Planting Our First Garden

This will seem hopelessly elementary to many of you, but you need to understand just how much we have to learn, so I’m telling you blow-by-blow what we did to plant our first garden, blunders and all.


Thanks to my brother Dave Gray and his magical petroleum-slurping machines, we have a lovely and relatively flat area just south of the barn that Amanda has painstakingly cleaned up by picking up every branch and twig in sight, not to mention piles of human trash here and there. Lately we’ve taken to calling it Veg Hill in anticipation of planting our veg garden there, and that’s what we did yesterday.

before-shotHere’s what the plot looked like after Amanda’s cleanup work was more or less complete but before we started preparing the garden plot. You can see a stump in the foreground from our most recent fire. One of the first things we did was to use Tractor to push the stump (and its companion stump, not in the frame) a little further south where we are building another burn pile, and then Tractor smoothed out the remains of the fire to spread the bio-char around on the garden plot.

So we started with a small, relatively flat area. We decided where the corners of the veg garden would be (we agreed on a rectangle about 12 feet long and about 9 feet wide), and we marked the corners with four wooden stakes. We’ve known since the beginning of planning of the veg garden that our soil on Veg Hill was poor (as is most of the soil at Longleaf Breeze – that’s one reason longleaf pines do well there – limited competition). So we knew we would need to add to the fertility of the soil if we were going to see good results. Fortunately, we are blessed by the careless habits of the loggers who preceded us, who had piled up topsoil to get it out of their way.

topsoil-pile Here’s what the dirt pile between the barn and Veg Hill looked like when we started on it, with some delightful weeds and vines beginning to take hold. I say “delightful” only partially facetiously. One of the services the weeds have performed is to hold the topsoil in place and keep it from washing away in the rain. And after seeing a good bit of a previous $285 load of topsoil wash down the hill in repeated rainstorms, we can understand the value of that.

lee-pulling-sticks-from-topsoilI used Tractor to pick up several loads of this rich, black soil – I just love the smell of rich dirt. We pulled as many weeds and sticks out of it as we could while the dirt was still in the bucket, but after the first bucket load we learned to do it over a spot where we wanted topsoil, because cleaning out the bucket invariably dumped some of the soil below.

lee-dumping-topsoil-on-veg-gardenThen we distributed the resulting relatively clean topsoil on the garden plot. I tried to spread it out as I dumped it, but as you can see, there’s a limit to how much spreading you can do with Tractor. One of the challenges in operating the front end loader is that you see so little of what you’re doing. This shot helps you to understand how you have no idea when you’re operating the loader how much material is still in your bucket. One day I hope to be able to “feel” how much is left, but I clearly can’t do that yet. All I can do is mentally measure how much I started with and see what’s on the ground, and then try to estimate how much must still be in my bucket. Definitely an inexact science at best.

amanda-raking-soilBecause my distribution left uneven piles, Amanda and I both (okay, mainly Amanda) spent a good bit of time raking the piles and smoothing out the topsoil to even it up. This is when we had our first disagreement. As many of you already know, Amanda is at her happiest when she is working on a task until it is perfect in every way, with every t properly crossed and every i properly dotted. She would have been more than content to rake the soil in our fledgling garden until there was no particle in it larger than an ant.

I, on the other hand, am a consummate big-picture shoot-from-the-hip devotee who would be glad to plant around good-sized logs if we could see to harvest. So Lee is yelling for us to move on and start planting, and Amanda is serenely making her garden ready to be featured in Southern Living. Fortunately for me, we were saved from real conflict by the need to run to Tallassee to make it to True Value before it closed at noon. We knew we needed a watering can, because we had left all our hose at home.

I dropped Amanda off at ET’s Sandwich Shop on Gilmer and went on to True Value. Didn’t find a watering can, but they had something better, a great selection of plants, so I got two Sweet 100 tomatoes, a 9-pack of Better Boy tomatoes, a single Mountain Pride tomato, a Bonnie Bell pepper plant, and a Quinalt strawberry plant. By the time I paid for my selections¬† they had to unlock the door to let me out of True Value (by universal agreement, noon never really means noon at True Value, but there does come a point when they’re ready to go home), and Amanda was ready with the sandwich at ET’s. She was grading papers at the table next to our friend Melissa when I drove up.

Still no watering can, though. I was planning to use the five gallon water can we bought a year or so ago, but Amanda knew better. She suggested we try Wal-Mart before we give up. Good idea. Those of you who live in cities probably need to spend time at the Tallassee Wal-Mart to appreciate what you have. The Wal-Mart in Tallassee is small, cramped, and dark. The folks who work there (as we have found so far wherever we have been in Tallassee) are as nice as they can be, but their stock levels just can’t compare with a fully-stocked Wal-Mart like what you would find in a good-sized city. So we were not optimistic about finding a good watering can, particularly after our quick pass through the Dollar General store next door was fruitless. Do not despair. High on a shelf (I had to borrow a cane hanging nearby to pull it down) was a rigid plastic 2-gallon watering pail with a nice diffuser nozzle. When we found out the price was only $3.67, we decided to spring for two.

