by Kristin Cosentino
Ah, springtime! In California’s Central Valley, as in many parts of the country, the months of spring are a welcome respite from the colder winter months. Actually, in the Central Valley it’s something of a bittersweet time because our spring lasts–if we’re lucky–a month.
What’s the line from that Tennyson poem? In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. That’s all well and good, but in spring my thoughts turn to my summer garden. And I’m a woman, but that’s beside the point.
This past spring, my husband and I went out to our postage-stamp backyard to prepare the soil in the raised bed that he built a few years ago. As we were pulling weeds, digging up and mulching the soil, and sweating in the warm April sun, we were chatting about what we’d like to plant, and I mentioned that I wanted a bigger garden this year. We stopped working, looked around the yard, and quickly determined the impossibility of that wish.
Then I remembered something I’d read in a book our son Vince got us for Christmas. My husband and I have, in the past couple of years, become vegetarians–semi-vegans, actually–and Vince got us this terrific book called Grow, Cook, Eat by Willi Galloway (Sasquatch Books, 2012). The first section of the book is called “Gardening Fundamentals,” and in that section Galloway includes directions for how to transform a lawn into a vegetable garden.
A bit of background on our backyard might be helpful here: our house was originally owned by an older–much older–woman who, for obvious reasons, didn’t require a big lawn for kids to play on and pets to defecate on. So the entire backyard had been covered with cement, leaving a small lawn–very small, as in 10 feet by 10 feet!
Ever since we bought the house in 2003, we’ve wanted to do something with that pathetic patch of greenery, but lack of time and money or maybe just laziness, have turned what used to be a decent, if miniscule, lawn into a weedy wasteland. I hated it, and who needs a lawn, anyway? A lawn in the Central Valley is about as environmentally friendly as a tropical garden in the desert. Lawns take up way too much precious water and require large amounts of chemicals, neither of which I’m OK with.
So I zeroed in on that useless piece of ground and my eyes lit up with excitement. I abandoned the raised bed to my husband, went right into the house, read Galloway’s directions and wrote up a shopping list. The very next day we made a trip to Fresno Ag, our locally owned home-improvement store, and bought a hundred dollars’ worth of supplies, and the day after that, I single-handedly built our new garden bed.
It’s basically a big, rectangular layer cake composed of dirt and other components. The first step was to have my husband mow the “grass” as low to the ground as possible (so I guess I didn’t “single-handedly” build the bed after all).
Then I made a mistake. I was supposed to put a layer of composted steer manure over the newly mown lawn and then a layer of cardboard, but I somehow switched those steps. I had just finished covering the lawn with cardboard and drenching it with water, which is the following step, when I realized my mistake. So I sighed and pulled all the wet cardboard off, shoveled the rather ripe-smelling manure over the grass and reapplied the now dry cardboard.
The rest of the process went pretty smoothly. After rewetting the cardboard, I added a mix of grass clippings and straw, soaked it with water and proceeded with the final step of topping it off with a fifty-fifty mixture of soil and compost. The only hitch here was that I underestimated how much soil and compost I would need, so after another quick trip to Fresno Ag, I was able to finish my project.
It was a gorgeous sight: a two-foot thick pile of organic, life-giving material. We planted both beds the next day and by the middle of July; our garden was a riot of zucchini, eggplants, tomatoes and other heat-loving vegetation. And we ate like kings! In fact, our formerly unproductive lawn was so generous we had to suspend our beloved CSA (community supported agriculture) box because we simply couldn’t use all the vegetables.
The garden is now finished for the season. The plants are still alive, but they are no longer producing anything, always a bit of a sad sight for a gardener. But no matter; I’m already dreaming of my winter garden. Carrots? Broccoli? Beets? Yes, please.
Oh, and I learned a very valuable lesson: never plant more than three zucchini plants for a family of five.