Thursday, May 29, 2008

Shoestring Victory: Getting started with no materials

February came all too fast this year. In North Carolina, the second month of the year brings the first breath of the coming spring. But instead of my usual delight at the warm weather, I felt only rising alarm. Ricky and I had yet to plant the first seed on our microfarm, and we were already drastically behind schedule.

Sometime in the winter, when our urban farming plan had all been charmingly theoretical, Ricky and I had drafted a lovely schedule of when we would seed start, direct seed, and transplant multiple successions of each crop. Starting about four months ago, we would have stacked delicious layers of manure, grass clippings, compost and other organic treats on our growing beds, building up healthy, fertile soil. The first week in February, we would direct seed beets, radishes and peas into this receptive medium. We would start kale, chard, and lettuce in seed trays, for imminent transplanting.

Reality found us, instead, facing a large muddy expanse of sopping wet mystery soil. Gobs of dead weeds surfed amongst chunks of oozy clay. “I don’t understand this,” said Ricky, squeezing a handful of gloppy soil between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s coarse and grainy, like sand, but it holds water like clay. What does that even mean?”

As she fumed, I was purposefully scooping soil samples from all over the field into a bucket. I mixed them together and spooned a bit into a small cardboard box addressed to the Agricultural Extension in Raleigh. They offered free soil testing; within a week or two, we’d know exactly what we were dealing with. We hoped.

That night, just before dusk, Ricky and I reconvened on my front porch. Our neighbor, Dave, sat on his own porch, peaceably reading a book in a lawn chair like normal people do. At our house, the porch furniture had been relegated to a heap in the corner. In its place stood a 55-gallon barrel we’d bought for $10 from a man we found on craigslist, a couple plastic buckets we’d found in the yard, and a mound of ingredients I’d picked up from Southern States.

“Here we go!” We high-fived geekily before beginning to heap bucketfuls of peat moss, compost, sand, lime, bone meal, cottonseed meal, and vermiculite into the barrel.

“Is that good?” said Ricky, peering into the barrel. “Should we add more lime?”

“I dunno,” I said, shrugging. “This chart doesn’t make any sense. I mean, how the hell are we supposed to tell how many cubic meters this is? Whatever. It’s probably fine. Let’s stir it up.”

Confidently, I thrust our famous three-tined pitchfork into the mess and gave it a shove. It barely budged. I tried again. I flipped a little arc of compost in the air, leaving the other 99.9% of the barrel’s contents untouched. Never mind. “Um, how about we roll it?” I suggested.

We clamped on the lid and cautiously tipped the barrel on its side. It crashed onto the porch with a resounding thump. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Neighbor Dave jump startledly in the air, casting an alarmed look our way. Heretofore he had been doing a good job of ignoring our antics, but he now watched with a doubtful gaze as Ricky and I bent over together and shoved the barrel down the porch steps.

Bam! Bam! Bam! The barrel slammed down to the front walk. Grunting, we shoved it awkwardly forward. Picking up speed, it rolled enthusiastically toward Dave’s truck, parked at the curb in front of our house.

Wordlessly, Ricky threw herself between the barrel and the truck. It slammed into her shins, eliciting a sharp cry. I leaped hastily to her side of the barrel and shoved it back towards the house.

Back and forth. Around and around. Upside down, right side up. Panting, we maneuvered the barrel to its final resting place in front of the privet. Despite the cool February night, I flung my sweatshirt on the ground. Dave was still watching, his mouth slightly open in intrigue. I undid the lid and we both peered tiredly inside. Frankly, I was astonished to see a mixture actually resembling a perfect potting mix. “Holy nut!” I exclaimed with relief. “It worked!”

Now all we had to do was actually plant some seeds. And make them grow and stuff.

by Sadie Kneidel


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