the most weeds

July 28, 2014

This year’s garden is the biggest area I’ve ever attempted. And the most difficult land. And the most weeds. Not surprisingly, they quickly became more than I could manage. Even with hours of work, progress was slow–mostly because weeds grow back. They grew tall in places I’d yet to hoe and plant, creeping through vegetable seedlings, so invasive I feared disrupting the seedlings’ rooting process by pulling them out.

Crabgrass and field grass are resilient, and the rate at which they emerged told me that the garden had been plowed and tilled minimally, not enough to break up what had taken over those two years. These roots go deep and seem to spring back up in the spot they’re discarded.

At the beginning of June, I decided wood chips were the only solution. The woodchip pile was about 150 yards away, so I began lugging woodchips to the garden and spreading them–one five gallon bucket at a time. I realize that sounds a little pathetic (and impossible), but without a truck or a place to store a wheelbarrel, it was my only option.

After witnessing how arduous that method would be, I asked Jack for help. He brought a truck and we watched an afternoon pass loading and unloading woodchips from the truck bed and then laying them around the garden borders and between the rows. He even made a path at my insistence; I obviously like the outdoors, but I know better than to stomp through tall weeds (snakes!).  I worked more on my own later (we left a pile of woodchips at the garden’s edge) and covered the remaining area. The end result was ordered. It was beautiful.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetProcessed with VSCOcam with f2 presetphoto 1 Within two weeks, though, the weeds crept through our work. I redid it—all of it—scraping the chips off with a hoe, laying down newspaper, pouring water over the top to help the newspaper stay down, and covering that with woodchips. Again, I realize that this may seem like overkill, but after the time I’d already invested, I didn’t want them to take over, stealing the nutrients my vegetables needed.  This took me almost twice as long, especially since I somehow chose to work on the windiest days and often found myself chasing newspaper across the garden or standing in stretched stances, trying to hold the newspaper down while I reached for water jugs.

photo 1 photo 2photo 5When Alyssa visited, she helped me cover the area around one of the corn rows; I never went back and finished the other row. When I told my dad about my plan at the beginning of July, to re-cover everything, he said that the time of the summer, the weeds would outmatch my hoeing stamina.

I knew he was right; it was more work than I could do, so I tried ignoring the grass creeping through the woodchips and the weeds in the untended area growing taller and taller, slowly moving in, threatening to swallow my plot. photo 4 photo 5Now the surrounding weeds stand to my waist; in different places and varieties, taller. Weeds poke through any inch I missed with newspaper and woodchips, trained to find a spot through which to sprout.

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I am embarrassingly behind on blogging, so much so that it might be time to consider the purpose/usefulness of this exercise. Part of the truth is, I think, this: I spend so much time in the garden that there isn’t time to write about the garden. I bit off more than I ever have this summer–but I’m glad. In the interest of getting caught up (more) quickly and getting to some super cool stuff that’s happened lately, I present you an abridged version of May’s garden happenings.

photo 4While having the garden plowed and tilled was certainly helpful (and absolutely necessary),  I missed the fine, almost black soil I worked with in the Lawrence community garden, that I could work up in a few afternoons.  The soil in the new garden was either packed flat from heavy rain, broken up in chunks, covered with dead/dying weeds or some combination of the three. I have to work each potential row or bed multiple times to even have a chance at producing anything.

I spent an afternoon hoeing and planting my usual spring stuff, though it was a little late. I planted kale, spinach, lettuce, chard and some flower seeds. I watched them try to break through. And though some of it did, none of it did very well. You can see seedlings in the photo below, trying to creep through the cracks.

At this point, I’d used about 1/4 of the space I’d marked off for my plot, and felt discouraged about how/if I’d have the energy to make use of the rest.

I also missed the people from the community garden, and this was after only a few afternoons there alone. It felt like such a shame to have so much space and not to share it. photo 4The pastor mentioned that members of the church might be interested in gardening too, especially once someone else had shown interest. Initially, I was modest in my land acquisition, but when no one came, I expanded.

I started inviting friends. It serves both my purposes: I can get help with the large space AND I have friends there with me. As a third, ulterior motive, I can (hopefully) get someone else excited about growing stuff.

