Dig, If You Will

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A green-thumbed transplant gets grounded in the ways of First City gardening. N.W. Gabbey gets his hands dirty.

Written by N.W. Gabbey. Photography by Caroline Archer. 

I miss my garden.

For the 19 years we lived in Baltimore, my wife and I lovingly renovated a 1926 bungalow from pillar to porch.

And, we turned a strip of side yard between our house and the next-door neighbor’s into a fertile vegetable garden that fed us for a full decade.

Growing things comes naturally to me. One of my thumbs is coated white with flour, and the other is grass green. From my mom, I learned how to cook. Thanks to my dad, I learned how to handle a trowel and a spade. Even before the science of it all could become ruinous knowledge, I was transfixed by the alchemy of seed, soil, water and sun.

When we moved to Savannah last summer, effectively exchanging our 1926 Baltimore bungalow with a small city yard for a 1925 Ardsley Park bungalow with a small city yard, I could envision exactly where the new garden beds would grow, but I quickly learned our new ground was far from common.

Grow Victoriously

 

On a day off in late March, I spent a few hours with Reid Archer who, with Kerry Shay, founded Victory Gardens in 2014. Two humanities majors who were friends back in their days at Savannah Christian Preparatory School came home to farm. Out at their lovely patch of land, rather hidden just outside of Bonaventure Cemetery in Thunderbolt, Reid and I geeked out for two hours talking about everything from aphids to zucchini, a crash course for me in how to become a Savannah gardener.

“That’s one of the reasons we started this company,” Archer says, “because people are obviously excited about growing their own food and eating more locally to the point where they’re ready to start gardens.”

Best of all, I learned from Reid that I really haven’t missed out for the 2016 season—as long as I build my raised beds during this stretch of roasting and unkind weeks, I can yield my first harvest come November.

Which means you can, too.

Make Your Bed

 

Whereas I was forced to build raised beds upon concrete back in Baltimore, I wondered if I would be able to sow directly into my new yard’s soil.

In a word: no.

In more words, as native Savannahians already know, the soil here is really poor, sandy, and viciously acidic.

Archer explains, “Tilling that [ground soil] over and over, you’re going to deplete any organic matter really quick because it dries out fast … you’re just going to burn it up.”

He suggests, instead, raised beds, especially for folks who have less time to devote to amending the ground soil, which includes top-dressing every season with as much as an inch of nutrient-rich growing medium. Furthermore, with raised beds, you’ll have already won the battle against dollar weed, Florida betony (a.k.a. rattlesnake weed) and fire ants.

“Especially for the novice gardener, you’re eliminating a lot of your potential problems,” Archer advises.

Victory Garden makes prefab raised beds for its customers. These beds, a combination of cedar and galvanized steel panels, can be customized to fit whatever space is available. The home gardening movement has so blossomed in the last decade that the big box stores’ online sites, including Amazon, have dozens of raised bed iterations from which to choose, varying in size, material and even height off the ground.

Trim Your Crops

 

Christine Lucas of Herb Creek Landscape Supply agrees. “You’re creating fewer variables with a raised bed,” she says. And often less is more.

In the last several years, the “Square-Foot Garden” method has guided small-plot vegetable growers like me. A search on the internet of this practice yields thousands of diagrams and photographs, showing exactly how many seeds of every sort can be sown in neat square-foot grids. What they point to is that fewer seeds give each seedling more space. And with more space, the seedlings receive more sunlight and air circulation, which reduces disease and leads to larger crops and better yield.

Archer advises folks to plant less the first time out and not to succumb to the dream that their backyard will look like the Whole Foods produce department. In the spring, Archer suggests planting only tomatoes and basil in the same bed because of their similar growing needs and because of how well they go together once harvested. Once those plants are established, toss some lettuce seeds underneath the arms of the tomato plants because they will love that leafy protection from the sun. In the fall and winter seasons, choose three or four lettuce varieties or spinach and bok choy.

If at first you don’t harvest, plant, plant again. Go into the venture knowing that not everything is going to grow as planned and enjoying the magical science of nature. Between seasons, plant cover crops like black-eyed peas, eggplant, and okra that draw predatory wasps and other beneficial bugs.

Armed with my trusty trowel and all this knowledge, I can’t wait to make things grow in Savannah.

 

 

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