The Long Game   19 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

Last year, I started on the garden late. Aside from sneaking in a small potato patch in April, I didn’t really get going until late May and early June. I had some decent reasons—the terrible spring weather, the need to break new ground, having to clean years of junk out of the hoop house. (It’s terribly sad to see an abused and mistreated hoop house here on the Oregon coast. They’re so precious!) I waited on a friend’s tractor work. But really, I had some opportunities to get an earlier start and simply didn’t get myself in enough order to take advantage of them. I put it off.

This year, I aim to get an earlier start. Of course, the danger with such a notion is that March can be tricky. A few sunny days arrive, a rush of warm weather, the daffodils bloom out and suddenly you’re thinking that garden abundance is just around the corner. Unfortunately, what’s really around the corner is—more likely than not—a wet, cold, miserable, hail-filled April. To plant in optimism in March is a dangerous game indeed out here. Therefore, I’m attempting to temper my enthusiasm while also getting some good work done and a head start on the planting. I don’t want to fall into frustration, but I have no interest in not really getting going until late May again, either.

It is thus that I found myself in the hoop house on Monday, untying the old and dead tomato plants from their baling-twine trellises, ripping them from the ground and piling them outside. I cleared a multitude of weeds, clumps of grass, and plenty of other dead plants I never cleaned out from the previous season. Black, bare and woody eggplants and peppers and basil, all plucked from the soil and tossed on the pile, ready for composting. Old, brittle, but still-clinging cucumber vines excavated. The beds slowly reemerged as I worked, their outlines and contours ragged, piece meal, shrunk from last summer, the paths having slowly widened with each walk down the rows. They’ll need to be reworked, re-dug, amended before the new round of crops go in. After about four hours of work, I stood back and looked at the results of my work, of those exposed beds ready to be worked up and planted. Thick, green grass still ringed the inside edges of the hoop house, but not in the beds. I can get that out later.

It was a dusty job, the inside dry. Coming home from the job, it took me a while to get the dirt out of my nose, to dig out that blackness. I remembered it from the year before, whenever I would spend a time under the plastic, digging up a bed or weeding, tromping around and puffing the small dust clouds. I put on the sprinkler inside, just to get some extra moisture into the soil before I worked it up. Tomorrow I’ll dig in there more, fluffing and shaping the beds, adding in some amendments, and hopefully will have some beds seeded by the end of the day—salad mix, perhaps, spinach, mustards, maybe some head lettuce. Greens. My body has been craving greens of late. I always eat so heavy in the winter, meat and potatoes and squash, cheese and bread, dairy. I eat that always, granted, but more so in the winter.

— ∞ —

I’m excited for the garden, for another year of growing. Earlier today, I had a piece of toast with blackberry jam, canned last summer. A couple nights ago, polenta topped with a tomato sauce from last year’s garden, tucked away in the freezer. A few days ago, oatmeal for breakfast, with butter and milk, honey, and apple butter that I cooked and canned in October. And last Wednesday, I took a jar of salsa and pickles to share at the Grange potluck. The next day, mixed some salsa with mashed avocados and some minced onion and garlic. Instant guacamole.

Granted, these canned and frozen foods from last year aren’t the bulk of my diet, of my calories, but they’re quite nice to have on hand. At Christmas time, jars went out as gifts, too, and for some birthdays, as well. Still there are roasted tomatoes stuffed in the freezer, canned tomato sauce on the shelf. I almost never buy tomatoes from the store—it just seems an offense to me. The ones in the freezer keep me in sauce, in spaghetti and pizza, marinara for whatever.

I realized after working in the hoop house that I’m playing the long game. I’ve been doing it for years now, at least since 2009. I didn’t always recognize I was playing the long game, but that’s indeed what I’m doing. Each year, I build on my knowledge and skill, I better figure the next steps, I improve on the old and attempt the new. I expand the repertoire. Last year, I started the garden late. This year I’ll start it earlier, soon, get those first seeds in the ground in the next couple days. Greens in the hoop house and peas outside, covered up with a bit of torn row cover that Ginger is going to generously let me have. Just in case of hail, which is almost a certainty. With luck, I’ll have fresh greens and peas this year before I even had the garden started last year. And right now, too, last fall’s kale is coming back, fresh leaves emerging. That’s a remnant, a legacy from last year. The ground is already broken. Weedy and grassy, yes, but the beds are there, even if they’re vague. They’re ready to be worked, far more than they were last year. I just have to get the timing right, to get out there during a stretch of sun and dry, when the soil can be worked without clumping and hardening it. But it’s so much more ready than last year, and so am I.

