Thanks for the Zucchini

By Lawrence E. Cummins

Research Editor

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    Pluck a ripened tomato from a vine and feel its cool, smooth skin. Savor the pungent aroma of the vine. Then shut your eyes for a moment while you bite through the soft skin of the tomato to taste the succulent goodness of this life-giving fruit. Eden isn’t far away.

    Such rhapsodizing is hardly possible from someone who has never raised his own fruits or vegetables, and it is surprising how many families have never enjoyed some of the obvious benefits of growing their own produce in their yards. Instead, they slavishly, even willingly, put up with the most miserable treatment from unruly lawns that are by nature mavericks.

    In their efforts to keep their grass eternally green and smooth, many home owners spend unlimited hours and huge sums of money fertilizing, cutting, rolling, aerating, and edging, only to be plagued with mildew, lawn moths, dollar spot, and a host of virulent and noxious weeds that come along to steal the nourishment meant for the lawn.

    How much more sensible it would be to utilize some of that dedication in growing something that we can eat. Unfortunately, the notion that one needs acreage rather than footage to have a successful vegetable garden has taken firm root in the minds of many home owners, particularly those who live on city lots. However, practically every family that has a yard can have a useful vegetable garden, and while enjoying the literal fruits of their labor in an exercise of self-sufficiency, they can also work toward a balanced ecology by composting all the organic materials they can gather and reusing them on their own property.

    If the size of your lot precludes a vegetable garden and a lawn, remember that if a choice must be made, vegetables and fruits can sustain your life, while sod is hardly edible and serves only as your final cover.

    So many books about plant and soil culture have been published that the mind of even the most avid gardener would boggle at their variety. In content these books range from the esoteric to the sublime. The title of one of them is The Ecology of Soil Bacteria—an International Symposium on Modes of Entry of Strontium into Plant Roots. Still other books advocate playing music to plants to excite the streaming protoplasm into increased activity.

    Fluting plants into fruition has, in fact, become an absorbing study for many serious-minded horticulturists. Particularly do they claim increased growth when pleasant music is played to plants in the early morning hours and at eventide when the pulsing protoplasm of growing tendrils tends to be sluggish.

    Further study of this heady subject discloses that a polygraph whose electrodes have been fastened to leaves of philodendrons records a marked fluctuation when anyone threatens the plant with violence. Curious as this phenomenon seems, we should not be too surprised because of our belief in the spirituality of all growing things.

    Although there is certainly no harm in playing music or singing while gardening, a practical approach to raising a garden would help even more. Says Sam J. Boal, an honest and straight-thinking man of the soil, “Much of the stuff which appears in … literature on gardens is pure bunk. A guide to gardening should not be a prose poem on the joys of country living, the spiritual satisfaction of grubbing in the rich, black earth, or the towering ecstasy of eating your own, first radish.

    “Facts are facts, and the joys of country life depend solely on what your idea of joy is, and what kind of country you live in. There is a considerable spiritual satisfaction in digging in a garden, but there is also a considerable backache in it, some of which is avoidable but most of which is not. As for your first radish, be proud of it, because it is yours and because a radish, in the scheme of things, is no mean fruit.” (Gardening—Without Bunk [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1942], p. 3.)

    During World War II, when foodstuffs were in short supply and transportation facilities were sorely taxed, Henry A. Wallace, who was secretary of agriculture in the United States at the time, stressed that food would win the war just as surely as armaments. And thousands of city dwellers took Mr. Wallace at his word and planted in their backyards what came to be known as “victory gardens.” Home gardens were even more prevalent in Europe during that period.

    It is that same kind of gardening spirit, but perhaps for different reasons, that needs to be cultivated again today. Think for a moment about how absolutely dependent most of us are on the transportation industry for our food. Together with the home storage program that we have been cautioned to maintain, our own fresh vegetables would help relieve the deadly monotony of subsisting on stored foods only in case of a crisis. But the benefits of our own vegetable garden can be enjoyed even more when we’re not stalked by catastrophe.

    So, if you have decided to plant a vegetable garden, here are some suggestions. First you will need a few simple tools; many you may already own. A cheap tool is a poor investment, because it won’t be dependable. At the other extreme, the most expensive tools are not necessary either. Remember that any tool, whatever the cost, will rust if left out in the weather. For your garden you will need a spade or a pointed shovel, a spading fork, a hoe, a heavy metal rake, a trowel, some opaque plastic tags and sticks for marking the vegetable rows, a bushel basket or a wheelbarrow for hauling, a hand cultivator with prongs, and two stakes and string for marking straight rows when you put in your seed.

    Except for those who have sufficient rain or are blessed with irrigation water, a strong garden hose to attach to an outside faucet is necessary. Depending on the shape of your garden, a rotary sprinkler that waters in a broad pattern or a set sprinkler that waters an oblong and narrow pattern can be used. For large gardens a wheeled cultivator and a gasoline-powered tilling machine are great time-savers.