Aside from Jack, I first invited friend Madison to garden on a Sunday afternoon. Her grandparents suggested that she plant tomatoes with a gallon jug in the hole. You drill a hole in the bottom and fill the jug with water. This should create a slow, steady release of water. Sister Alyssa helped us.

Not only was Madison’s water jug idea smart, but she came prepared: with topsoil and a shovel. I have to admit, this hadn’t crossed my mind and initially, I thought topsoil was cheating. But then I saw how perfect the soil was, how it would give the plants’ roots a fighting chance. I planted my own tomato plant the same day, feeling guilty for sticking it straight into the dry dry ground.  I didn’t even own a shovel, which is pretty pathetic for a gardener, though I have since received one for my birthday from Jack. It was an excellent birthday gift.  I’ve also since caved and bought topsoil; it helps the seedlings get better established.

photo 1 photo 3(1)

Next, came corn. It’s super hearty/tough (accounting for the garden’s less than ideal soil conditions) and it takes up a lot of space (making good use of the big space). For this, I recruited Jack and his younger sister Amelia. When inviting people to garden, I worry that they’ll hate it, that they won’t enjoy digging and hoeing and sweating, and so I try to do the strenuous tasks, leaving them with the fun stuff, the planting, the watering. But so far, everyone has wanted to do the hard work. Amelia even said she might plant some stuff of her own, which I am obviously in favor of.  After a few hours, we had two long rows of corn planted. Judging by the photos, Jack and Amelia are happiest when working in unison.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4I’ve done a ton of planting since these photos, and I’ve decided it’s time to move from the expansion phase into the maintenance phase. Sadly crabgrass (and lots of it!) is moving in. But, I’m working hard, happily, and I’ve got a plan. We’re also to the garden “tour” portion of the summer (if you can call it a tour).  Already, I’ve had friends come see it and I have more coming next week. I make Jack observe its progress weekly.  I love it. I get to say Hey, this is my summer. This is what I do.

Writers need to catch readers’ attention. Additionally, as a nonfiction writer, I am compelled to tell the truth.

I assume that the title of the blog entry caught your attention–can you imagine me functioning without the community garden? The title is not only eye-catching, but also true. For a moment in time last week, I seriously believed that we may lose the garden.

Our story: We (the other community gardeners and I) received a bizarre email from a guy claiming he owned the land where the community garden is, and that the city threatened to take the land away from him. He said he didn’t want to do this, but that we needed to contact him within 24 hours so he could help. Also, the email was sent from a Kansas City business–a pawn shop.

I was confused. You’ll remember that two men who live in Kansas City own the land the community garden is on. You’ll also remember that last fall,  I met one of the men who owns the land. I thought they were both lawyers, so the fact that a pawn shop owner was contacting us was sketchy. The email was also super vague, most specifically in that it gave no reason for the city taking the garden away. I envisioned those scam phone calls from foreign countries asking for money or bank accounts or credit cards, though I wasn’t sure how they were going to scam us by threatening to get rid of the garden.

Despite my skepticism about the email’s validity, I imagined the rest of Lawrence summer sans garden. And then I stopped; I hated it.

Naturally, this email set off a chain of emails about what to do. Some thought it was a scam, some seemed legitimately worried, and others mocked pawn shop guy’s grammar (surprisingly, English teacher Kara was not one of those people).

Superhero Michael (no, for real, if you met him you’d agree) called the pawn shop.

The real story: Pawn shop guy is, in fact, co-owner of the land. Apparently, the City of Lawrence drove by the garden one day last month. We hadn’t mowed a tiny patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street. “Nevermind the undergrad neighborhoods filled with post-graduation and summer-celebration PBR cans and red Solo cups,” they must’ve said, “We’ve gotta get this community garden cleaned up.”So, they sent the owners’ lawyer a letter requesting that we mow the area.

If we didn’t mow the grass within a specified time frame, we would be fined. By the time the owner got the letter from his lawyer, the time frame was almost up (hence the 24-hour business). Apparently the man who owns the pawn shop is an older guy and not super great with email/etc, so he kind of freaked out (hence the vague, rushed email).

