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Table Talk: Garden games

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Posted on April 19, 2010 | Blog Category:
By Andrea Suozzo



Word on the street is that it's time (er, past time) to start thinking about a garden for this summer.

That was certainly the case at the Middlebury College Organic Garden on Wednesday. Wind whipped across the garden's beds, which have spread out across the top of the knoll in a field below the college since the project's birth in 2003.

Garden manager Jay Leshinsky pulled thick dandelion roots from the edges of a bed with a pitchfork and instructed first-year student Carly Shumaker in how to plant lettuce. It was OK, he said, if the seeds weren't spaced precisely apart.

“Nature's not going to space them every two inches,” he said.

The plans for the day were to plant spinach and sugar snap peas — it's still unusually early in the year for planting, but Leshinsky said that the unseasonable warmth over the past couple of weeks has thawed the ground, so it's soft enough to put the hardier plants in now. The asparagus, planted earlier, is already coming up, and so is the garlic.

These two crops were just a few of the 60 or 70 types of plants that grow in the garden each year.

“If we were just a profit-making operation, we'd probably just grow mesclun,” said Leshinsky.

But the garden is an educational venture. During the school year, volunteers from the college learn to plant, care for and harvest all sorts of crops at the garden, and each summer, four interns work full-time at the garden and go on field trips to farms all over Vermont.

The college dining halls get first dibs on produce grown at the garden, but they can't always take everything the garden grows, especially since school is not in session during peak times for the garden. To bridge the gaps, Otter Creek Bakery and American Flatbread also buy produce for salads and flatbreads during the spring, summer and fall.

But all that comes later — last Wednesday, the garden was just getting started. The soil still lay bare, ready to support the seedlings that would be popping out of the ground in the next couple of months.

To be honest, while I was helping to pull dandelions up from the ground, I began to get a little panicky about my own garden. Here was a functioning garden, beds all laid out and ready for the season. It's not a small endeavor, this garden, but it looks so simple.

And my garden? My first, in fact?

My roommate and I bought timber and built raised bed frames a couple weekends ago. Even that was a task: deciding how big to make the beds, finding untreated wood, finding a drill to put the frames together. We settled on two frames, each three feet by four, and after several hours of texting and calling, we eventually found a drill, which happened to also come with three boys. They put together the beds in two minutes flat.


The raised beds, all ready for planting.

That solved, the question was what compost to get, what seeds to plant, when to plant them so that they don't freeze, and whether to start them inside or out. And then there's the question of weather: When will the last frost be? How much rain will there be? And what about last year's tomato blight?

I have a vision of myself tending my garden bed at midsummer, chopping off a handful of swiss chard and running into the house to toss them into a pan. I'll admit that, since I'm dreaming here, I'm really tan and a couple pounds lighter, since I do so much work in the garden and eat nothing but vegetables.

And OK, it's becoming eminently clear that there are going to be a few hurdles to jump before that point. But everyone says that the only real way to learn to garden is just to do it, so I guess that's what's going to happen.

Nature, bring your worst (actually, please don't). I'm determined to have fresh vegetables this summer.

Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.

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