But you do have to add something to bare ground in order to make it suitable for growing vegetables or flowers, and that something is organic soil amendment. Luckily, George knew this. It’s amazing to me how much he did know, since he said he wasn’t a gardener. I don’t think Lou would have known all this if he’d woken up one morning and said to himself, “Eureka! I want to grow vegetables!” But Lou grew up in an apartment in Chicago. George also grew up in Illinois but in a small town, and his grandfather had a farm. “I spent my summers there,” said George. “It was neat. There was a creek, an orchard, all the usual farm animals, chickens and ducks, a pond, cornfields, and a vegetable garden with a few flowers around the edge. Grandma and Grandpa kept it up together, and Grandma canned all the vegetables and fruit and made marvelous jam. They used manure on the ground and that was all, but I figure you’ve got to use something.”
Not having the benefit of livestock, George went to the nursery garden after lunch and bought about six bags of organic soil amendment and a bag of fertilizer recommended for vegetables. By organic soil amendment I mean nitrolized wood shavings. This stuff is bagged and varies in composition and name. Sometimes they call it “forest product” or “composted wood product” or “planting mix.” By whatever name or description it’s sold, make sure it’s nitrolized, which means sufficient nitrogen has been added to allow it to rot in the ground without subtracting nitrogen from the soil. Don’t go to the lumberyard and buy a load of sawdust and add that to your soil. Raw sawdust subtracts nitrogen from the soil in order to rot, so if you add raw sawdust to your ground without adding extra nitrogen, all your plants will die.
Luckily, George didn’t buy raw sawdust; he purchased nitrolized wood shavings by the bag and spread this organic soil amendment on top of the ground. It formed a layer about four inches thick, the right amount for a first-time garden. Then he worked this into the soil with a spade. “Did you also add gypsum?” I asked. “Nope, didn’t know about it then,” he answered. “By now I’ve learned that it can help break up clay soil and vastly improve drainage and that I should spread it on every two years. But that first time, after I’d worked in the soil amendment, I measured out the fertilizer according to the package directions, and then I used the garden rake to mix the fertilizer into the top six inches of the ground. I even wrote down on my calendar to sidedress the rows a few weeks later, like it tells you to do on the label. My secretary came across my memo one day and said, ‘Hey, what’s this?’ ”
When George worked soil amendment into the ground, he was doing the right thing: plants need humus, which is partially rotted organic matter, in order to grow. In cold-winter climates, deciduous plants drop their leaves in fall, and these slowly rot on the ground and gradually add to the fertility of the soil, so the native soils often have a high content of partially rotted organic matter. In our arid climate, however, few leaves have had a chance to fall and rot, so our soils have little if any humus. In gardens, it’s up to us to give the soil what it needs. This is why it’s such a good idea to mulch the ground with compost under shrubs and trees and other permanent plants. And it’s why every knowledgeable gardener adds soil amendment in addition to fertilizer before replanting a flower bed or vegetable garden in spring or fall.
It’s unfortunate that most people here are forced to garden on subsoil that’s been pushed around by heavy machinery and compacted into little flat terraces. I’ve ached inside when I’ve seen bulldozers bury the natural topsoil on the north sides of San Diego hills. In some cases that topsoil is thousands of years old; it’s rare and sacred stuff. When you regularly add soil amendment to the ground, you are giving back to Mother Nature what mankind has been taking away. You can feel good about your soul as well as your soil. That’s part of what gardening is all about.
By evening George was dog-tired, but he managed to drag a hose over to his future vegetable garden and set a sprinkler, gently watering it for 20 minutes. Then he let the ground settle overnight, went to sleep in front of the TV after dinner, and the next morning, he was raring to go again. Sally was astounded. I didn’t tell you this before, so as not to complicate the story, but when George went to the nursery on Saturday, he also bought seeds for warm-season plants. March is the first month of the year for putting in summer crops, and George chose the easy ones, a good way to begin. He bought seeds of Kentucky Wonder pole beans, beets, carrots, corn, leaf lettuce, New Zealand spinach, radishes, Swiss chard, and turnip. He also bought plants of tomatoes and a few potato sets and onion bulbs for scallions (green onions for eating whole; the varieties sold here as small bulbs won’t make full-size onions).
On Sunday morning he planted all these, putting his corn all together in a block, not strung out in a long skinny row, and leaving some seeds in the packages for future crops and some space in the garden for cucumbers, cantaloupe, eggplants, peppers, and squash, which he planned to plant in April, when the weather had warmed up. (I don’t plant my cantaloupe as early as April; along the coast it’s better to wait until May and grow a variety such as Ambrosia, which takes fewer days to mature than most.)
Since you already know how few plants George had in the rest of his garden, you may be wondering what he used for bean poles. His neighbor had a stand of bamboo and was always cutting some culms, so that served. I used bamboo myself for years, but it does rot quickly, so eventually I switched to those metal poles that are shaped like bamboo and are covered with green plastic. Practicality wins over beauty.