Superhero Michael biked to City Hall. They said it was no longer an issue. They’d gone by the garden the next week, and since it had been mowed (because we mow the grass), took it off “the list.” However, if we forget to mow again, we’ll be fined.

My analysis (rant): The city’s scolding/threat annoyed me. It’s The Man, man. We work tirelessly to restore and maintain an entire lot in Lawrence. And frankly, we do a pretty good job. It’s beautiful and produces a lot of food. People who live in the neighborhood often stop by and comment on the work we do. Yes, occasionally things get overgrown, but there are worse looking lots in Lawrence, lots that “deserve” to be scolded. If we were a sports team or a fraternity, it would be fine. *Wincing at my own blatant bias* I know that some of you will shake your heads like a parent/grandparent and say “Well, rules are rules,” but I don’t like this rule.

Aside from that debacle, things are going swimmingly in the garden. There’s a bit of summer-time planting to do. And lotsa weeding. And even more harvesting, cooking, eating, and giving food to friends.

The garden feels more manageable now than it did a few weeks ago, too, because we’ve spent some time cleaning things up, drying herbs and tea for later, re-mulching the pathways, and throwing things away that are done (mostly bolted spinach and lettuce).

Perhaps my most important plant related news is that I am in love with peas. IN LOVE. LOVE! It’s officially official. They are doing so well this year.

The offer still stands: if you’d like food, let me know. Those who have visited to pick food haven’t been disappointed. Support the rebellious, countercultural community gardeners. Down with The Man.Huzzah.

The last blog post was a downer. Honest and real, but a downer.  This post is going to be ultra-uplifting. Plus, yesterday, my dad asked if I had a back up plan if I didn’t get a job  (thanks for the vote of confidence, Jeff!). Sure don’t! Maybe I don’t have to say goodbye to the garden. I can move into the shed, sleep in a wheel barrow.

I also felt really responsible when my parents had to tell me to throw out moldy/smelly stuff from my fridge. Remember that butter post? The butter had smelled super funky for awhile but I thought that’s how it was supposed to smell. When you churn your own butter, there are no preservatives. Someone say “duh.”

Anyway, on to uplifting thoughts on community organization:

We had an emergency garden meeting last week. We sent super serious emails, chose a meeting time, and then at the meeting, laughed and smiled a lot and talked about ambitious things to do in the garden. So…not an emergency. But necessary. Bottom line: we need more organization.

When a newer member asked if things were always this relaxed, I realized they weren’t. After some reflection, we decided that things had changed for a number of reasons. First, my first year in the garden, we had: 1) a bossy person 2) a girl whose occupation was “community organizer” 3) a stellar group of middle schoolers who volunteered every week and pulled a ton of weeds and turned a lot of compost. None of these people are part of the garden anymore. Second, the number of community gardeners decreased in the last two years. So, we’re taking care of as much space and attempting as many things as before, but with fewer people. Finally, those of us who are gardening are there at different times and don’t see each other often. It’s hard to know what needs to be done. And it feels so solitary.

This garden is wonderful and shouldn’t feel solitary, nor should it be weedy, so we made changes. We changed our meeting time to accommodate more gardeners (5 pm on Sunday nights, you Lawrencians who have a hankering to garden). We made a list of tasks. We chose a treasurer. We sent a detailed email with our new ideas/plans/lists.

So, I might be projecting a little bit here, but stick with me: my thesis is about community work and writing, so I can’t help but consider the community garden in the context of that. I see strikingly similar complications/difficulties between my thesis and the community garden: the importance of communication, shared goals, reciprocity, collaboration.  Maybe it’s like when you buy a new car and then you see that car everywhere you go, but I think the connections are there. Or maybe my thesis is just about something I care about/believe in, so it’s connected to my other interests/hobbies.

This is not an indication of failure.  This is the nature of community work. It is fluid, changing, ongoing.  You are always clearing out weeds, re-planning and re-planting the same space, and working out the kinks because there are always weeds, seeds, and kinks.  Any time one piece leaves or is added or changes, everything shifts.

