Down the Garden Path

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 10, 2007

How I long to grow bananas. If I moved a few blocks away I could, for sheltered by fencing from our reliable afternoon wind grows a magnificent specimen bearing several hands of green fruits. Bananas are usually harvested green, so ripening will not be a problem for this lucky owner. 

Instead, the wind streams across the Pacific, through the Golden Gate and right over my exposed garden, chilling everything in its path. 

I do believe however that in the last year I have after decades solved the problem not only of predation—racoons digging around vegetables for succulent worms—but of the gardener him or her self, by which I mean, arranging the vegetable beds in such a way that the gardener actually has head and elbow room in which to work.  

First I raised the perimeter fence of one-inch chicken wire to a height of six feet, and instead of anchoring the top firmly, I left it flimsy. So far so good, a year has gone by with no apparent intrusion. 

The plot already had a three-foot wide path down the middle, with a gate at each end (also high wired) for access. Now I measured one-foot paths inside three sides of the fence, and stamped on them to discourage weeds and make them firm and level. I rejected thoughts of pebbles or fir bark in favor of simplicity and stability. More attractive though these might look, they tend to track everywhere.  

The fourth, north side was left as a foot-wide bed for peas, sweet peas, beans, cucumbers, and other seasonal climbers, that would get full sun yet not cast their shadows over anything. Now I measured what was left, staking areas for beds four feet across, each bed with one-foot paths between them. 

There is something about measuring things that makes one feel efficient, even if one measures inaccurately. 

When I had finished, I found I had four planting areas that in their forming had naturally become raised above the paths. Raised beds, according to experts like Peter Chan, are the very best for vegetables, giving good drainage and allowing close spacing because the roots in raised beds are in Chan’s words airified, and never trodden on. Furthermore, the sloping sides increase sun exposure, maximizing growth. Chan, noted horticulturist and professor of plant pathology, in the 1970s won Sunset magazine’s Best Garden award, ahead of 1,400 others. When I turned to his book Better Vegetable Gardening the Chinese Way (first published 30 years ago, lavishly photographed and charmingly written, and though not in print, still available), I saw immediately that this is how he had made his raised beds, surrounded by beaten paths. It is never too late for good information to sink in, apparently. Chan had a lot of space, yet his raised beds although much longer were no wider than mine. 

To say that I am thrilled is inaccurate. I positively gloat. Never have I seen orderly rows of vegetables in March filling each bed. Some of them are even edible. Swinging my four-year rotation plan into action, as soon as one row is harvested, I can transplant the next appropriate vegetable, if I have remembered to sow seed ahead of time, after amending the soil with a little compost from the bottom of the worm bin. 

The worms seem delighted with their bin. At first I thought it would be too spacious for them, since it is much larger than the recommended worm “ranches” sold commercially, which have little trays one has to fiddle with. My red wrigglers have multiplied profusely while turning vegetable and other plant trimmings, poultry coop litter and leaves into nutritious tilth. 

I have even started to wonder whether there is anything in the companion planting idea, that some plants, like humans, do better with compatible neighbors, because this year I flanked the fava beans with garlic and, another first, now they are crowded with flowers, sturdy and lush, with no sign of the usual black aphids. I did this for convenience rather than garden lore because they will be harvested at the same time, in May or June, to be replaced by a hot weather vegetable. 

In terms of measurement the overall plot has shrunk from its original size, thanks to the paths, and the raised beds’ growing area because of their sloping sides is narrower than four feet, so I had to plant the favas more closely than usual. Perhaps they are now close enough to benefit from each other’s nitrogen supply, visible as little pearls on their roots. I grow favas in tomato hoops for support. They will need something higher soon, encircled with string tied to rebars or bamboo, to keep them from being blown over by the wind, because they are unusually tall as well as bushy this year. 

The rest of the garden is a wilderness. Although this makes a pleasing contrast to the vegetables, it does give me a quiver of apprehension about their orderliness. Authors Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman state categorically in their book A Perfect Mess that it is more productive to be messy than neat. Still, if one waits long enough in a vegetable garden, something is sure to go wrong. 

Meanwhile, do try bananas sliced into a Thai stir-fry. Try a microwaved banana, its skin pierced with a sharp knife and zapped for two minutes, by which time it will be oozing sweetly perfumed flesh. Saute a sliced plantain, sprinkled with brown sugar and watch it change color, to a glorious orange. Ripen it first beyond a green hand, beyond even yellow. Its skin must be entirely black. A week spent wrapped in a few pages of the Daily Planet should do the trick. 


Photograph by Michael O’Malley 

The author at work in her South Berkeley garden.