2011 Growing Roundup

November 25, 2011 at 10:07 am

We spent a long time looking for a house. Even in what was supposed to be a buyers’ market, we had a heckuva time finding sellers who weren’t still living in the real estate bubble and were willing to sell at the market price. But finally, we found a sizable plot of land that just needed a little remodeling. Or, as it turned out, a lot of remodeling (www.reluctantrenovator.com).

Additionally, I spent much of my summer helping manage another successful year of the Morton Grove Farmers’ Market (www.mgfarmersmarket.com) and planning our move to our new location next to the Morton Grove American Legion Civic Center (6210 Dempster St., Morton Grove) in Summer 2012. We are kicking it off with a Winter Market from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on December 3. And we might even work with The Local Beet to serve up a Locavore dinner sometime this summer. More on that in 2012.

The new owners of our old house were delighted to see the frames and cages I had built, but were dismayed by the crabgrass that had completely covered all the soil, as I had neglected the gardens completely while we were selling the house and I was starting a new job. Still, the new owners are avid gardeners. I have passed by the place since then, and they raised an 8-foot security fence beyond which nobody can see. However, vines of all sorts stick up above the fence line, and I imagine that they are making every square inch of the tiny backyard count toward raising crops.

The previous owners of our almost-ready-to-move-in new house already had a 5 x 12 weed-filled garden west of the garage, in which my oldest son planted autumn-harvest seeds (mini-pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, gourds and squash). We planned on using these for household decoration and ultimately were rewarded with more than a half dozen large table centerpieces. Problem was, the garden had been bordered with railroad ties, which are notorious for carrying, at a minimum, arsenic. However, the ties were decades old and a landscape architect friend thought the poisons from the treated lumber would have long leached out by now.

Well, we really wanted to grow something we could eat sooner than Halloween. As a compromise, we planted tomatoes as far from the ties (i.e., as close to the garage wall) as possible. The problem with that, of course, is that it cut in half the amount of sun the poor nightshades could enjoy. As a result, we had a crop of green, stunted tomatoes, with a few ripe red ones in our unseasonably warm fall.

On the other hand, the house featured a 2nd-story porch/balcony up to which I carried a potted tomato plant that would enjoy the full complement of out-in-the-open weather. That plant gave us cherry tomatoes in very short order, every one of which ripened to a delicious red until we picked the plant clean and took its spent pot of soil back down.

But these were poorly designed, almost spur-of-the-moment plantings done in the throes of cleaning the place and meeting with contractors. It wasn’t the carefully planned and exhaustingly cultivated type of garden I typically enjoy. Fortunately, there’s plenty of land to play with.

The house enjoys a large backyard separated by a wide-gap metal fence from an unimproved alley. The village has no problem with us growing veggies on the alley and the area adjacent to it, behind the garage, has no real purpose. It’s too tiny to play in, but wide enough that it has to be mowed. The biggest problem is that our neighbor feeds birds every day. Big nasty pigeons get the lion’s share of the seeds she provides them, although mice, chipmonks and squirrels get much of what’s left on the ground. I’m happy to say that owls and hawks have been spotted in the neighborhood preying on these pests (although my neighbor hates the predator birds). But in the short-term, I will likely need to build fresh chicken wire cages to keep out my neighbor’s invited and uninvited pets.

This spring we will build a few 4’ x 4’ raised beds on either side of the fence for plants that love full sun. West of the garage I can cover the soil with cloth and raise it up another few inches with fresh soil for shade-tolerant plants. And up on the 2nd floor balcony we’ll continue to take advantage of the full sun as well as the convenience of picking and eating off the plant without having to walk across the backyard.

At the moment, we’re completely focused on finishing the interior of the house. The front lawn has been largely destroyed by a plumber who installed overhead sewers in the basement and left hundreds of pounds of useless clay sitting atop the grass. Most of that clay is gone, and the remaining living parts of the lawn were further destroyed by the dumpster our general contractor leaves on the front lawn. So this is our opportunity to start something new. Perhaps terraces of wildflowers or native prairie species?

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to plan, build and tend my own garden. Even my kids are looking forward to growing a lot of our own food. New neighbors moved in on the west side of us, and the grandmother, who speaks hardly a word of English, has already begun preparing a 20’ x 10’ plot of garden on the west side of their property. I look forward to the friendly, unspoken competition to see whose garden produces more, and to what I predict will be much neighborly sharing of our harvests next year. Just not sharing with the birds, I hope.