I’m also interested in researching why some people choose community gardens over their own private gardens. Another blog post. Or a book.

So, today was Sunday #1 of More Organized Community Garden. We worked on one item of our list–cleaning up the north fence.  *strains to remember cardinal directions*

Though we worked for an hour, we didn’t uncover much space. But, we put cardboard over it so the weeds/vines/trees won’t grow back. A work in progress.

We also practiced better communication. Garden friend Michael left us this note about planting corn. Handwritten notes held down by porcelain angels always trump emails. And our plan for overlap worked; Clare, Huan, and I were leaving the garden right as other gardeners arrived, so we could tell them what we’d done. We also smiled/laughed.

Next order of business is more garden watch parties and potlucks and celebrations.

First occasion of celebration: This Tuesday (2 days!), I defend my thesis at 9 am. At 11 am, you’ll (hopefully) be able to call me Master Bollinger. If you want to buy me lunch or a drink or an ice cream cone or if you just want to talk to me or watch a movie or call to say “You’re the greatest/smartest/best!” or make a music video or play catch, hit me up. “Having a drink at the Pig” are as concrete as my plans have gotten.  I probably can’t work the community garden or the lovely connections I made in this blog into my thesis defense, but boy, if I could!

Personal Victory(s)

March 22, 2012

Thesis submitted Monday 3/19 around noon (an entire day early!). That’s a photo of 76 pages of composition/service learning/Writing Center creation.

Because it’s sort of a big deal, I feel I should reflect…at least for a paragraph. Often, I’m not proud of academic writing, but I’m proud of this, which is nice. Honestly, finishing the whole thing was a little anti-climatic, though I’m sure it’ll sink in in a few days (ie when I wake up on a Tuesday morning and I don’t follow my typical thesis routine).

A personal victory for sure.

But that’s not the personal victory I want to talk about. I mostly told you because it means I have time to be outside and garden, and then tell you fine people about it.

My longest-following, most loyal blog readers might remember this, but here’s a recap (or read this entry). When I first started community gardening and this blog (almost two years ago!!!), one corner was completely taken over by crabgrass and weeds and onions.

I remember May 2010. It was rough. I had a big project I hated. I had also just broken up with a boy, though I didn’t tell you that then. I titled the blog “This is What Happens When I’ve Had It,” which older, smarter Kara finds hilariously awesome and appropriate.  I rarely “have it” (and if I do, few people see it), but that week I did “have it.”  And rather than “having it” at someone, I worked hard and pulled muscles in my back getting rid of many of those weeds.

I was happy/proud.

Well now, two years later, I’m even happier/prouder to report that after more work on Friday afternoon, those weeds are totally gone. Totally.

A personal victory for sure.

This time, I wasn’t particularly stressed, nor had I “had it.” It was the first Friday of Spring Break and beautiful outside and even though the thesis wasn’t finished, I thought it a shame to spend the day writing at my kitchen table.

I didn’t go to the garden intending to clean up weeds; I wanted to plant stuff. But, once I got there, starting totally clean/weed-free and using all the space in my plot made more sense than planting to the edge of the crabgrass.

Most importantly, when I got there, I felt the surge of  belonging I feel every time I step into that garden. Look at those feet/legs; they belong there. You take care of where you belong.

Then, I planted sweet potatoes, kale, spinach, and bok choi.

I found a tiny sprout of spinach coming back.

After I watered what I’d planted and accidentally sprayed my bike seat and bag, I picked some of the spinach that survived from last winter. I mentioned the spinach in the entry about carrots, but this was the first time I’d picked it since the fall.

It is delicious and I have it for pretty much every meal. If you are in Lawrence, tell me you want spinach and I’ll do my best to make it happen. If you are not in Lawrence, I will send you spinach with my heart.

That night, I felt the itchy-ness you get when you’ve been outside and gotten some sun. I saw straps on my feet after I’d taken off my sandals. It was great. Lawrence Bestie Mark said he could see the suntan on my face, too, though I doubt that’s true.

A personal victory and an early start on a suntan? I’ll take it.

It’s been raining steadily since Monday; those seeds have got to be a’germinatin’.