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The long haul

(post, Lalena Dolby)


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I arrived at Joan’s shaded four square home just after 9:30am on Saturday. Joan had been ill and hadn’t been to the community garden for some time, but she had herbs she wanted to donate to the Colonel Summers Community Garden Herb Project, and I was there to pick them up. She gave me a tour of her backyard where I received useful advice about which herbs to plant directly into the earth and where, and which ones were so greedy that they’d need to spend their lives confined to pots.  After gathering the sage, oregano and parsley starts for the garden, I began to say thank you and good bye, when she grabbed her sun hat and a basket of tools. Only then did I notice the streaks of white sunscreen lining the edges of her silvery eyebrows. She wasn’t going to miss this. Joan was coming back to the garden. I later learned that the herb garden was her idea—one she’d been wanting to bring to fruition for years. 

Joan was the first to break ground, digging deeply and ruthlessly at the thickly rooted comfrey which had all but taken over the garden. She was also quick to point out the myriad invasive grasses with contorted roots that spread far and wide to the root zone of a beautiful pink peony and through the wire of the garden’s chain link fence. This all had to go. Not a speck of weed root could be left or our work would never be done—we’d be forever haunted by these garden bullies. And so, we, the somewhat lazy modern gardeners, persevered. We fought powerful and collective urges to hastily pull what we could of the weed tops, to leave much of the root unscathed, to cover up the evidence of our shortcuts with a bit of dirt so Joan wouldn’t notice. 

And for as much as we tried, our efforts still fell short of Joan’s. We really did give it our best, but there was no getting around the fact that we simply lacked a lifetime of experience. Joan has something many of us don’t. She grew up on the land, in rural Hillsboro, Oregon at a time when the town proper contained a mere 3,000 people. The landscape was rural and untainted by the countless strip malls and chain stores that now blemish its surface.  Joan was one of five children, and she wouldn’t have eaten were it not for the garden. 

Perhaps because of this, Joan gardens from a different time and perspective. From a time when a three-way soil blend couldn’t be bought by the yard and delivered. From a time when, for the average gardener, the path to good soil was longer than it is today. Soil was built over the span of years, not in an afternoon. It was built through steady work, cover crops, crop rotation and the addition of inputs from the family homestead, often in the form of manure from livestock, decomposing plant matter and kitchen scraps. Joan gardens with frugality and resourcefulness as her guides. But as frugal as she is with her external inputs, she is equally generous with her hard work, time, attention, and genuine love for growing food. 

Slow gardening won’t produce extraordinarily high yields right off the bat. It likely won’t make you the envy of your neighbors. It might not win you the giant tomato contest at the state fair. But it probably will help you develop an honest-to-goodness relationship with the land and an understanding of life—of a plant’s, the soil’s, an insect’s and perhaps best of all, your own. Kind of appealing, isn’t it?