I’ve been gardening for several years with a lot of success. I’ve read hundreds of books on gardening and thousands of blog postings. I’m even a certified master gardener volunteer. I’ve tried hundreds of techniques and figured a lot of great tools and tricks to use to fast track beds and get good results. I’ve also helped others grow successful gardens and grow their own gardening skills in the process. Yep, that’s a photo of my soil before and soil after, in case you doubt my mad skills…
Anyhow, as a result of these experiences, over the last few years, at about this time, as I layout my garden, order my seeds, and see the year ahead, I think to myself “wow, now I’m a really skilled gardener”. Then by the end of the growing year, after I face some new challenge I hadn’t seen coming, encounter more drastic weather conditions, meet a new garden pest, or learn something ground-breaking from someone who really is a skilled gardener, then I realize I have barely scratched the surface of what it means to be a skilled gardener.
When we first started gardening, we barely had any soil. I started plants in compost holes just so they had a fighting chance. Now, we have between 8-12 inches of loamy good stuff in our vegetable beds thanks to heavy sheet mulching and compost trenching over the past couple years. And gardening in bona fide soil requires a different approach than struggling to make soil while trying to gardening.
Two years ago, I grew parsnips for the first time. I planted them in about an inch of compost, watered well until the tops sprouted, then left them to their fate. Thanks to mostly good rain that kept the soil moist but not wet, they grew like champs, even through clumps of clay and marginal soil to produce sweet tasting 10-12″ roots by fall.
When I laid out the garden last year, I reasoned that since parsnips had done so well in poor soil, if I gave them a proper bed, more like carrots, they’d grow like mangels on steroids. And since you can leave parsnips in the ground overwinter and dig them up as needed, I figured that would be a great solution for some of our cold weather food supply.
Those second year parsnips grew the most stunning foliage and when I dusted off and peaked at those creamy white shoulders, they were two to three inches thick by July. At the end of October, I decided to pull a few up to cook for friends. It turned out those magnificent shoulders were the extent of the root. After just a couple inches, the massive roots forked into multiple skinny roots that were too thin to be worth the trouble.
After research, I discovered that parsnip roots, unlike carrots, like a little firmness in the soil. Heavy organic matter at the soil surface encourages foliage growth, but little root development.
I am a big fan of no till gardening, but I realized after seeing similar root stunting and overactive foliage in other plants last year, that until you have at least a couple feet of soil, there’s value in doing a little soil mixing from time to time to disperse the good stuff deeper into the mineral rich clay still buried beneath.
So, I did some experimenting mid-season last year. At least so far, it doesn’t seem to take much. Aerating and loosening make a big difference. So, this year, I am doing more of that as part of my bed preparations and top dressing with a lighter load of compost and mulch than in previous years.
Also, this year as I began to layout my garden and plan my beds in my imagination before I even start most of my seeds, when that that thought of being a really skilled gardener surfaced again, there was a moment of pause and reflection. After which, the thought quickly dissipated giving way to a new thought.
Like our soil, with focused effort, each year I become a better gardener. Yet also like our soil, I am not there yet. There are some things only time can achieve. I’ve got a lot more growing to do both as a garden and in the garden before I get to claim the title of skilled. And even then, I am sure there will be more to learn. Wasn’t it Socrates who said true knowledge comes in knowing how little you know? Or was that Confucius?
Anyhow, gardening is a journey. A fellow homesteader and blogger (noharminfarmin), recently reminded me of that in one of his comments. Thank you for that reminder!
Hope you all enjoy a wonderful year of growing whether it be in the garden or in whatever other ways are most important to you!