    Although the time is past for planting a vegetable garden in many areas, it is an ideal time to begin preparing the seedbed for your garden next spring. And fundamental to the success of this project is the building of a compost pile. But before you turn up your nose at the thought of such an offensive project as collecting garbage in your backyard, consider some of the distinct advantages.

    You don’t have to be a soil scientist to be a good gardener, but some basic knowledge about soil might be helpful to you. Children seem to have a natural affinity for dirt before they can even toddle, and while we stop eating it as we grow older, we never really lose our attraction to that elemental substance.

    Soil found in wooded areas is chock-full of necessary nutrients for growing plants, and that’s why mountain soil commands such premium prices. But man can never hope to duplicate the prodigality of Mother Nature; he has neither the time nor the talent. Glaciers, running water, and wind abrade rocks and scatter minerals all over the earth, and earthquakes and volcanoes speed up the decomposition process. To this residue, called regolith, are added the remains of animals and other organic matter from plants that have died.

    Nature isn’t in any hurry to complete her seedbed. It may take hundreds or thousands of years to prepare it. Periodically she sends airborne seeds to test the fertility of her garden. The seeds she scatters come from a boundless supply replenished through a random layering of rock particles, leaves, trees, and other organic matter. The rain and the sun help to complete this continuous nitrogen and growth cycle.

    Because we can’t wait for wind, water, or a volcano to pile up perfectly proportioned humus in our backyard by some lucky circumstance, we have to prepare the seedbed ourselves. And composting is the closest method we know about for approximating the way Mother Nature does it.

    The best place to start a compost pile is on an unplanted strip at the edge of your garden. After selecting the site for the pile—a four-by-12-foot compost heap would feed a good-sized garden—construct a firm, latticework base of narrow boards. This simple structure is then placed on supports to provide a three- to four-inch air space underneath. This is the only structure required, but you will need a sheet of black polyethylene plastic in which the compost is completely wrapped. (For a small garden the compost could be kept in a well-aerated barrel.)

    There is no precise formula for creating a compost heap, so after you lay the plastic on the wooden base, throw on four to six inches of dirt and then a layer of grass clippings as a starter. The plastic is then brought up the side of the pile and folded over the top to make a giant bundle. When you next uncover the pile, toss on a barrowful of sand, perhaps a layer of dead flowers or shrub cuttings, and then another layer of dirt. A layer of manure or peat moss somewhere along the way will make your garden particularly tillable later on. Peelings and other organic material from inside the house are excellent, but avoid meat scraps and bones as they become smelly and might attract rodents. Fish, however, buried deep in the pile make terrific plant food.

    If the compost pile is kept covered with plastic and sprinkled periodically to keep it moist, its temperature is raised considerably, and that is the most important element in helping the bacteria of decomposition to work quickly. Keeping it covered will also eliminate any odor and fly problems from this source. In addition, the high temperature under the plastic kills weed seeds, so make these pesky plants work for you and toss them on the pile.

    Fallen leaves make an excellent addition to your compost pile. If you have a rotary lawn mower, you can prop it up, rake your leaves into it on one side, and when they come out on the other side they will be completely shredded and reduced 90 percent in volume. Twigs, cornstalks, leaves, and other organic material can be put through a small shredder that is sold commercially. The smaller the individual pieces of organic material in your pile, the more rapidly they decompose. Gasoline-powered shredders can be purchased for around $100. Several neighbors could share the cost of a shredder so that practically every home gardener would have access to one. Shredders aren’t a must, but they certainly save time in building a compost heap.

    Aerating the compost pile and making sure that it remains moist is as essential as keeping it covered with the heat-inducing plastic. Every time you add a layer on the pile, wet it down and cover it up with the plastic again. Punch holes about 18 inches apart all the way through the plastic-covered pile to the latticework underneath with a sharp stick or a metal pike, using a reaming motion to enlarge the opening so that some air can get into the pile. You could even construct air chimneys out of chicken wire if you wanted to go to the trouble. Use your digging fork every once in a while to turn over your compost material, being sure to remake air holes for the process of decomposition to continue. This should be done, too, after every substantial addition to the pile.

    When you begin to appreciate the value and the potential of the garden nutrient “generating plant” in your own yard, you will discover that you are on the lookout for organic materials even away from your home that can go into your compost pile. And there is an undeniable satisfaction in knowing that by recycling organic matter you are helping Mother Nature in her natural process rather than stripping away her bounties to lie fallow on some city dump.

    Too, your garden can decide what nutrients it needs from the natural source of your compost pile rather than from commercially prepared fertilizers which, if not used with care, can “burn” your vegetables.

