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Don't Throw in the Trowel!

You can develop a green thumb— and grow your marriage— this spring

When God brought the first couple together in holy matrimony, he didn't tie the knot in a shopping mall or at a baseball game. God started off the first marriage in a garden— probably one with the right soil PH and without rocks. And weeds. Adam and Eve were assigned the happy task of taking care of it, so there must be something special about the combination.

Of course, the perfect garden wedding didn't have a happy ending. Gardening—like marriage—turned out to be a lot of hard work. But today, it's the favorite pastime for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Alarming news about pesticides and genetically engineered foods may be enough to propel you into the backyard to grow a few chemical-free veggies. For others, it might be the desire to recapture childhood memories of snapping beans or picking the first red tomatoes. For some of you, creating a garden may be a good chance for you and your spouse to trade the couch and TV for some fresh air and exercise.

Gardening together is a wonderful opportunity to cultivate a hobby the two of you can enjoy. Gardening even has a way of spilling into different areas of your marriage. One of my favorite anniversary gifts was a truckload of dark, loamy topsoil my husband had delivered to our backyard garden spot. He knew I'd be ecstatic.

Maybe you don't know an annual from a perennial, or radishes from radicchio. No matter how great or small your experience level, gardening can be a seedbed for new marital adventures in cooperation, anticipation, planning, and compromise.

So if you are looking for a stress-relieving, productive way for you and your spouse to enjoy your own backyard together, marriage partnership offers a basic, no-fail, first-year blueprint for a field of dreams.

Garden basics

Every good garden—just like a good marriage—starts with a plan. The golden rule for first-time gardeners is "keep it simple." It starts with location—figuring out what climate you're gardening in. The USDA divides up the United States into climate zones, which will tell you what flowers, vegetables, and herbs will flourish—and what will perish—in your little plot. Most seed packets and seed catalogs will show a Plant Hardiness Zone Map, and you can figure out yours. Then you won't be tempted to grow tulips in Florida or artichokes in Minnesota.

Basic tools. Nope, you don't need the $800 rototiller, no matter what your husband the gadget guy thinks. Invest in a decent shovel, a reasonably good trowel, a garden rake, a tape measure, a cheap bucket, a garden hose, and you're ready to go. You'll also want to purchase a basic gardening book or two. Resist the temptation to buy anything called "The Garden Gopher," expensive tools, or glitzy watering attachments. Keep it basic. Keep it simple. Yeah, I know Martha Stewart has that cool apron with the multiple tool pockets. Throw your tools in the bucket.

Size. As anyone who's ever rented a rototiller knows, it's easy to get carried away. Why till 50 square feet when you could do 100? Because you want your garden to be successful. Small is beautiful. A good size for a first-time garden is 8 feet by 4 feet. By keeping your garden width to four feet, you'll be able to reach in from both sides and weed without ever stepping on your soil and compacting it. And you'll never be too far away from your spouse—which is the point, right? And using succession planting, you will be able to grow plenty of veggies and flowers without being overwhelmed by maintenance. Remember, you want your garden to be a pleasure, not a hassle. Start small now and expand later.

Site. Look for an area that gets at least eight hours of full sun every day. Try to site your garden away from overhanging trees, whose roots will sap the water and nutrients away from your garden. Avoid areas where water tends to stand after rains. Mentally note north and south so you can plant your taller things where they won't shade the shorter ones.

If you have a large backyard, don't place your new garden way out back. Out of sight is out of mind. Keep it close to the house or condo, and the two of you'll be more likely to slip out for a few moments, weeding the bean patch or cutting a few blooms for the dinner table. You'll also be more likely to see if bunnies are snacking on your carrots or if bugs have taken over the begonias.

Soil. It's tempting to bypass the soil preparation step and shortcut right to planting your seeds. But like most things in life, laying good groundwork is a major factor in determining your end results.

After you mark off your garden bed and strip off the turf with your spade, you'll get a good look at the soil you'll be working with. If you suspect your garden soil may be very acidic or very alkaline, have its PH tested. You can buy a kit at your local nursery, but for best results, have your county extension agent test it for a small fee.

Heavy clay soils or very sandy soils should be amended with organic matter, such as compost, aged manure, and peat moss. Sift your soil with your hands, or use a garden rake to remove rocks, hard clay sections, plant materials, and grass clumps. Aim for soil that crumbles easily in your hands. Important: Never work your soil when it's wet. If you have clay-based soil, you'll create lots of ugly, big chunks. Wait until your soil is dry. Practice patience.

