Last week, before we left for the beach, I asked Félix to turn over the soil in the two raised beds, as a prelude to our yearly fantasy of an orderly cornucopia of vegetables—a few types of lettuce, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, chard, beets and what-have-you—that by midsummer, inevitably turns into an riot of vegetables on the kitchen counter that not even a horde of famished rabbits could consume.
By this time of the year, though, gardening fever flares up. It feels particularly acute this year, after ten months of the pandemic lockdown, and my binge-watching the entire 2020 season of the BBC’s “Gardeners World,” 50-some episodes I think, hosted by Montague “Monty” Don.
Among Brits, who seem as obsessed with gardening as the French are with pastries, Don is a matinee idol, his show among the most popular in Britain. He’s produced so many TV shows and books about gardening I doubt there’s a corner of the green world left for him to cultivate and gush over.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, which has ravaged Britain, Don has played the role of both, celebrity gardener and national grief counselor, regularly extending his sympathy to those affected by Covid-19 and prescribing the same horticultural salve against gloom and depression: Go outside and plant something!
Judging by the high demand for seeds and gardening paraphernalia during the lockdown, Brits have heeded Don’s advice and gone gardening every square foot of their backyards and balconies, and specially their “allotments“, which are small lots leased primarily for growing vegetables, that resemble the Victory Gardens popular in the U.S. during the Second World War.
The problem with Don’s show, as with most how-to TV shows that pretend to teach viewers how to cook, garden or build birdhouses, is that they are a bit pornographic: Experts display eye-catching techniques few viewers can hope to replicate at home. So I don’t expect to grow hip-high delphiniums (shoulder-high in Félix’s case) at the ranch following Don’s demonstrations, but maybe just derive some encouragement.
Take my raised vegetable beds. Don’s are always filled with loose, rich soil that sieves through his fingers and begs to be put to use. He can plunge a trowel in it with no fear of hitting rocks or hopelessly compacted dirt.
|Holes in the clumps of dirt we dug up
show we used to have plenty of worms.
Argh, but When Félix sank a shovel into ours this year, what came out were basketball-size clumps of congealed, dried up, almost impenetrable mud. Our soil last year, while not gardening-show caliber at least was workable with a cultivator or a pitchfork.
After some cussing and head-scratching, Félix and noticed a missing ingredient—earthworms. After a very meager rainy season, and the beds lying dormant for months, the soil dried, and the worms died, leaving the soil essentially inert.
Worms, we learned, not only fertilize the soil with their castings but also, their incessant tunneling aerates and loosens it. And to get that process going they require moisture and green matter, such as vegetable peels, to munch on.
So, first I pinned down two local sources that yielded a plastic bag with a couple of pounds of dirt and worms lazily squirming through it. We spread that out on a plastic tray with a couple of inches of black dirt and compost, covered that with kitchen scraps and dampened the mixture. I’m curious to find out how the worms are doing when we get back.
|Félix: Let sleeping worms lie.|
Félix texted me this morning to assure me our wigglers are “doing well, eating and resting.”
The worst part of the project, though, was to dig up all the clumpy soil, break it up, and mix it with compost. That took a couple of days and called for reinforcements from Félix’s chronically unemployed brother Esteban. The dirt was sifted though a coarse screen and shoveled back on the raised beds.
By the time we get back, a shipment of seeds should have arrived, and we’ll get to actually begin germinating seeds and planting this year’s vegetable crop.
Ahead of us we have some major gardening plans. We’ve built a small greenhouse for germinating seeds and cuttings, and bought a ton of compost from a nearby mushroom farm, to mix in with a truckload of black dirt we had delivered. Mixed together, they should alleviate the poor, moon-like soil we have throughout most of the ranch. We’re installing a type of bug netting over a ten-foot-square corner of the ranch, to keep the annual plague of grasshoppers from eating our crops.
Now I’m eager to find out how much of horticultural plans will become reality. As a backup during the time that Monty Don is off the air, I’ve also bought one of his books, to keep my fantasies alive during the rough spots, which are bound to be many.