Since Ms. A didn’t have much gardening experience herself, she asked another co-worker (we’ll call her Ms. K going forward) who has had gardens in the past and is interested in organic produce and gardening and myself if we would be interested in helping. Having grown things in containers most years, and worked as a winemaker and vineyard manager at a microwinery, I thought “I know how to grow stuff, how different could a vegetable garden be?” Let’s just say I learned a few things. I had also made some lifestyle changes in the prior 18 months or so and am eating more whole foods (including a lot of leafy greens – Kale, Chard, Collards) and feeling a lot better. I was interested in taking my whole foods eating to the next level by growing my own organic produce.
Ms. K has had some experience in designing gardens, so she and Ms. A put together a plan – I thought it was pretty ambitious for a first garden; 2 planting rows that were 4’ wide by 16’ long with bark mulched paths all around. The boys liked working with power tools so they helped rototill the ground. There were a lot of rocks in the plot – some were fairly large which I helped remove and carry to the borders or into the woods. Then, there was the compost. Ms. A was fortunate in that her town offers free compost at the town recycling center. I helped lug compost in large storage tubs from the compost pile into her backyard (note: compost is damp and very heavy – no extra points for filling the container to the top if you can’t lift it afterward). Ms. A worked in a lot of compost and, based on Ms. K’s soil testing and recommendations, some soil amendments like lime and blood meal.
Based on the local rabbit population, we decided we needed a fence. Ms. A asked if I knew how to build a fence. Actually, every time I’ve needed a fence, one was conveniently already there. I never had to build one myself. Thankfully, we aren’t homesteads who have to learn the hard way over several years. We have the internet and many people have generously posted instructions and videos on how do just about anything you might need to know. We built a fence that proved to be very effective year 1 … fur-bearing pests were not an issue. Because it was a group of engineers involved, the fence includes a hinged and latched gate (I’ve seen commercial wineries with less elaborate set-ups around their vineyards).
As a result of all the groundwork in establishing the garden, it was a bit later until we actually got around to planting – early June. I had started a number of seeds probably 4-6 weeks earlier and had them hardening off on my deck to get acclimated to the sun and wind. Ms. A had also started some things from seed. After all the physical labor in building the garden, I thought the planting would be the easy part. I think I planted at least 72 individual plants, plus seeded some things. It turns out that spending an entire day bent over and stretching to avoid stepping in the planting beds will make you pretty sore the next day. We decided to try and stage our planting a bit this year so as not to try and plant the entire garden in one day.
I thought once things got planted in the good fresh compost of their forever home that they would take off like gangbusters, but 2 weeks passed and I didn’t see much progress. We decided to add some Neptunes Harvest Fish fertilizer. Its organic, local to the North Shore fishing industry, and the Native Americans used to plant a fish at the bottom of the hole when they planted the 3 sisters (corn, beans, squash). I figured if it worked in Plymouth a few hundred years ago, it was probably solid advice. After fertilizing, things really started to take off – the squash in particular loved it. I learned in an organic gardening symposium this year put on by Slow Food Seacoast that compost takes a year or so before its nutrients become available to the plants. So, when you are using compost, you are making a future investment in your soil structure, but it isn’t an immediate benefit (which is probably why things didn’t really start growing until we added more a readily available fertilizer).
To connect, you can have face-to-face real-life interactions with others if you have a small garden group like I’m doing, join a garden club, or just get together with other like-minded people to see how their tomatoes are doing this year or how they deal with slugs during an exceptionally wet spring. I didn’t have much common ground with my nonagenarian grandmother, but we would usually talk about how her small garden was doing and how my herbs were growing when I would see her. It’s a great normalizer, regardless of age, background, education, socioeconomic or other differences, we all get the same weather and pests and it gives you a friendly conversation starter.
Contributing to something outside yourself for no monetary gain through volunteering and philanthropy can be accomplished a few ways. In my little garden project, we’re trying to get the kids interested and teach them a little about gardening, vegetables, and building things around the yard. Maybe you can share some of your produce with family and friends or better yet, show them how to make a recipe using fresh produce (Connecting, contributing and cooking all-in-one!).
Coping helps you deal with your own stress. Instead of multi-tasking (which contrary to popular belief is actually significantly less efficient than working a single task and is more stressful), focusing on a simple task like planting, weeding, or looking for ripe vegetables can help settle the mind. And you will definitely get some exercise via stretching and bending that you wouldn’t get sitting at a desk. The sunlight helps with melatonin (sleep hormone) regulation and in combination with the fresh air and exercise, you will sleep better and feel better the next day. Ms. A enjoyed just sitting by the garden and looking at its progress as a way to forget the stress of the day.
And of course, one of the prime reasons to garden is to have plenty of fresh produce to cook with. And fresh, whole foods will make you feel better than processed foods due to their nutritional value and the impact of that nutrition on your hormones and genetic expression.
Saying the following recipe will change your life might be a bit of an overstatement, but if you struggle to get those dark leafy greens (like in the prior picture of home-grown produce) that are so beneficial to good health into your diet, this is one to try. I make the bacon ahead in the oven (400 F for about 15-20 minutes or your preferred level of crispiness) on a half sheet pan covered with wide aluminum foil to catch the bacon fat (yum!) and make clean-up simple. I keep the bacon in a ziplock bag in the fridge for use in this recipe or to just pop in the microwave for breakfast or sandwiches etc. The bacon fat, poured from the lined sheet pan after it cools a little, I keep in a mason jar in the fridge – better than margarine for sure. Go with a good smoked bacon – it makes a difference.
- 2 Tbsp bacon fat,
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 slices of bacon – coarsely chopped
- 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tsp -1 T Old Bay seasoning
- 2c - 1 quart chicken broth or water (depending how many greens you have)
- 8-10 cups chopped greens, (collard, kale, chard, mustard or any combination – I usually do a combination for the variation in texture) about 2 bunches if purchased, you can do 3 if you a want a BIG batch
- Heat the bacon fat in a dutch oven or large pot set over medium heat.
- Sauté the onion in the bacon fat, stirring often, until softened.
- Add the bacon, garlic, and mix the Old Bay Seasoning into the fat until well incorporated.
- Add the chicken stock or water and bring to a simmer. This is the flavor base for what southern folks call pot liquor – you could cook grass clippings in this and they would taste good!
- Add the greens to the pot, cover and cook until tender, stirring occasionally. The original recipe called for 45 minutes to an hour of cooking time, but I find a half hour usually does it. You really can’t overcook this
- I find the leftovers reheat well in the microwave and the Old Bay adds just the right amount of spice so you don’t really need vinegar and hot sauce.