Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Really Big Little Garden, Part 1

2016 was supposed to be a year of rest. And, if you compared it to the two or three years preceding, I suppose it was. But only by comparison. 

Instead of planting a garden big enough to feed 80 families, we planted enough for one. Well, that was our intent. It still ended up producing enough for several families, in addition to our own. There is clearly an art to downsizing which we have not yet mastered. 

After all of the work we had put into cultivating the large north garden, we hated to let it lie fallow for the season. So we were thrilled to be given the opportunity to raise pumpkins for one of the local pumpkin patches. 

Pumpkins are easy, right? The hardest parts would  be the beginning and the end: planting and harvest. Our plan was to cover the ground in plastic to suppress weeds, absorb heat, and retain moisture, making the pumpkin patch as low maintenance as possible.

We had plenty of plastic left over from previous years, with perfectly spaced holes already cut. It was just a matter of rolling it out and pinning it with landscape staples. Surely seven of us (okay, six and a half) could whip that out in a few hours. 

But we didn't count on the weather. Expecting a typical, cool, if not chilly, Montana spring day, we quickly realized we were in for unseasonably warm temperatures. 

It wasn't long before we were all standing, hammers and staples in hand, looking anxiously at the sky, waiting. As soon as the shadow of passing clouds fell on the plastic, it visibly contracted, rapidly stretching taut, flattening tightly against the soil beneath it. As fast as possible, we ran along the edges and seams, pounding in the long wire staples until Daddy shouted, "Stop!" 

As the cloud shadow moved eastward, and the sun shone down fully, the plastic relaxed, rising into loose ripples and folds. Any staples placed while the plastic was slack would either pop loose or tear out once it contracted again. 

And so, what should have taken a few hours in the cool of the morning, dragged on throughout the day. I'm sure we put on quite a show for the neighbors.

The next step was to set out the pumpkin plants. Between us, our crew has easily set out thousands of plants over the last few years. We know how to do this! But the unseasonably warm temperatures were not in our favor. Tender young plants on hot black plastic are not a good combination. 

We needed speed and endurance, which put most of our young crew out of the running. Daddy figured all the plants could be in the ground within a few hours if he had the help of Ben and one of his friends. 

On the appointed day, they woke early and set to work in a frenzy, hardly looking up as the coolness of the morning quickly burned off. Sweat poured off of Daddy and the two boys as they raced, bent over at the waist, from one hole to the next, piercing the brown earth with small spades in one hand, dropping in a small pumpkin start with the other. 

As soon as one section was finished, sprinklers were turned on to revive the already wilting plants. The younger kids and I felt quite useless, with nothing more to offer than pitchers of ice water and lemonade. In a sudden flash of inspiration, I hopped in the car and made the nearly 40 mile round trip trek to town, where I bought a 15' diameter quick set pool and two jumbo bags of popsicles. 

By the time I returned, they were finished. Nearly 1000 plants, mostly pumpkins, were in the ground, along with some gourds, watermelons, and cantaloupes. We set up the pool while the kids binged on popsicles. We looked across the expansive pumpkin patch with great satisfaction. Surely, now, the hardest part was done. From now on, it was just a matter of keeping the sprinklers going on the hot days, and pulling a few weeds here and there as they popped up alongside the plants. At least, that was the plan.