It builds. Three years ago, I planted a ragged and broken garden, a small bit of nonsense that I did all wrong, discarding the knowledge I had for a misguided ideology and attempted shortcuts. Last year, I grew a real garden, late and also ragged and not as ambitious as I originally planned, sometimes a bit neglected, managed a bit haphazardly but still quite productive. I got veggies out of that. I got broccoli and kale and peas, potatoes and summer squash, winter squash and salad mix and peppers and eggplants, basil and parsley, romanesco and beans and mustard greens, head lettuce. Still out there is the legacy—the husks of winter-killed plants—various brassicas, amaranth from the salad mix that grew giant, dead and spindly bush bean skeletons—two rows of parsnips I have yet to eat, and carrots sweetened by the winter cold and putting out new growth, in need of harvesting before they become woody and bitter, their tops nibbled and chewed by rodents. And still I have potatoes in the ground! What am I doing? Got to get those out, set those aside for eating and use the ones already harvested and sprouting as this year’s seed. At least some of them—don’t need as much seed as I have sprouting potatoes. How nice, though, my own potato seed this year, not from a catalogue.

— ∞ —

These early spring days, warm and sunny, they just make me want to get in the dirt. They make me itchy. I want a couple days of good, hard, tiring work. I want to be dirty, sweaty, to smell of soil and plants, chlorophyll, and to have my fingers turn black with tomato tar—even though that’s still a ways off, the tomatoes. (Acyl sugars, for those who want to get more technical than “tomato tar,” is what turns your hands green when you handle tomato plants.) I want to get out the push-pull and the digging fork, to work the soil, mingle in my blood and sweat, get the heart rate up. I want that sense of life and importance. Of necessary work. I want to get back out that farmer within.

It’s nice, too. This year will be less overwhelming. That’s what I tell myself anyway—maybe I’m being too optimistic. But there’s not so much to do to get started. Don’t have to break the ground. Know somewhat what I’m doing, even if I plan to do some things different this year. I have a raft of mistakes made last year that I get to learn from this year, to try to correct. New mistakes will inevitably arise, but I won’t have to correct those until next year. This year, I just have to weather them. I can do that. I’m not so desperate that they’ll break me. That’s why it’s so good to make those mistakes now, to learn the lessons when there’s luxury, when there’s a cushion. I have flexibility. I have margins for errors.

This year, I’ll be more on the blackberries. Last year, I picked late, during the final and less abundant waves. Still made a lot of blackberry jam and a bit of syrup, but this year I’m going to be better on it. More jam, more syrup, but also soda. Lots of blackberry soda, absolutely. And maybe I’ll freeze fresh ones, have them for the winter. I don’t know if there’s room or not, but I bet I can find some. There are freezers around.

And the apples, too. This year I’ll be better on the apples. Maybe I’ll get to can pears—there are some pear trees where I moved to, and I bet a canning party might be in order later in the summer. Last year I wanted to buy tuna off the boat local out here and can it, but I never did that. This year I plan to. Buy off the boat, prep it and borrow a pressure canner, or maybe join in with Ginger when she’s doing her tuna.

It’s just a slow improvement coupled with the laying in of new habits and practices. It’s a layering, year over year. You do a little more, lay a bit more groundwork each new season, build up a bit more infrastructure, increase your knowledge and better your habits and make it routine, make it normal. It becomes easier. You know what to do. It’s just the long game, end of the day. I’m playing the long game. It started years ago, and it’ll be going years yet. So many yeas. Tomorrow the hoop house, working the beds, amending, seeding, and the peas planted outside, covered with row cloth. Years from now, who knows? Something more, no doubt—layered, heftier, built year by year, the culmination of much of a life.


