“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” ― Zora Neale Hurston
Tonight I dug up the potatoes. They were ugly. Furious red boils covered their skin. Nobly corpuscles rose and fell across their face. Deep cracks tore their flesh. They are diseased.
I’m not surprised. I’m not disappointed. I pulled each one from the earth and placed it lovingly in a basket. I was sorrowful. That is how this summer has been. Diseases, pests, stunted plants.
When summer started my goal was to grow as much food as I could. My financial contribution to the family was going to be mounds of veggies on the counter and a smaller wad of cash to the grocery store. But my harvest has been meager. This week it is kale, 28 sickly red potatoes, 17 healthy purple ones, 14 cherry tomatoes. The only mound I have is in in tomatillos- not something that is usually included on a daily menu. Everything else is still “coming.”
I have asked farmers, friends, the internet, county extension experts and one very bored looking clerk at Rehm’s Nursery for advice (next time I’ll just ask him about the complex doodle he was doing on scrap paper). I have been looking for the answer. I wanted the “ahh. I know what is wrong you need to …..” Instead I have been handed small handfuls of advice, a generous helping of “yeah, my garden too” and a mid-size serving of shrugs. (Below you’ll find a list of people’s ideas.)
As I let go of what “should” be happening in the garden I noticed that I listened a little closer to the answers folks gave me. I followed up on their ideas, did research and paid more attention to the signs my garden is giving. When Cheryl from County Extension suggested that maybe the nutrients were spent I dutifully packed up a soil sample and shipped it off to Colorado State University (results are pending but I will let you know). When Linda said that perhaps increased humidity and wind protection might help I unfurled a billowing screen across the roof of one whole bed. When my husband said it needed more water I turned up the timer on the drip irrigation. When my own heart said I still have a lot to learn I put together a dingy green three ring binder of articles to read. I discovered I have lots of questions- about soil fertility, pests, drought, cover crops and the specific needs of peppers and squash.
I bought a bag of organic fertilizer that bored-cashier-man suggested. A sworn ally of compost, cover crops and compost tea I thought fertilizer was for weanies. But there I was in line with my $12.99 glossy red bag of hope.
In the ultimate irony I started a new job taking calls at the County Extension office about bugs and plants. This is a temporary position. I’m just filing in until a new horticultural extension agent can be hired. The phone buzzes with questions about bark beetle, dying turf grass, mysterious bugs, mildewing grapes, sick apple trees, and forlorn tomatoes plants. Like stones in a growing cairn I stack the questions in my lap. I order them and rearrange them. I place some in someone else’s stack. I scribble an answer on some and hand them back to the asker. Sometimes I just sit- feeling their weight.
What I l have come to understand is that it is in the questions that knowing lies. And if it is ever said that I know something about gardening then this summer will have been a great teacher. Until then, call me at County Extension- I might learn something from you.
Theories about my stunted garden that have been tossed my way:
1. The plants needs rain to grow because the acid rain balances out the alkaline soil.
2. Our season is about 3 weeks behind this year.
3. The squash got caught in bad weather or water patterns when they were young and were not able to recover.
4. The soil is tired, the nutrients unbalanced.
5. The very large, very happy peach trees next to the garden are taking all the water and/ or making too much shade.
6. Drought, drought, drought. After so many years of prolonged drought the surrounding soil is so dry it sucks away water from the garden.
7. You aren’t watering enough.
8. It is getting harder and harder to garden in drought conditions- it is all about creating small microclimates – shade, hoop houses and greenhouses.
9. It was just a really bad bug year which was hard on young plants. they were not able to recover.
There are many private companies that test soil. Ask your favorite farmer where they get their soil tested. NM State University used to test soil but no longer does. Instead County Extension agents suggest you send your samples to Colorado State University. Vials and paperwork can be picked up at the Bernalillo County Extensions Office. 243- 1386. It costs $31 and CSU sends a comprehensive report back with recommendations on how to amend your soil.
Harvesting sickly potatoes: