defense, the vegetable garden is fenced in. However, the chickens have already proven that they can simply pop through the pickets. What adds insult to injury is that they look you in the eye when they do it, as if daring you to try to stop them. They are rather cheeky. It’s also an unpleasant surprise when you start digging in a garden bed and discover that the cats have used it for a giant litter box. We have lost many a hapless seedling this way. While chicken wire around the fence may slow down the chickens, it will simply make it easier for the cats to climb. Of course, the dogs are helpful, as well. I have often looked outside only to see a dog furiously digging up a garden bed after somehow pushing over the pallets that act as a gate until my husband can build one. Those are just the domestic critters. We also have possums, rabbits, squirrels, and raccoons galore, and they all thank us for growing them such a rich and varied all-you-can-eat buffet. They have also learned that once they make it into the fenced garden area, the dogs can’t get to them. The birds help themselves to the figs, grains and blackberries, so these crops must be netted. There are days that we could film an episode of Wild Kingdom in our back yard.

Water is often the most limiting factor in crop production, however, and here on the coast, we deal with both extremes. Right now, my beautiful seedlings are patiently waiting to go in the ground. No, I’m not afraid of a spring frost. My yard is actually underwater. Yes, when I step off my porch, I sink ankle deep in water. Have you ever been attacked by a water moccasin swimming across your front yard? I have. It’s quite painful. Early spring for us translates as frequent flooding. Our soil is a truly horrendous clay gumbo mix that has zero drainage, thus the reason we only use raised beds. We also have a high water table here on the coast. All spring we experience near-flood to flood conditions. That being said, once our temperatures rise in late spring, we quickly move into drought conditions where the clay soil cracks and water runs right off the surface without sinking in, yet humidity levels are still uncomfortably high. The water stress makes plants more susceptible to pests and diseases, particularly fungal issues. We have learned to use our harvested rainwater to water our crops, and at least I do have the training to calculate efficient irrigation for maximum crop production.

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Tomato, Pepper and Tomatillo Seedlings

The last issue is weeds. Weeds mean competition for the garden plants, and they usually win that competition. Tilling may rid you of the weeds on the surface of the soil, but it generally brings buried weed seeds to the surface where they quickly sprout. I can clear an entire garden bed of weeds, and within 3 days, that bed is completely full of new weeds. None of our neighbors garden. The people who live behind us and to one side of us don’t bother taking care of their property at all, so their weeds happily reproduce and send their seeds over the fences to our garden. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I refuse to use chemical herbicides, so I just keep torturing myself by pulling them by hand.

So, yes, it is awesome to have the knowledge and training to grow anything and everything. However, it is completely frustrating that that does not always translate into the actual ability to grow anything and everything. Yes, I have a degree in horticulture, but I still have the same struggles as everyone else. I still fight weeds. I still fight animals (although it’s really more of a coexist that an actual fight). I still suffer the humility of bowing down to Mother Nature and her whims. I suffer through failures and enjoy successes. It’s those successes that really keep my passion for gardening alive. One success makes all the failures worth it.