19 responses to “The Long Game

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  1. You’re a good writer, Joel. Keep it up. I’m an old “garden hippy” from the 60’s. I’m so glad it wasn’t all lost after all.

    • Thank you, Dane! Not lost at all. I dare think there are more and more picking it up all the time, and I suspect continuing hard times will make that even more the case.

  2. Beautifully put! My husband and self have been gardening for about 7 years now, having started with half a dozen tomatoes – and they did spectacular! The next year we put in three times that much and they did terrible! But we kept with it, always expanding our area and amending the soil, learning to work with the ground, organically. Lovely Post! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Thank you, San! I’m curious to see what goes differently this year than last year. On the good side, I’m hoping to do much better with my winter squash this year. I didn’t end up with much that actually ripened off last year. On the bad side . . . well, I’m not hoping for anything on the bad side! I’m sure I’ll get something, though. We’ll see what happens.

      Hopefully your tomatoes have since returned to their spectacular nature.

  3. What you’re doing – and experiencing – Joel, is exemplary since you are putting it out here in your blog for all to read and learn from. You may not yet realize it but you are a great teacher – simply because in your writings you balance your successes with your failings and underline the blessings to be found from perseverance in spite of it all.

    After a long winter lay-off, a couple of weeks ago I visited the community garden where I volunteer and did a turning of the over-wintering compost pile I put together back in October. I found it to be stone dead; I think primarily because it was initially composed of too little nitrogen and too much carbon – most of which was donated barn bedding containing wood chips I suspect were made from ground up pallets (which are usually treated so they won’t rot). A failing? Perhaps not. I plan to set them aside and put them down as walkway cover before the bed prep and planting crews really get started.

    Meanwhile, this week I started this year’s first pile. Lots of leaves gathered from around the neighborhood, an abundance of left-over overgrown (and bitter) kale that the clean-up crew pulled last week, surplus (and rotting) potatoes from another garden, lots of coffee grounds from a local coffee purveyor and last year’s dried-up and chopped tomato vines (God, I love ‘garbage’).

    Felt really good to get this old body back in action again. Was I sore the next day? Certainly – but it felt really good.

    • Thank you so much, Martin. That compliment actually means quite a lot to me. I mostly just hope to help and inspire people a bit with this blog—if I’m doing that, I’m happy. And I’ve always enjoyed teaching people things, though I’ve never much done it in any formalized ways.

      I’m glad to hear you’re back at the compost pile, even if it died out. I’ll tell you what, I don’t have my composting down at all yet. I just made a pile and didn’t do a thing to try to balance out the nitrogen and carbon. One of these days, I want to put more time into that and get it down better. One of these days soon. My new place seems to have a much more functional compost pile going that turns out some decent looking dirt. I don’t know if it’s great fertilizer or not—I’m still curious about this question, as I’ve read different things about how well compost works as a fertilizer—but it’s no doubt great organic material, if nothing else. Good to go back in the garden.

      Glad that you’ve got a new pile going for the year. I heaped up the hoop house’s clearing just outside the back door. I should chop that stuff up and get a compost pile going with it, try to actually manage the thing halfway decent. Maybe mix in some of last year’s pile and see if I can’t balance out the nitrogen and carbon ratio.

      Got peas, radishes, spinach, arugula, and mustard greens planted today. Harvested out the rest of the potatoes, as well as some carrots. Did some good push-pulling with my three tooth cultivator. Was a good day. Nice to get the body back in action for me, as well—or, at least, in the particular sorts of action used for vegetable gardening. I love those first sore days in spring. They’re mighty rewarding.

      • Compost is not specifically a fertilizer as such, although it does have some fertilizing effect in and of itself. What it does is bring organics, worms, good little critters (micro-bio types ) and air into the soil, which, in turn provides an environment that basically allows the soil to enrich itself. One should always think about additives such as bonemeal, bloodmeal, and regular critter droppings in addition to compost (beware of using chickenshit and horseshit directly, however, as they can be pretty ‘hot’).and it’s always wise to check the acidity of the soil before adding anything. I suspect the soil in your neck of the woods is pretty acidic.

