Garden|Lifestyle

Organic Gardening: Year One

From summer salads to bean bugs, the highs and lows of my first growing season at Chinquapin Community Organic Gardens. 

When I moved to Virginia, I knew I wanted to join, or even start a community garden. I had gained, albeit limited, experience with community gardens and sustainable food previously in Austin, Texas. After a quick online search of nearby gardens, I realized the waiting list to join any of my preferred gardens would take 1+ years. Undeterred, I set out to start my own. Yet, before I would strike ground on my own community garden, I met Marlin Lord, Director of the Chinquapin Community Organic Gardens in Alexandria. We met initially to discuss the questions I had about the red-tape and realities of starting a garden. By the time I finished my cup of coffee, Marlin had convinced me that I should instead share a quarter of his plot at Chinquapin while my name was on the waiting list. I agreed.

My first year at Chinquapin as an organic gardener has been an extremely humbling and exciting experience. I have witnessed my fair share of gardening woes, but also produced enough yield to experience the joys of garden-to-table living. The following are a few of my field observations.

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Deer are food, not friends. The task of keeping deer from eating my vegetable plants’ flowers before they bore fruit, not to mention my poor sunflowers, proved to be a losing battle. My small plot’s proximity to the neighboring nature trail and ill-conceived fencing made my plants easy targets for deer during their snack time graze. Even our trusted gnome proved to be a lazy security guard. I’ve heard that marking your territory the old-fashioned way is effective; however, I think my plot neighbors would frown at the sight of me angrily squatting in revenge between my tomato cages. 

The wrath of the Bean Beetles. To the untrained eye (me), what may seem like a plethora of ladybugs might be an infestation of Bean Beetles, and they WILL eat all your beans. I inherited a lovely iron fence about three-foot-high along the western barrier of my plot that I thought would be perfect for planting pole beans. I imagined the arms of the beans climbing the trellises of the fencing. As they continued to grow, I noticed cute little beetles inhabiting my beans, which I thought were ladybugs. I soon realized these bugs were in fact Bean Beetles that quickly corrupted my plant. This season’s pathetic pole bean yield: 4 beans. 

Mislabeled seeds, a Parable. On rare occasion, your beloved garden store might mislabel squash transplants as cucumber transplants, and you won’t realize this error until it’s too late. Squash yield: 0. Cucumber yield: 0.

Thoughtful plot planning. Surprisingly enough, putting a bean trellis too close to other plants will result in the vines depriving other deserving plants from much needed sunlight. In year one, I also learned the value in a footpath in your garden. Strategic footpaths will help you avoid the Twister-like contortions necessary to reach your plants when ready to harvest. 

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Small Victories. During my first year at the gardens I turned an unused plot into a healthy, organic, nutrient rich vegetable garden. We harvested enough sage for drying and smudging our apartment, tomatillos and cilantro for salsa, jalapeños for pickling, oregano for spice blends, parsley and tomatoes for tabbouleh, along with enough lettuce, arugula, and spinach for salads all summer long.

Building foundations for the future. Over the course of the year, I developed an appreciation for the relationship between the land, the seasons, and the food we put into our bodies. Throughout this process, I also established relationships with other community members, garden members, garden board, and made a few new friends along the way. Although challenging at times, I continued to seek organic, non-toxic solutions to problems that arose our garden. For example, using baking soda can treat plant mildew during the humid DC summers. 

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Looking forward, I will upgrade to a full plot and keep my half plot with Marlin. And come April, I will be the proud mama to a hive of bees. In year two, I expect to grow as much as my garden does.

~ Hunter

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