In praise of gardening: let me count the ways

There’s nothing like a well-timed, warm, spring rain to get a day of gardening off to a good start. After almost as week of mostly sunny weather, and judging the soil to be warm enough, I rolled the dice and got most of two varieties of sweet corn planted a couple of days ago, and then a few, tentative rows of bush beans that also need warmed soil to germinate. It’s especially important when you use seed untreated with fungicide as I do.


Rows of Irish Cobbler potato plants have emerged

A couple of rows of lettuce were the first seeds to go in what guess I’ll call the “old garden” beside the house, as compared to the “new garden” out back that I first worked up last year. Lettuce is a “hardy” crop that will germinate in cool soil. It seemed like a good idea to have it close to the house, so just before lunch or supper all I have to do is run out and pick the salad. I grow two varieties of lettuce, a red called Sierra I’ve grown for years, and a standard Romaine.


The sweet corn is planted

It doesn’t look like much yet, of course. But I think I’ll follow the progress of the garden here on a more or less weekly basis.

I planted potatoes, peas, onion sets, spinach, carrots and beets in the “new garden” beginning a couple of weeks ago. These are all “hardy” crops that don’t mind cool weather, though I wouldn’t like potato plants to get hit by frost if they’ve broken through the ground. The first seed potatoes to go in the ground were 10 rows of well-sprouted Irish Cobbler that I stored over winter in the basement. “Well-sprouted” is putting it mildly, but they’ll do okay as long as the sprouts are not broken. There’s a photo here of pretty healthy looking rows of plants almost ready to be hilled.

Further along I planted even more rows of Yukon Gold seed potatoes, a total of 20 kilograms. They weren’t sprouted at all, so they won’t break through for a while yet.

I love growing potatoes – probably something to do with my heritage, though I haven’t really given it a lot of thought – and years ago I accidentally discovered the absolutely essential thing to do to grow potatoes naturally or organically, without the use of pesticides to control potato beetles: mulch with straw.

I had planted a couple of rows of potatoes in mid-April that year. By the end of the month they had broken through the ground, and then there was a frost warning. So I covered the plants with a thick layer of straw. Then after a few days when the risk of frost had passed I clear the straw away and tucked it around the plants. Meanwhile, I had planted quite a few more rows of potatoes that didn’t need to get the straw blanket because they hadn’t surfaced.

When the usual Colorado potato beetle invasion happened – and they will find you, trust me – I noticed the two mulched rows of plants were totally free of the pest.

Later that summer I was speaking to a University of Guelph, College of Agriculture professor, for an article I was working on and mentioned what I had done and then observed. “You interrupted the life-cycle of the potato beetle,” she said, explaining there’s a stage that involves some larvae destined to be adult breeders going into the soil to pupate.

Every year since I have mulched my potato plants with straw and never have even a hint of a potato-beetle problem.

Sweet corn is another crop I like to grow, without fail, every season. I have been using a biological pesticide called Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) a bacterium found in soil, for many years to combat the two most common caterpillar pests of corn, corn borer and corn earworm. Both, by the way, are invasive species brought to North America in shipments of trade goods. Again, they will find your corn, even if your land has never grown corn before; and left unchecked they will make a turn-off mess of the cob and/or render it unsaleable.

Unfortunately, Bt is now used extensively in genetically-engineered corn, without the necessity of spraying. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” the same professor told me a long time ago, and sooner or later, she predicted, corn borer and corn earworm will develop immunity. Some other pesticide, perhaps chemical again, will have to be found. I m.ay be long gone by the time that happens, but if not I won’t be growing sweet corn

Gardening is one of those things that involves a lifetime of learning countless things, and even then after years of experience, I feel like I’m still just scratching the surface.

I could go on and on, and maybe I will this summer. Like, for example, did you know you can gauge the level of air pollution where you live, and garden, by growing potatoes because they’re so sensitive to air quality, some varieties more than others. For example, don’t even try to grow Norland, a red-skinned variety, if you live in or near a big city.

And so it goes.

Oh, and by the way again, I have three herniated disks. Many years ago before I took up gardening I sometimes suffered terrible, debilitating pain; but never since I started gardening. It’s apparently the perfect exercise to strengthen back muscles and allow them to compensate for the damaged disks.

That’s my theory anyway. It may not be scientific yet; but it works for me and my aging but still remarkably resilient body, if I do say so myself.



3 thoughts on “In praise of gardening: let me count the ways

  1. My fiancé has herniated discs, but certain physical labor doesn’t seem to bother him. This seems, so far, to include gardening. I hope that’s the case because I enjoy his company in the garden every now and then.


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