Looking back to the beginning
It is always nice to look back to the beginning and think about all the things that have happened along the way, and so I thought I would write a bit about my gardening journey. It all began when my children were little, and I started thinking about what we eat and how it is produced. As new mothers we are bombarded by so many well-meaning advice that it can be quite overwhelming, and for me it really changed how I think about food and the environment. It seemed that each day I was reading new and scary information about what goes into food production and how it affects children, and it escalated up to the point where I simply did not want to open the newspapers anymore. Instead, I decided to spend my summer holidays enjoying our time together and to try to grow my own vegetables. After all, how difficult can it be?
In the beginning I asked my neighbour to plow two small strips of field below the old farmhouse at Stensund, throw a skip of manure over them and dig out two vegetable beds from it. The first thing I realised was that it needed to have borders made from planks to raise the beds enough for the wild grass not to invade my plantings immediately. This was my first raised bed venture, and I quickly figured that was the way to go. Raised beds keep the soil in place and weeds at bay. That first year, I planted perennial crops like rhubarb and asparagus, and filled the rest of the space with potatoes, courgettes, peas, carrots and beetroots. The courgettes grew into monsters but carrots hardly grew, so I figured I did something wrong and started reading about vegetable gardening. And once I started reading, I found that there was an endless supply of information and inspiration to be had. Nowadays I have a whole bookshelf dedicated solely to gardening books, and it is forever expanding.
In the beginning I bought the biggest book on vegetable gardening that I could find, but it seemed to me that the most important thing it taught was fertilising, which left me confused. I didn't want to go down the non-organic route as the whole reason I was growing my own was to feed my family healthy vegetables without chemicals! Then I started reading only books on organic gardening, and to be honest I was equally confounded by all the advice on soil structure and ph-values and nitrogen content to name but a few of the intrinsic details the pages were filled with. One thing I did sus out though, was that the soil is as alive as the plants that grow in it and that it needed feeding to improve fertility and structure. Here too I found that having the vegetable beds contained and raised also makes it easier to improve the clay soil that was there, and over the next few years I kept adding manure and compost to make it more humus rich and easier to work with. At the same time, the raised beds helped in draining the growing space of excess water during rainy summers.
The next problem that cropped up was weeds. I thought "Oh my God how many weeds can fit into such a small space?!!" as I spent day in and day out weeding amongst the vegetables. It wasn't easy either, in the beginning, to differentiate between planted seedlings and weedy seedlings. They all looked much the same, and one year a whole crop of garlic seedlings disappeared with unwanted plants. Well, we learn from our misstakes... The next summer I learned to let the plants grow to 10 cm hight before weeding, and figured it was actually a method that works for me. Soil tends to become populated as soon as it is left bare, and so it was much simpler to let everything have a galloping growth start and then to weed out the rows once the plants are big enough to cast a bit of a shadow in between the rows. In the beginning I was fastidious at taking away everything, and sometimes planting a secondary crop in between the rows. Nowadays when space is less of a premium I happily leave weeds laid flat on the surface to dry and act as mulch between rows of plants.
In the beginning I felt an extraordinary sense of achievement and wonder at making something - anything - grow and this has never really left me. It is such joy to begin the season with a bare plot of land and a packet of seeds, and slowly see how it transforms into a jungle of plants populated with bees and insects. Of course, not all insects are equally welcome. The peas and beans are easy, but it has taken me a few years to learn to grow brassicas without devastating infestations of cabbage white butterflies. (Fleece netting over the plants is my favourite method of keeping them away, but eventually they turn up anyways. Then I just leave them and hope my plants are healthy enough to withstand some nibbling and that the birds will help me with the rest and have a proper feeding frenzy.) I tend to be a perfectionist, and one of the most important lessons I have learned from gardening is that it is really okey to settle for good enough. My vegetables taste just as good even when they aren't picture perfect!