        Making compost is a pretty simple operation, although I’ve found that each new pile is an experiment that depends largely on the materials being used. I use the traditional ‘Indore’ method which consists of layering the carboniferous (brown stuff) and nitrogenous (green stuff) materials in alternate layers in a roughly 30% (green)/70% (brown) ratio along with a judicious amount of water.

        Aeration of the pile is essential. I do this by driving four tall (about 3′ long) stakes into the ground spaced a foot or so apart and then building the pile around them – usually inside a 3’x3′ bin – and then pulling the stakes out when the pile is complete, leaving four nice vertical air channels. If I really want to speed things up I also incorporate horizontal air tubes within the pile at intervals as I build it. I made the tubes I use out of 3″ PVC with rows of 1/4″ holes drilled along the sides about 1/4 of the way around the tube apart. I generally place six of these in the pile.

        I turn the piles about once a week, except in warm weather when I shorten the interval a bit, and mix and ‘fluff’ the material as I do so. I usually have two or three piles going at once, timed about a week apart, and once things get going, I can consistently turn out a couple of wheelbarrows-full of good finished compost per week.

        But then, that’s about all I do at the garden – I have little or no involvement with the rest of the operation.

        • That’s in line with what I’ve read from Steve Solomon. He doesn’t consider compost to be much of a fertilizer but more important for building organic matter. Thus, I’ve been using a version of his complete organic mix for fertilizer. I still would like to work toward using manure as a fertilizer, though. One more thing on the to-do and -learn list.

          Sounds like you’ve got the compost system down, and it sounds like a good system. A couple wheelbarrows of compost a week is excellent. Where’s all your green coming from? Is it primarily everybody’s kitchen compost combined? How many people, if so?

          I like the stakes used for aeration. In fact, I like the sound of your whole system. I’ll have to consider doing something like that, though right now it might not be that needed, what with the new place I’m living.

          • So far the green is from coffee grounds (high nitrogen), whatever people (8 or 9 folks other than myself, though that supply is sporadic) bring from home plus mowings from around the garden itself. However, this year we’ve already started a comfry patch for a more sustainable supply – again, high nitrogen.

            In my experience, which isn’t broad in this area, manure should be allowed to sit awhile before applying it to the soil. One method I’ve used in the far past is to spread it – more or less fresh – over the area that will be next year’s garden and then cover it with straw. Sort of a ‘sheet-composting’ method. Works pretty good, but only if you have a large garden space.

            Also, as I noted before, the method I use isn’t distinctly ‘mine’, it’s basically the system promoted by Rodale, et al, for many years, although I’ve tweaked it extensively.

            • Ha, I guess you had already told me much the make up of the compost in your earlier comment. Whoops. I swear, I’m paying attention—for the most part. Heh. Good call on the comfrey! I have yet to try that myself, but I’ve heard good things. It’s supposed to make an excellent compost tea, as well.

              Yes on the sitting of manure. That’s my understanding, as well, though I’m not an expert, either. The approach you’ve taken—spreading fresh and letting it sit over the winter to break down—is pretty much what I want to do. Seems like the amount of work that appeals to me. And I do have a large garden space. I think it could work. I want to make that happen this fall.

              Anyway, I should add a good composting hand book to my list of reading for the year.

  4. Your last two posts have covered some wonderful territory, and it got me thinking about Freud’s aphorism that love and work are the cornerstones to our humanness. It seems like you’ve found good work, and that is an achievement in a day and age when we are pressured to be wage-drones and passive consumers rather than active in our own works.

    • Thank you, Andy. I have indeed found good work, and I feel really blessed for it. I haven’t always had it, so I do appreciate it.

      Love and work do indeed strike me as the cornerstones to being human. Good work is critical–it’s a condemnation of our society that we’ve turned so much work from good to bad.

      I like your post. Thanks for sharing it, and for the link.

