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Katie Whitney, watering her garden, Ann Arbor, MI

Busting Sod

Confessions of a novice gardener

by Katie Whitney

Published in November, 2009

I killed zucchini. And it was my backup plant. It's so easy to grow that it's literally a joke: someone who buys a zuke in the summer has no friends. As a first-time community gardener with Project Grow, not to mention a first-time vegetable gardener, I took certain measures against humiliation. But humiliation finds a way.

Knowing zilch about organic gardens, I did what any good English major would do. I bought a book--a heavy tome made with recycled paper and vegetable ink, filled with glossy photos and notes on worm composting and soil composition. On the advice of my book, I pulled up 200 square feet of overgrown lawn with only a shovel--since a rototiller supposedly would have compacted the clay soil. (Note to personal trainers: this is an excellent glutes workout. It's like doing the Buns of Steel video several times back to back.)

Garden lesson one: there's a huge divide between grassroots and grass roots. In The Omnivore's Dilemma--a book associated with all the fervor of grassroots locavorism--Michael Pollan explains how grass withstands cutting and grazing. The roots of the plant grow in a long, horizontal ground-hugging pattern. Like an iceberg, the vast majority of this lies under the surface. Mowing it merely helps weed out anything that might grow taller and block out the sunlight. Which means this clever little plant has adapted itself to us. Evolution is charming, isn't it? That is, until the raw fingers of your cramped hands are trying to pull the last few inches of a three-foot-long grass root that you've painstakingly wrestled from its iron grip on the earth, only to have it break off at the last second. The opposable thumb's got nothing on the grass root. Those streamlined leaves that Walt Whitman loved with every atom of his being made a small part of me wish this weren't an organic garden, so that I could use a chemical weed killer as evil as the grass. When

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my half plot was finally cleared of all but soil and the overgrown rhubarb and oregano courtesy of last year's gardener, I knew the hard part was over.

Garden lesson two: plants die if they don't get water. I know what you're thinking, but don't underestimate the trickiness of clay soil. I did water (I swear!), but after the hose had sprayed my newly planted seedlings for approximately five seconds, the garden was a swamp. I turned off the hose and came to the only logical conclusion. I had overwatered. The next day I had desiccated plants.

Garden lesson three: mulch. One week after laying straw around my few surviving plants, they had grown five times larger. Although my tomatoes look to be about two weeks behind all my neighbors' plants, they are finally blooming.

I began this project with high ideals--to know once and for all exactly where my food came from, to be connected to the earth in some fundamental way, to weed out unimportance and cultivate meaning. As with most of life's "meaningful" pursuits, what I gleaned was far more practical: Fly beetles like eggplant leaves. Gloves are not just for looks. Weeds aren't all bad. (I made a few dishes with the lemony sorrel that grows next to the chives, and a friend of mine dubbed me an official Ann Arbor hippie when I brought "weed salad" to her Fourth of July barbecue.)

I'm a long way from a true harvest, but I think with the help of all the knowledgeable and compassionate gardeners in the neighboring plots, I just may get a jar of salsa out of this after all.


Originally published in the 2009-2010 Ann Arbor Observer City Guide     (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2009.]


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