Archive for Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Gardeners learn from mistakes

March 31, 2004

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Most of what vegetable gardeners know about vegetable gardening comes from experience. Some of us read books, most of us talk to other gardeners, some of us were fortunate to learn from a parent or grandparent. But when it comes right down to it, most of what we know we learned by our own trial and error.

The longer we garden, however, the less frequent the errors. When we reach this point, we can give other people advice. We can even write columns about gardening and expect people to view us as authorities.

In the early days of my own gardening, I made just about every stupid, tactical mistake a gardener can make. I inadvertently cross-pollinated differing varieties of corn. I used seed-filled straw for mulch and spent the rest of the summer weeding the mulch. I lost tomato plants to frost when I put them in a cold frame too early. You name it, I have done it.

If I developed any smugness the further I moved from those beginner's errors, it dissipated quickly last week, when I committed a doozy.

A couple of years ago I finally surrendered to the critters that staged nightly raids on my compost pile and bought a ComposTumbler, one of those metal barrels on legs that is supposed to turn kitchen scraps and yard waste into "brown gold" in a couple of weeks. It didn't work, not even after I added goat manure and, later, a small fortune in compost starter. I didn't get a single batch of compost from it.

This year, I went back to the drawing board. I wanted to start a new compost pile and, recalling the critter problem, thought I would be very clever and put the compost pile inside my fenced garden. There, I reasoned soberly, no four-legged creature would have access to the pile. I emptied a bag of leaves on the designated spot, added a bucket of kitchen waste and was well-pleased with the modest beginning I had made.

I even put new batteries in my electric fence, which consists of a single wire strung around the top of a five-foot mesh fence to discourage the deer from jumping over.

The folly in this plan became obvious a couple of hours later, when I went to the door to call Roscoe, our yellow Lab. If we were analyzing a narrative plot in a high school English class, Roscoe's failure to show would be foreshadowing. Roscoe is a jolly, complaisant fellow who ordinarily can't get back to the house fast enough, just in case there's a T-bone waiting. His absence was fraught with meaning.

As I peered out toward the garden, I noticed what looked like a white flag waving in the breeze. Upon closer inspection, this was Roscoe's tail. The big galoot had rammed his head through the bottom half of the wire fence and had gotten stuck, butt in the air.

I freed the dog, surveyed the damaged, felt stupid and stacked a couple of bales of hay in front of the hole. I then went back inside to watch basketball.

In retrospect, I made a series of flawed judgments here, beginning with my assumption that the fence around my garden would keep animals out of my compost pile, when I had not been able to keep them out of the old pile, which had its own fence. My first lapse was in thinking that creatures other than deer would respect the garden fence, when I had plenty of evidence to the contrary.

My second mistake was in assuming that I had temporarily solved the problem by saying, "Bad dog," covering the hole and putting the dog in the house. The next day I returned to the garden to find two new holes in the fence, one on either side of the bales of hay. Clearly, the only mammal dumber than I in this scenario is the creature that ripped open the second new hole.

I have since shoveled the fledgling compost pile into a wheelbarrow and removed it far from the garden. I also have shored up the fence. Now that my peas and lettuce are up, however, I am tempted to run a second wire around the exterior of the fence, this one a foot or so off the ground.

Live and learn.

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