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July 22, 2009 > A green thumb in the making

A green thumb in the making

Our family's first garden

By Alyson Whitaker
Photos By Alyson Whitaker

I have never been one to have much of a green thumb. We've had an assortment of houseplants through the years, most of which have died due to neglect. So this past spring, when I told my husband that I'd like to plant a vegetable garden in the open space behind our house, his lack of enthusiasm was understandable. I was convinced, however, that growing vegetables - plants we could actually eat - would give me the motivation to keep them alive and well.

In early March, I lovingly planted little seeds in a soil-filled egg carton on my kitchen counter. Each morning, my children and I eagerly raced to see what growth had occurred overnight, and oohed and aahed at the progress! Soon, it was time to move them outdoors. Because the earth around our house is as hard as rock, we opted for the "raised bed" method of gardening. We built two 2' x 8' boxes, covered the bottom with chicken wire to keep out burrowing pests, and filled them with nutrient-rich soil and compost. We planted a variety of lettuce, spinach and other greens, cucumbers, green beans, sugar snap peas, eggplant, squash, zucchini, melons, berries, a few herbs, and the ever-popular tomatoes.

There has been a learning curve this year as I have discovered what works and doesn't work, what we like to eat, and what we don't. In an effort to broaden our taste palette, I planted a few vegetables that we weren't accustomed to eating, nor did I know how to prepare. After trying nearly a dozen different preparations for Swiss chard and kale, I came to the conclusion that maybe next year one plant of each will suffice, rather than the six each I planted this year. I didn't manage to cook a single green bean from the two starts I planted, as my six-year old son gobbled every single one right off the bush before they even made it in the house. Next year, I'll account for that and plant more.

We have also had the issue of pests to deal with. One afternoon in early May, I noticed a few holes in the lettuce leaves. I fondly thought of the well-known Eric Carle book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." The next day, the number of holes had doubled, and then tripled by the following day. Suddenly, that very hungry caterpillar wasn't quite as adorable... and when my daughter's "caterpillar hunt" turned up nearly 50 hungry little crawlers, I realized that a more proactive approach was in order if we actually wanted to eat what we were planting!

Wild turkeys and birds have also made a dent in our harvest. I thought I would outsmart the wildlife around us by laying garden netting over most of the plants, but they have been cunning enough to figure out where the gaps are and sneak in to grab the ripening berries before we have a chance to pick them.

There is a family of deer that resides in the hills behind our house. The chain link fence we erected around the garden area has done an adequate job of keeping them out of the planters. Looking out our kitchen window, we can see them looking longingly at the vegetables just outside of their reach. Watching the wildlife up close has provided our children hours of entertainment during warm summer evenings.

In spite of the challenges that we've faced this first year, there has also come a great deal of satisfaction. Almost all of the plants have survived to the point of harvest... in spite of me! It has become a family affair, and going out to check on the garden has become our after-dinner ritual. Our children have tried, and actually liked, several new vegetables this year. Something about watching a plant grow from a tiny seed to an edible vegetable, and then harvesting and helping prepare it, makes an otherwise resistant child open to trying something new.

Grilled squash and zucchini are the early favorites this year. Our tomatoes are just beginning to blush, and I know that in a matter of a few weeks, they'll be ripening by the bushel... and my mouth is watering at the thought!

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