Budget. When you and your spouse are figuring out the costs of your first garden together, don't convince yourself that gardening is about saving money—even if tomatoes are $2 a pound! I made the mistake of calculating the cash we were saving one year and ended up ripping my figures to shreds, aghast. Unless you are homesteading in Montana, it's not a money-saving venture. It's a hobby. Like most hobbies, it leads to writing checks.

A successful blueprint

In marriage, its always nice to have an occasional surprise or a little spontaneity. And there's certainly room for this in gardening. But planning out your garden ahead of time will give you a better chance for success.

Beware temptation. It often comes in seductive guises. You're shopping at the grocery store and a shapely rack of seed packets, glossy and colorful, beckons. So inexpensive. So lovely. So beautiful. You're at Home Depot, and an end-cap of muscular Big Boy tomato seedlings wave alluringly in their plastic cell-packs. "Take me home with you," they whisper. "I won't take up much space. Come on. Put me in the cart."

Resist temptation and flee! Those Big Boys will only bring you heartache. Stick steadfastly to the straight and narrow plan. Or before you know it, you'll be jamming 140 tomato plants into your "manageable" garden plot. The voice of experience, you ask? I plead the Fifth.

Choosing your plant palette. The key concept here is planting things you and your spouse enjoy eating. If you don't like radishes, don't plant them. If you love salads, think butterhead lettuce and tomatoes.

Like everything else in marriage, your garden may be a compromise between what you like and what your spouse likes. Maybe he hates flowers and loves rutabagas. You adore daisies and zinnias. Don't throw in the trowel! This marriage—er, garden—can be saved. One of the great things about gardening with your spouse is you learn a new appreciation for things you wouldn't have tried on your own. Compromise. Give a little.

Veggie tales. When I'm planning a vegetable garden, I like to use Mel Bartholomew's recommendations in his book, Square Foot Gardening (Rodale Press) as a guide. Here's what he says you can grow in each one-foot by one-foot block of your garden.

In the spring, sixteen radishes, or sixteen carrots, four lettuce plants (Bibb lettuce or leaf lettuce works best), nine spinach plants. If you like green onions, you can jam onion sets side by side in a one-foot block. I've successfully planted 144 onion sets in a 12-inch x 12-inch square, thinning them for the dinner table as they grew.

When your spring veggies are finishing up, begin replacing them with summer planting of the following: one tomato plant per square foot, two cucumber plants per square foot, one zucchini or yellow crookneck for every one-and-a-half foot square, one pepper plant, nine green bean plants (bush).

Using these plants as a guide, you can substitute other plants of the same size and height. But, don't think in terms of rows, even if this is how you grew up gardening. Think in blocks. You'll utilize your space better.

Flower power. If you love flowers but don't get outside much, try growing a cutting garden. Then you can bring a little bit of color indoors to enjoy. Some tried and trues for a 12-foot x 4-foot cutting garden—depending on your climate—might include Zinnias (grow three sizes: California Giants for the back of the garden, Cut and Come Again for the middle, Thumbelina for the front), bachelor's buttons, snapdragons, and salvia (blue and scarlet). Stretch the season with pansies, which can be planted early or late to extend the color.

You might want to set aside a portion of your plot for perennials, a rewarding way to reap returns on your garden investment. Shasta daisies make great cut flowers, as do dahlias, asters, lilies, and yarrow.

Bulbs will also extend the flowering season, if you live far enough north. In the fall, plan to pull some of your annuals and plant bulbs such as daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips. In the spring, you'll have more beautiful flowers to cut, and you can plant annuals over the bulbs when the foliage dies down. Or, interplant some later flowering perennials around your bulbs.

Beautiful color all year round.

Trouble in paradise

Weeds … This is the waterloo of many a new garden, and the reason to stick with a small area the first year. Ugly stuff pops up in the garden just like it does in our marriages. The best defense here is going to be preventative maintenance. Because you kept your garden conveniently close to your house, and to a manageable size, you're already halfway to winning the weed wars.

I also like to use truckloads of mulch to keep weeds from ever getting a toe-hold in my garden. If you are placing plants in your patch, you can mulch around them with the following:

• Newspaper: only the black-and-white sections, color and glossie's might contain toxic chemicals;

• Grass clippings: keep fresh clippings away from the step, too much nitrogen might burn them and be sure to avoid clippings treated with weed killer or herbicides;

• Old leaves—but not black walnut or cedar, which contain natural growth-inhibitors.