  5. I really enjoyed your recent post, Joel. It kind of made me laugh because it reminded me of my Grandpa! He always said “Your peas should be in by Washington’s birthday!” (He was born in WA state, though, actually, it was WA Territory at the time of his birth. He loved to tell people he was “conceived in North Carolina and born in the Territory of WA!” It became a state a few months after his birth, 1889.) Anyway, my mother and father can remember many a time out sowing the peas in falling snow! This was in western WA. Weather probably similar to yours. No garden for me this year, unfortunately, as I’m living in a small apt., but my daughter and I plan to FILL the lanai with a potted garden. Also, I’ll be getting a plot in the community garden. I also can’t wait to get out there in the CO sun and forget all my worries in the soil. The meditative aspects are, for me, almost as good as spinning yarn on my wheel, but in addition to that, I get tired out in a good way.
    Blessings, Joel, and thanks again for your blog. It’s one of the things keeping me going right now.

    Heather Caparoso
    • Glad you’ll be at least going with a potted garden, Heather. Seems like there’s always some way to grow plants if you really want to. And I’m sure the community garden plot will be helpful and productive, as well. Hopefully a bit of good community, to boot. I never did get a plot in Portland (there was quite the waiting list for them) but I imagine it would be fun visiting with others while you worked away in your bit of dirt. That was my romanticized imagining, anyway.

      Agree wholeheartedly on not just the meditative aspects, but the good tired. That’s was one of my favorite things when I first started veggie farming–and remains one of my favorite bits about gardening. When you have a full day of working in the dirt, and you’re tired and sore at the end, there’s just little that’s more satisfying than that. Leads to a good night of well-earned sleep. Wonderful.

      Thanks, as always, for the kind words. And sorry for the delayed response. Busy week.

  6. Hi Joel. Nice post, that is very astute calling it the long game.

    It is always interesting getting climate comparisons. The daffodils, tulips and bluebells start popping up out of the ground here in late August (your February, I guess). Nothing here eats the daffodils, although the kangaroos will stomp on them from time to time (not with intent). The tulips and bluebells are a preferred snack for the wallabies so I’ve now planted them in areas where they are not as likely to go. Two nights ago was a disturbed nights sleep because of a lot of outside goings on – plus the dogs were going ballistic. I found out the source of all the activity the next day: kangaroos had gotten onto the veranda here and ate all of my tree nursery seedlings. I never imagined that might have happened when I put the seedlings there. I’ll have to head out again and pick some more of the seeds and propagate them up again…

    The hoop houses here are usually used to grow tomatoes and sub-tropical plants. Just out of interest, how do you get water inside your hoop house? Do you also bring in some compost or manure early in the season?

    I hear you about the dust from compost and mulch…

    You are so right about it being the long game of learning. It will be interesting to see whether starting early means that you spread the work over a longer period of time and it loses its intensity making it easier overall (maybe the work is changing the way you think?).

    After a few years now, I find that I’m doing things because it is the optimal time to start the task give or take a week or two depending on the weather. I keep photos and a diary and they never forget or remember it differently (unlike my own memory!). I’ve just transplanted a lot of cuttings about the place because it felt like the right time to do this task. Thoughts are now also turning towards retrieving stored firewood from about the place. After the firewood storage is full, there’ll be spreading more compost and mulch about the place. Then it’s firewood cutting and splitting time. I’ll have to install a wind turbine over the next month too in the hope of weaning myself off the generator this year (it was used about 50 hours last year).

    It has taken years for me to accept that here Autumn, Winter and Spring are the time for outdoor work. It is counter intuitive but it is just what works here.

    Much respect. Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      Funny. You gave me the mental image of a kangaroo stomping on daffodils. I kind of enjoyed the absurdity of it. So far as I can tell, nothing here eats the daffodils, either, and I have yet to see anything stomp on them. My roommates are known to cut them and bring them inside, though.

      As for the tree seedlings—ack! That’s no good. Sorry for the kangaroo invasion–hopefully you’re recovering well with new stock. I guess better for them to be eaten now than after they’ve been planted and growing for a year or two.

      I’ve just been watering the hoop house with a hose. There’s a faucet right outside it, so it’s easy to run a hose in there with a nozzle attachment and then water by hand. All the places I’ve worked have had drip systems in their hoop houses, but I haven’t been willing to invest in one of those set ups. They can be a bit expensive—and it’s just that much more plastic out and about in the world. Since I don’t know if I’ll be gardening here beyond this year, it doesn’t seem to warrant the investment. Plus, watering by hand isn’t all that hard for me, since I’m on the gardening scale (though it’s a bit of a big garden!)