amanda-w-herb-garden-before-planting1So back to Longleaf Breeze we went, treasures in hand, or at least in car. Over our quiet lunch together, we talked about what the day meant for our relationship with Longleaf Breeze. We had foraged for muscadines before, and had used them to make delicious muscadine jam, but yesterday marked the beginning of our cultivation of food crops, which is at the heart of our plans for subsistence farming. We prayed, asking God to bless our venture and to guide us in caring for this little part of Her magnificent creation.

dirty-frog1After lunch we finished smoothing the veg garden and even created a separate little herb plot. Above, you can see Amanda putting the finishing touches on the herb garden. One of the fun developments of the day was the frog who came over with the topsoil when we imported it from the dirt pile. We expected him to scamper off, but he seemed quite comfortable in our brand new veg garden. He rested comfortably as we worked around him. We decided to make him the unofficial mascot of Veg Hill, and we hope he stays.

Mercifully, it was time for Tractor to fall silent. Quietly, with the birds singing in the background and punctuated by too-regular visits from a crop-dusting plane working on a field down in the bottomland, we planted. We laid out the configuration of the garden, trying to locate the pole beans and the corn on the northern end where they would be less likely to shade the shorter plants. Amanda dug holes, and I placed seeds.

Over the roughly two years now of our preparation for living at Longleaf Breeze, I have developed in my mind a sharp division between tasks that feel like work and tasks that feel like play. You will no doubt develop your own definition, but for me, it seems to turn on ear protection. If I need to wear ear plugs to do it, it’s work. So that means driving Tractor, running the splitter, operating the chain saw, even running a lawn mower, fall into the work category.

Understand that I’m not the least bit interested in parking Tractor and doing by hand the work he does with petroleum. I am grateful for Tractor’s help and will continue to use it. But for me personally, it’s good when I can work more quietly.

drawing-of-garden-as-plantedThat’s why this time was for me the highlight of the day, almost a faith journey, as Amanda and I worked together to place seeds in just the right place where the plants would have the space they needed. We laughed together at the monotony of the instructions for all the squash and zucchini from Seed Savers Exchange to plant 6-8 seeds 1″ deep in a 12-inch diameter hill, with no instruction at all about how tall the hill should be. We fully expect that one day we will know what that hill is for and how high to build it, but yesterday, we just guessed.

I drew out on a plain sheet of paper where everything ended up. Click on it (above) for a larger version. The only change from this drawing is that we decided to move the basil over to a spot south of the veg garden, because the envelope the seeds came in said it likes poor soil and full sun. We intentionally located the herb patch where it would get shade in the afternoon, so we figured that would be a poor choice for the basil.

amanda-watering-gardenlee-w-finished-gardenamanda-w-finished-gardenWe put our Wal-Mart watering cans and the five-gallon water can to use. By my calculations we added about 18 gallons of water to our brand new gardens. Time to pose proudly beside our handiwork. I had a task or two in the barn, and Amanda returned to her beloved cleanup work. Less than an hour later, we headed to Montgomery to spend the night with Mama and brag to her about our thoroughly satisfactory day. Sure hope we didn’t screw it up.

6 thoughts on “Planting Our First Garden”

  1. It’s hard to tell from the photos if you’ll get enough sun but I’m sure you’ve taken that into account.

    We still haven’t had our last frost here (Southern Quebec) so I haven’t put anything outdoors yet, however, you can see my indoor seed starting here.

  2. Thanks Phil,

    I just realized that the picture of the plot before preparation and our “posing proudly” shots were all taken in the late afternoon, giving the impression that the plot stays in the shade all the time. Actually, it will get good sun from about 9 am until after 3 pm, so I hope and expect we’re okay there.

    So when do you plant your root vegetables in Quebec? Are they already in now? We missed that one . . .

  3. Hey Lee and Amanda! Looking forward to following your adventures at LLBreeze.
    I am growing mainly flowers these days, but lots of tomatoes and peppers. Be sure to put in some yellow tomatoes, and some heirlooms, too. I have found that for cooking I am going heavy with the cherry and grape tomatoes. They are sweet, seldom crack and split, do not stay around long enough for bugs to infest, and come on quickly and prolifically.

    Alabama A and M University, just a few miles from us, is doing some experimental stuff with rain water retention for household flushing and gardening. Ya’ll may need to come see us and check it all out.

    Good gardening!

  4. Hi Michael,

    It’s great to hear from you. I can’t tell you how much fun we have had during this process remembering Michael Stewart’s zucchini story!

    The Mountain Pride calls itself an heirloom; we shall see. The basic challenge we faced this year was just to get a little garden going so we could start learning. Most of our seeds come from Seed Savers Exchange, and we hope next year we will be able to start more things like tomatoes from seed.

    Please tell Jill we said hi.

  5. What a lot work! I have been hesitating over starting my own garden because of the amount of care it involves, but I want you to know that your dedication has inspired me to go ahead and give it my best effort.

  6. Oh my! I’m confident there are many others who work much harder than we do. The difference is that we’re just describing each one of the tasks in such detail. But in any event, you’ve made my day with your note, Kristen. Keep us posted on your progress!

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