At the end of the gardening season, you can turn all that mulch back into the ground and improve your soil for next year.

Weeding for me is an act of contemplation. It's also a great time for conversation with my spouse. There's also something immensely therapeutic about pulling the gloves off and going bare skin to bare weed in mortal combat. And the results are tangible—for a day or so, anyway.

… And bugs. All gardens, no matter how healthy, have bugs. And insects aren't all bad. In fact, praying mantises, ladybugs, and butterflies are part of the natural balance of pollination and nature you want in your garden. But, occasionally, things will get out of hand, and you'll want to keep destructive bugs in check.

If you grow the manageable-sized garden we recommend, you'll be able to control most of the bigger vegetable garden pests, like Mexican bean beetles, squash bugs, and Japanese beetles, by hand picking them into a jar of kerosene. Smaller pests like aphids can be controlled with a few squirts of insecticidal soap.

Stay away from the multichemical brews of chemicals that promise to be a cure-all for whatever ails the garden. Not only can they wipe out beneficial insects, but they're dangerous around children and pets and keep you from the joys of popping an unwashed cherry tomato in your mouth while you're weeding or savoring a lettuce leaf pulled straight from the ground. In gardening—and in marriage—the quick-cures are tempting, but deep inside, we know hard, steady work will make for the best long-term results.

The fruits of your labor

When you've budgeted wisely, planned shrewdly, and kept up with the day-to-day maintenance of keeping your garden weed-and-pest free and healthy, you reap the rewards of fresh vegetables, aromatic herbs, and beautiful bouquets. Once your foundations are in place, you can expand and enjoy planning and creating something new every year as a couple. If you and your spouse find you enjoy gardening, your simple garden can be a springboard for more elaborate projects, such as landscaping your yard, putting in a pond, or revamping the lawn.

No matter how well you plan, your garden will blend both of your ideas and the work you each put into it and take on a life of its own. There will be surprises, changes, disappointments, rewards. Gardening can be a chance for you and your spouse to learn something new as a couple and grow some happy memories together. Get ready for an adventure. mp

Cindy Crosby is the author of Waiting for Morning: Hearing for God's Voice in the Darkness to be published by Baker Book House in June.

Fun Theme Gardens

SALSA GARDEN: Plant green onions sets, some red and yellow tomatoes, a green pepper, a chili pepper, and a cilantro plant or two. Enjoy fresh salsa by mid-summer! Ole'!

HERBAL TEA GARDEN: A patch of chamomile, some peppermint, spearmint, and pineapple mint, with a little plot of lemon balm will ensure lots of comforting hot drinks for cozy marital chats. Caution: All of the mints and the Lemon Balm will try and take over the garden, so you'll want to be vigilant. You may want to plant them in containers, or site them in a corner where they won't choke out your other plants.

ITALIAN GARDEN: No, you can't grow spaghetti (although you can cultivate some spaghetti squash). Think pesto. Think sauces. Thyme, basil, oregano, parsley, chives, and rosemary will be good staples here. Throw in a tomato plant or two for making fresh sauce, and some green onions, and you're all set. Then enjoy devising new recipes together in the kitchen. — C.C.

Container Gardening

If you live in an apartment or a townhome with a porch and no lawn to mention, don't despair! Try containers. With halved whiskey barrels, available at most gardening supply outlets, you can grow veggies and herbs successfully. Make them lighter-weight by filling the bottom half with a light material (Styrofoam packing peanuts are good) and the top with good quality potting soil. Give them a vertical dimension by sinking a small trellis into one side, and growing pole beans, moonflowers, or morning glories on it.

I like growing little salad gardens in the bigger containers: Bibb lettuce (such as Buttercrunch), green onions, a few radishes, and another leafy green, such as chard or spinach. Blend in some early edible flowers like violas to make your mini-gardens even more colorful.

You don't have to use traditional containers, as long as you make sure there's adequate drainage for your plants. Big old boots filled with dirt and some flowers, or an assortment of old antique buckets with holes in the bottom can be good ways to show off your plants. One of the best container gardens I've seen was an old bicycle, which had its front and rear baskets lined with perforated metal boxes and filled with flowering annuals. Get whimsical. Above all, have fun. — C.C.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Fun; Growth; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Spring, 2001
Posted September 30, 2008

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