    In the fall of the year uncover your compost pile and cart the material over to your garden plot, spreading it as evenly as possible over the entire planting area. If your soil is compacted, this hardpan can be broken up by planting cowhorn turnips in the early fall. These turnips will send down long searching roots that will be killed by the cold later on. The roots will then disintegrate, leaving a maze of drainage holes through the subsoil.

    In the spring dig up a part of your garden with a spading fork, sticking it down as deep as it will go. Then rake as deeply as you can and get rid of all the rocks, pulverizing and leveling the garden as you go. You don’t need to dig up the entire garden at once, just a portion for your earliest crops. Backyard gardens are best if, because of space limitations, they are planted in units of short rows. No elaborate garden plan on paper is necessary, and since most vegetables are good friends, when a seed packet runs out start another vegetable. Let your children each have a few rows to tend and you’ll be surprised at their interest and how carefully they watch and encourage each new sprout.

    When possible, plant your vegetables in succession. Sowing the same kind of seed in rows a few weeks apart will avoid the problem of disposing of a couple of bushels of cauliflower all ripening on the same weekend. If you drop a quick-sprouting radish seed every foot or so when planting carrots, you can tell where those slow starters will sprout up. Remember to sow sparingly, or you will have a lot of thinning to do. Plant only those vegetables that appeal to your family’s tastes.

    Here is a list of some hardy vegetables that do well in most gardens: carrots, radishes, onions, rhubarb (a perennial), lettuce, bush and pole beans, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, broccoli, peppers, spinach, turnips, squash, and perhaps an early potato.

    You should consider certain vegetables very carefully before planting them in your garden of rather limited space, because they all have some particular problems that you might not be prepared to deal with. Celery and watermelon take an inordinate amount of water. If you plant asparagus, don’t expect to have any for supper for three years—it takes that long to mature. Eggplant is another sluggish grower, and honeydew melons take 120 days to ripen. Parsnips also have a long growing season. Cabbage suffers from a number of woes, not the least of which is its attraction to a variety of bugs. (Speaking of bugs, some simple garlic emulsion sprays are proving effective in controlling insects that have become resistant to the generally banned DDT and other more potent insecticides.)

    To add color and flavor to your family meals, plant some parsley, dill, chives, and spearmint, but leave the fumitory, hyssop, and mugwort to the herbalist. Chives have an attractive lavender blossom, and the parsley and spearmint make a nice border plant. Pick them in the morning when their flavor is best, and dry them in a warm place—but not in the sun or oven.

    Two vegetables that are a delight to watch growing are the tomato (really a fruit) and the squash. Tomatoes are resistant to drought, and their lush foliage shades and kills nearby weeds. Opinion differs whether they should be staked and tied or not. After the yellow flower drops off, you can practically watch the fruit grow each day as it comes into its full ripeness. Squash—and there are umpteen varieties —has the most luxuriant foliage of all vegetables, as well as beautiful orange blossoms. It is because it grows so rapidly that home gardeners are hypnotized into letting zucchini squash grow until it looks like huge wooden clubs and tastes like it too. It should be picked when it is about nine inches long and delectable.

    Another thing about zucchini is that it seems to become ripe in bunches like grapes. No single family can possibly eat all the zucchini that profligate squash vines can produce, so it may be carted around to indulgent neighbors and relatives.

    Once you have planted your garden, you must water it faithfully. And gardening books to the contrary—those that claim that you can raise a garden with absolutely no effort—there will be some cultivating, because there will always be weeds. Discourage these with a mulch of straw or grass clippings up and down the vegetable rows. The mulch will also help to retain valuable moisture and keep the vegetables from getting muddy. When weeds do appear, dispatch them quickly with a thin loop of flat spring steel, attached to an old broomstick, that can pass easily through the soil and cut the weeds below the surface. A vintage corset stay would be excellent for this purpose.

    Then in the cool of the evening, when you sit on your patio watching your garden grow, you might take up a flute and play softly to keep that lazy protoplasm bouncing along in your vegetable patch.

    1. Build a latticework base on wooden strips and support it in a horizontal position with rocks or blocks, to allow the air to circulate.

    2. Spread a sheet of black polyethelene plastic over the latticework base, large enough to completely cover whatever size of compost pile you intend to make.

    3. Start the pile by throwing onto the unfolded plastic a layer of soil and then a layer of grass clippings or pulverized or shredded leaves.

    4. Fold the plastic sheet in from the ends and side over your compost material, just as you do when wrapping a sandwich with waxed paper.

    5. Punch holes about 18″ apart all the way through the plastic sheet and its contents with a sharp stick, using a reaming motion. These holes must be kept open, from top to bottom, that the decomposition process can proceed more rapidly. Unfold and lay plastic back when making an addition or when forking material over, then cover up completely. Be sure to ream air holes again.