How Does Your Garden Grow?

In a word: crappy, that’s how.

But every year come March, hope springs eternal, and I plant the spring garden.

The first of my spring greens

The first of my spring greens

Preparations for this year’s garden included fortifying it against one of last year’s greatest foes — the chickens. The very first year I put terraces in on our back hillside, it was a lost cause — the hens took over, scratching, rolling in the soft soil, sunning themselves, and nibbling young greens until nothing was left but stem. So I fenced the enclosure in. But while not acrobatic flyers, the most athletic of the chickens soon figured out they could fly up and over. So this year I extended the height another few feet with additional chicken wire. Even still, every so often I inexplicably find a chicken inside.

The original terraces were lined with aviary wire to ensure no one came in from beneath. But gophers are a diligent and hungry species. So by the second year, I was doing battle with subterranean enemies as well. And much like Bill Murray’s golf course groundskeeper in “Caddyshack,” they were outwitting me.


I never know when the gophers will show up… it takes them some time to dig their tunnels and find the roots. And then, it’s me versus them — and I’m not talking about catch-and-release.

It also doesn’t help that just beyond the perimeter fence on our yard, in the unkempt wildlands there, is a ground squirrel superhighway. Like the gophers, it takes awhile for the new generation of squirrels to discover the food that lies tantalizingly close. Plus, they must run the gauntlet of roving guard dog, territorial pig and vast open ground in the sightline of hawks and falcons. But hunger will prove a powerful motivator, and soon they too will appear on the radar. My friend Nat loaned me the Squirrelanator 2000® a couple seasons ago, which caught a few perpetrators but made little difference in the overall trend.

Surprisingly, I’ve had little trouble with the invaders you might most expect — tree squirrels and birds.

But even without the incursion of fauna foes, there are those other two suppressors of my success — the soil and the sun. Our property slopes down the side of a oak-covered mountain, facing north. The sunlight doesn’t reach the garden until well after 10 a.m., and then must filter through the branches and leaves of the oaks for the remainder of the day. It gets better in the late spring and summer, when the sun is more directly overhead.

What doesn’t get better is the soil. Topanga is known for it’s poor, chalky ground. It’s hard to grow a cactus here. I amend and amend — filling the terrace boxes with compost from my compost bin, enriched by the droppings from the chicken coop. I add garden soil and potting mix, vitamins and nitrogen. And my little anemic plants reward me with heartbreak and disappointment.

Come the warmer weather of April and May, the tomato seedlings begin appearing at the local nurseries — beautiful plants of every size and heirloom variety, from Amish to Zebra Stripe. And if you like spindly tomato plants that produce hardly any fruit, I’m your man.

I was certain my tomato non-production had everything to do with that north-facing slope and tree shade I was talking about. Until I visited my pal Ernie, who lives below me on the same mountain and can count on even less morning sun. There he proudly stood, dwarfed by his towering tomato trees, festooned in ripe fruit like a Macy’s Christmas tree with ornaments.

Chickens loitering outside the newly planted spring garden

Chickens loitering outside the newly planted spring garden

Lest you surmise from this essay that my garden is an utter and abject failure (which raises the obvious question: “Why does he continue year after year?”), I do have some success with certain vegetables — swiss chard and cardoons come to mind. Just enough success to put something on the table that was grown by my own sweat and toil. Just enough success to make me believe each year that maybe, just maybe, next year will be the year…

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. rachelocal
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 02:25:35

    Aw, well, I hope this is a year of change for your garden!


  2. Michelle
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 02:46:00

    Our 50′ x 50′ garden, having been given over to chickens a decade or so ago, now resembles WWI trenches on most days. We’ve got big plans to change it. Ah, gardeners. So optimistic. Or crazy. We’ll see how it turns out. Best of luck with yours this year!


  3. Karen
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 03:18:26

    I have a sister like Ernie. Everything she touches grows beautifully, though she uses systemic fertilizers, and I use organic/compost. One day, I figure nature and I will get into this symbiotic thing. Until then, I have chard, sweet peas, zucchini and tomatoes that do amazingly well. This year I got crazy and planted kohlrabi. Nothing unusual seems to work for me, so we’ll see.


  4. Anna Z
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 03:52:48

    I, too, spring optimism eternal. Just put mine in – 3x last year’s “whatever” – with 3′ fencing to deter our local wildlife (housecats). We’ll see if the wilt and grasshoppers return, after the various rounds of aphids.
    But it looks pretty now!


  5. Trackback: The Accidental Beekeeper, Pt. II | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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