Starting Small

I’m not truly lazy. I would never garden if I were. I can buy organic produce at any number of nearby grocers and most have flowers too. But there’s something about growing them myself that I can’t shake.

But. After more than twenty years living in the flatlands of Berkeley, where I built garden beds and amended the soil with compost and manure and had sun for most of the day, I’m now living on a steep shady hillside in Mill Valley where deer nibble at everything, even allegedly deer-resistant plants like oleander. Oh, and we’re now officially in a drought.

The good news is that the winter days here have been sunny and gorgeous, with mid-afternoon temps in the high 60s and now and then hitting 70. Downright criminal for January, especially for a kid who grew up in Chicago. But I can wear shorts outside. In January.

The hillside is full of oak and bay trees and there’s a natural beauty to it that i want to keep, but I still have visions of terraced garden beds lush with vegetables and flowers. Here’s a shot of my backyard garden in Berkeley from a few summers ago.

And here’s the hillside this morning.

I know the overgrown Berkeley look is not appropriate for the hills of Marin, especially during a drought. But maybe I can create a little oasis among the oak and chaparral. A neighbor down the hill has just had his backyard landscaped, and that’s given me some ideas. See those curving rock walls and the steps up the hill. It’s much more ambitious than I can even consider right now, Doesn’t stop me from dreaming.

Actually I’ve been imagining rock walls ever since our visit two summers ago to the Inca Trail and Sacred Valley. Here’s one of the many Inca sites we visited, full of mortarless rock walls and irrigation channels that carried water down from the mountains.

(FYI, I tried to identify that photo above, which I took, but didn’t identify. I gave up before I could, but I did find a portfolio of terraced farms, mostly from Vietnam and China. Also a few from Peru.

These visions will have to wait. (There’s lazy and there’s lazy.) I did start a garden this week, however. I started small. With a wheelbarrow, a planter box, and seeds.

I repurposed an old metal wheelbarrow, full of holes from rust, lined it with landscape cloth, filled it with potting soil and compost, and planted mesclun (summer salad mix) and arugula seeds. I know arugula grows easily from seeds. We’ll see about the lettuce mix.

The wheelbarrow is sitting on the deck outside the kitchen window. Once the seeds sprout, I’ll need to protect those baby greens from deer, which have, on occasion, brazenly trotted onto the deck. (We’ve seen evidence of their eating habits too.)

The easiest way is to string a net across the five-foot wide entrance to the deck, but that means hooking and unhooking when we go in and out through the front door. Another option, which I’ve working on, but isn’t finished, is a lightweight hoop/cage that fits over the top of the wheelbarrow.  You can see what I have so far — it’s made from water sprouts pruned from my pluot tree in Berkeley, bent and held together with twine. It’s fallen apart once, but Iwith some patience, I can make it work. Once I get the “skeleton” stable, I’ll attach some a screen over the top and that should keep out the deer.

My other venture was even easier, though I had to pull out my drill. I screwed two metal brackets into the railing posts of the lower deck, high enough above the ground that even a deer on stilts can’t reach it, set an old redwood planter box on them, and planted about 15 ruby red chard seeds. Will thin later. I added a spoonful of 5-20-5 fertilizer I found under the house.

I have no drip irrigation set up here in Mill Valley so for now I will have to hand water, every day until the seeds germinate.

It’s a small step, but it’s a start. Brings to mind that Goethe quote: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

And so I did.

It may be a while before I built the rock terrace walls. But I think I’ll buy a new hose this weekend.

(John Byrne Barry is author of Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.)

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