So my friend, Richard, called me the other day after shopping with his granddaughter. He was obviously troubled by something.
"It hit me, " he said. "We were looking at a display of butterfly nets and it hit me. This might be it. This might be the end of the butterflies, the end of everything. And we are witnessing it."
This is a game we play a bit, Richard and me. He sees the doom, and I throw him the net of hope.
"But we can change things," I replied, flinging the line to him, praying he'll grab the end and hold on. "Little actions matter."
This is a man who rides his bike all over town, who recycles paint by mixing kitty litter into the cans and letting it dry for days, moving the paint under the porch during the daily bouts of thunder. He planted a vegetable garden this year at his granddaughter's house, walking over there every day or two to hoe, to weed, to water. He's doing things.
"Richard, look at my garden. It has only been four years and already I have a complete ecosystem out there. The bees may be dying elsewhere, but here they are thriving. I have birds. I have whole families of bunnies. And yes, I have butterflies." So many in fact, that my younger daughter leaves nets scattered about so that she can chase and catch them wherever she is in the yard, resting them on her hand, watching them, and inevitably smiling and calling to me, "Mommmmmmm. It likes me!"
So Richard answered me, "You have to tell people how easy it is. People don't know where to start with gardens. You have to tell them."
I told him I'm in no position to give any advice on gardens. All I know is what works in my little microclimate, in my little corner of the world.
"So tell them that, Pattie."
So here goes. It will make Richard happy. And maybe it might help someone get started. And that means more butterflies for grandchildren.
1. Soil. The whole, digging-up-the-soil thing intimidated me. So I didn't. During the dead of winter, I covered a patch of the lawn with 10 layers of newspaper. Then, I removed the seats from the minivan, loaded up the car with 50-pound bags of top soil and manure and hauled those babies out to the yard, where I proceeded to pour it all in five-foot by three-foot mounds. Looked more like gravesites. I piled wheat hay in the paths between the mounds. In total, this was about a three-hour job. In a morning, I had a very pretty layout for the garden. It has grown over the years to now include about ten of these raised beds.
2. Compost Pile. I bought chicken wire and enclosed a small corner of the yard, where I throw garden debris such as old vines, fast-growings crops such as crimson clover, and plants that are past their prime. Setting this up took really just moments. I stopped adding kitchen scraps to this compost pile after the first year because of the appearance of scattering tails when I would go out to the pile each day. I eventually would like an enclosed composting tumbler so I can use the kitchen scraps again. I spread compost from this pile about once a month or two on all the crops.
3. Perennial Herbs. I dedicated one bed to perennial herbs. I added a few new ones each year until it filled up, and now I pretty much do nothing except enjoy them all.
4. Vegetables. I grow most of my crops from seed because I like heirloom varieties and they are hard to find as transplants. Also, I find they are more robust when I grow them from seed. I used to try starting them indoors, but found it was more work and mess than I really had room for in my life. Besides, Atlanta has a long growing season and I am very happy to have my crops a little later. Actually, when the watermelons are done at the farmers market, they are just about ready in my garden. Works out just fine. I even carved one for Halloween one year.
5. Crop Rotation. I may start a row of the same crop together, but as they grow, I move them around the garden. I like to do science experiments where I see how plants from the same batch fare in slightly different conditions. I also think it confuses pests to not have the same crop all together. And visually, it ends up quite pretty to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that here and there.
6. Nutrients. Plants are like people, I find. They need different things, but if I pay attention, they pretty much let me know what they want, where they will be happiest, how I can best accommodate them. When they get a little wilty or yellow or purple (in the case of brassicas), I know they are hungry for some nutrients. Time for fish emulsion or compost or manure tea, or that great bag of minerals I bought at the Morningside Farmers Market from Crystal Organic Farms. I asked Helen Dumba, a lovely older woman originally from Belgium, which crops would most enjoy her minerals and she smiled and answered, " Everyone loves minerals." Manure tea, by the way, is just a big shovelful of manure in a ten-gallon drum with water added and a lid on top. I dip a bucket in there and pour the tea on the roots of all the plants. They thrive on it.
7. Water. I keep an eye on my rain gauge. A good soaking storm means I don't water for a day or two. Otherwise, I water just about every night. It takes about 20-30 minutes to do the whole garden, and frankly, it's one of my favorite times of the day. After dinner, as the sun sets behind the maple trees, behind the hammock, the air punctuated with sounds of distant children on a trampoline, a basketball bouncing, a cardinal.
8. Maintenance. I'm estimating I spend about 30 minutes a day, with about a two-hour jag once a week, maintaining my garden. But don't let that scare you off, because the constant need for hovering is probably what kept me from gardening for so many years. I'm not a hoverer. I'm a mover-forwarder. Yet working out there has become an absolutely essential joy in my day. It is endlessly fascinating, rewarding and relaxing in ways I never anticipated. I solve the problems of the world as I dig in that dirt. And, of course, there are always the butterflies . . .