Garden contingency planning

December 3, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedI probably won’t get to look at them until after Isaiah’s birthday and our Chanukah party next weekend, but the seed catalogs are piling up, and I’m starting to think about gardens again. I can’t wait to sink down into the couch with a stack of catalogs and dream.

This was a tough year for gardening – I was already behind in early spring because of the final push to get _Making Home_ out. On May 1, K. and C. arrived, and it took the better part of a month before things normalized. That was ok, I thought, the fall garden will be SPECTACULAR, I’ll just put my energies there, and get serious about the garden on the first of July. Except, of course, a few days after the first of July, Baby Z. arrived.

Beyond the nigh-universal heat and drought, the main problem in my garden was the sleep deprivation of the gardener. K. and C. went home to family later in July, following weeks and weeks of full-tilt advocacy and work to get that accomplished. That devoured July. By August we were so TIRED that many things simply went by the wayside. It wasn’t an awful garden year, just not a fabulous one.

I don’t resent anything, though – I’m so glad that Baby Z. got most of my time and attention – we are fortunate that I had that luxury. If some zucchini turned into baseball bats and I ate more tomatoes fresh than I canned, if I didn’t get much but kale and spinach planted for fall, well, in the end, I’m grateful I had the capacity to turn outwards to others to fill in what I didn’t do myself.

I should say I’m looking forward to a much better garden this year, and I am. I am also, however, looking forward to one that doesn’t work out so well. By which I mean that I’m doing what I should have done all along – contingency planning to optimize my garden for non-optimal conditions, in this case, a non-optimal gardener.

My garden has had a non-optimal gardener many years – in fact, all of them. I went through three pregnancies during the summer. There was the year we lost Eric’s grandparents and much of the spring was taken up by grief and the sort of their things. There was the year I foolishly agreed to place the deadline for _A Nation of Farmers_ on May 31, meaning that peak planting season was spent with my staring at the computer and feeling guilty. There were years when we were sick or busy or away during a critical moment. In fact, I don’t think my garden has yet ever had the garden it deserves.

It is a beautiful patch of land, it deserves the kind of devoted, anal, obsessive gardener that never says “Yeah, I’ll get at that tomorrow…or maybe the day after” or “that’s good enough for me.” It definitely deserves a gardener better at keeping chickens out, one who pays more attention to aesthetics than practicality, and one who never thinks it is just too bloody hot to go face the weeds. Sadly, she’s not available or returning my calls. Instead, my garden gets me, the lazy, overly-busy gardener with grand ambitions for perfection and a high tolerance for imperfection – a multiple personality gardener who never quite gets the balance all right.

I still have the grand ambitions, the desire for a thousand varieties, the plan for a perfect seed-saver’s garden, the goal of growing every herb and fruiting plant in nature. I like that part of my gardening self, the one whose reach exceeds her grasp. Without her, I wouldn’t have quinces or have coddled a maypop into producing for me in Zone 4. Without her I’d never have threshed my own oats or made ornamental borders of chili peppers and okra. Her “too much is never enough” attitude (the same one my kids have towards sprinkles on ice cream) leads to good and interesting things – she pushes all boundaries, always wants to try one more variety, one more new thing, to go bigger and better. This year, I resolve to give in to her, to try some new stuff, to add a new variety or two here and there, to get bigger in some respects. But she’s not the only part of my personality.

The other gardener in me is the one that is kinda lazy and really busy. I’ve got a book due to the publisher in February, carefully set before planting season begins. But that puts me editing in April and May. Baby Z. will still be a baby in the spring if he’s with us (and it is looking like he might be), and while he’s sleeping better, let me not be completely foolish here – a crawling or toddling baby is still a very large hindrance in the garden.

I’m hoping I’ll have more children by then, and that could easily include toddlers or another baby. A new placement could easily come in the growing season, indeed, is more likely than not, and that changes things and takes a bit of time to reorient our lives around. Kids could go home, which also takes up time and emotion. The reality is that my life really isn’t all that stable, and that lack of stability makes gardening go up and down.

Now here’s a giant “duh” moment – I suddenly realized that this is normal. For the last 10 years, I’ve been serving my inner dream gardener – the perfect one who does everything and wants to do everything. I’ve gotten used to failures, enough so that I expect them and I don’t beat myself up for them. But what suddenly struck me is that here I am, forty years old, I’ve never actually tried to plan a garden for the kind of gardener I AM rather than the one I want to be. I teach contingency planning for a living, and have contingency plans for my garden – for drought, for flooding, for lack of access to inputs. The only contingency I’ve never planned for is the one that happens all the time – that stuff happens.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think a gardener’s reach should exceed her grasp. By and large I’ve been glad that I’ve over-reached most years, because I think the net gain has been greater than the loss. Yes, sometimes things fail from lack of attention or my lack of ability to deal with them, but I always have a good and ample variety of crops. But what if I actually set up my garden to work better if I’m interrupted? What would that even look like? It suddenly struck me that I must be missing something.

So that’s my project for this year – I’m working on redesigning my garden in layers, working outwards, partly on the old permaculture principle of zones (ie, closer in you put the things you need to get to daily, etc…) but also for more things that are self-operating, more things that are flexible in their harvest dates (for example varieties of beans and cherry tomatoes that mature over a longer stretch), and having a plan for when I’m not going to get to something – for example, a quick cover crop mix at hand to get into beds I just won’t be planting. I’m also working on getting Phil-the-housemate into gardening on the theory that if I’m distracted, I might send him off to do my evil bidding in trade for my cooking him a portion of the proceeds. Hmmmm….wait a minute!

I realize this is a classic physician, heal thyself moment, of course. In fact, I routinely tell garden design students not to overreach, to think about how they will really use the space, how to involve others so you don’t have to do it all yourself etc… I KNOW all this stuff – it just never occurred to me that it should apply to me, because well, I’ve always liked having a lot of balls in the air, and the pleasures of an excess of ambition. But then, I realized I don’t really know if I would like constrained ambitions and more limited goals that I did a better job of accomplishing better, because well…it never occurred to me to try it. I have just assumed it probably wasn’t for me. I think it might be time to see, however, whether trying to accomplish more limited goals would be more fun than throwing a lot of balls in the air and seeing how many I actually catch Image Removed .

So off I go to the graph paper. Anyone else making garden changes this year?


Sharon Astyk

Sharon Astyk is a Science Writer, Farmer, Parent of Many, writing about our weird life right now. She is the author of four books: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which explores the impact that energy depletion, climate change and our financial instability are likely to have on our future, and what we can do about it. Depletion and Abundance won a Bronze Medal at the Independent Publishers Awards. A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil co-authored with Aaron Newton, which considers what will be necessary for viable food system on a national and world scale in the coming decades, and argues that at its root, any such system needs a greater degree of participation from all of us; Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage which makes the case for food storage and preservation as integral parts of an ethical, local, healthy food system and tells readers how to begin putting food by, and the newly published Making Home: Adapting our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, which "shows readers how to turn the challenge of living with less into settling for more".

Tags: garden design, garden planning