      I actually will be growing tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, basil and other such hot weather crops in the hoop house. I’m just making a quick run of greens in there before that, since I probably won’t start transplanting those into there until May, when the weather warms up. And I probably will only plant a couple beds, just in case I want to get in at least some of my tomatoes before I’m ready to pull the greens out.

      I put some compost broken down from cow manure in the hoop house last year, but I know some people are leery about putting animal manures in their hoop house due to fears of a salt build up, since the ground isn’t being rained on. Not sure how big of a problem that is, but it seems a legitimate concern to me. For this planting, I just put down some complete organic I still had from last year, which is a mix of alfalfa meal (blood meal really would have been better for this time of year) a mineral mix, lime, and kelp meal. It’s a good fertilizer, but it doesn’t replace organic matter. I’ll need to do that. I’ll have to decide on a scheme for this winter. I’d like to utilize the copious cow manure available on the farm and, ideally, cut out the purchased organic fertilizers, but I admittedly haven’t fully figured out that scheme. I should, though—it’s quite important! I wanted to put manure on the garden last fall to break down over the course of the winter, but I just never got to it.

      I think starting earlier will help with spreading out the work. I won’t feel as rushed as I did last year, at least. And I suspect that the work won’t feel quite so overwhelming this year now that I have a season under my belt. It just becomes more and more normal, and not such a big deal. I respect your journal activity, though. That’s something I also need to get done. So far, my gardening activities have been a bit haphazard and scattered. I really should get more organized and better planned, and keeping a record of activities and results would help with that.

  7. Hi Joel and Martin. With the 14 chickens here I run them on a deep litter system of composted woody mulch which is completely fenced off from all of the predators in the forest which would love to eat them. The chickens do their manure into the woody mulch (which at some points is up to a foot deep). They also scratch and turn it over all day long. The nitrogen from the manure and the carbon from the woody mulch plus all of the scratchings (aerating) become compost pretty quickly which I then feed directly – no further waiting – to the fruit trees, herbs, flowers and vegetables. I’ve never seen any problems or burning of the foliage. When I take out the compost from the chook run, I always replace it with new woody mulch and the cycle goes on. The inside of the hen house has a concrete floor and plywood boxes with steel reo perches so I can sweep out all of their manure into the run (timber perches encourages chook feet parasites). The only time the chook run and house has any smell is when one of the chooks goes broody and they get a bit sweaty smelling especially over the hot summer. I have a low tolerance for broody chooks and just pick them up and throw them (well gently anyway) into the chook run or out into the orchard to free range! Chooks were originally jungle birds so the fertilising is part of their niche in the ecosystem. There is not much sadder than a stinky chook house and run because the environment is a bit out of balance, but it is easy to fix and then it becomes a useful and productive part of the garden. Chris

    • Chris –

      Some years back I had a similar system going in a place I used to live in another lifetime. I had a small, but completely enclosed chicken pen with (only) six or seven hens.

      During the 9 or so warmer months of the year, all the grass clippings and ground-up trimmings from the trees and shrubs (this was on a moderate-sized lot in the city) plus stuff from the kitchen went into the pen where I let the ladies pick, kick and fertilize it for a week or so. From there it went into the compost bin to ‘finish’ for another week or so – mainly to cook out any bad micro-bugs and possible diseases – and then into the garden and around the trees and shrubs.

      Worked pretty well.

      I share your intolerance for broodies and I treated them the same way you do.

      • Hi Chris and Martin,

        Both sounds like great systems! I’ll have to keep these thoughts in mind for whenever I have a run of my own chickens.

        As for broodies, I’ll raise my hand as the third in treating them similarly. Worst I ever had was a bantam. Man, did she make a hell of a racket whenever I took her off her nest and tossed her outside! Amazing that such a little bird could make so loud and much a noise. Took a few tosses before she finally gave up on the brooding.

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