2020 Isolation Grow: The Long Game

May 15, 20202020 Isolation Grow Blog

For all of you out there right now, starting gardens for the first time, or considering starting a garden, allow me this observation: True gardeners are in this for the long game. It’s not about what we’re growing now, it’s more about how and what we’ll be growing in the future.

The long game here has been four years of working our soil into its best form. It’s not being satisfied with what we’ve done. It is constantly looking for the next step in creating the best possible growing mediums.

Mostly, however, the long game represents each individual step, and mis-step made along the way. The long game is recognizing and reacting to problems in the soil that prevent proper growth, and understanding that the solutions will take whatever time they need.

When we started with sticky soil, we went all in on root vegetables for years. Lots of radishes to start, moving into turnips, parsnips and carrots. We needed plants to begin the work of breaking up the soil. 

I mentioned in a previous blog about the number of calcium/magnesium baths I’ve done over the four years. Between those baths and the planting of fish and bones, a problem has been corrected. It took four years to fix.

One of the first things I did after attending Oaksterdam, was to research how native people grew in my part of the world. They exclusively inhabited this part of the coast for thousands of years, and their methods were both refined and progressive. They were doing controlled burns long before there were fire departments. They were doing these burns to not only control vegetation, but to replenish the soil. Wood ash is one of the most effective ingredients in all of nature. That first winter, before I grew anything, I spread a thin layer of wood ash over every bed and covered. It was my first stab in attempting to break up the sticky soil. 

An anecdotal story about ash comes from our first year growing cannabis. I was growing two Hindu Kush clones, which is considered one of the original cultivars, a plant that is all about body relaxation. It tried to flower almost immediately. I’d just been taught what to do at Oaksterdam, if a plant attempts to flower early. I did as I’d been instructed, and the plants kept trying flower. I was on the verge of either pulling the plants and getting different clones, or just letting them flower. It was a Friday night, and I decided to try one more idea.

In nature, the one thing that stops all critters and plants in their tracks is fire. They will stop what they are doing, and focus on the fire. So I made a paste of wood ash and worm castings and I walked out to the beds. With my hand, I made a path toward the roots. I grabbed a handful of ash and carefully reached into the soil. My goal was to brush some of this paste by the root zone, perhaps grazing the roots, but not inundating, because ash could kill the plant. It’s a powerful source. I also wanted the worm castings in there as a buffer, just a little bit of nitrogen to remind the plant of what it should be doing. I covered the dirt and went inside.

The next morning, I impatiently waited for the first light. Upon sight, there were a total of six black leaves on the two plants, so I’d obviously touched the roots. But the remainder of the plants looked fine, if a little bit shocked. They were frozen, awaiting further instructions about the fire. Nothing grew. The next Sunday, I poured a nitrogen heavy, fish emulsion infused compost tea. Both plants resumed veg growth. We still have a small amount of Hindu Kush remaining for very special circumstances. Someday, I would like to grow this ancient cultivar again, this time from seed.

Getting your garden in its best possible shape is the very definition of the long game. Part of growing well is understanding the relationship between what you grow, and everything growing around you. It’s not getting discouraged and stopping when something doesn’t work out well the first time. Perfect examples are tomatoes. It took years for me to find the right tomatoes for where I live. That means I grew a lot of tomatoes that did not turn out well. Like every yellow tomato.

Instead of giving up, it is better to discover and correct the problem, even if it takes years to do so. That’s the long game.

Every year we’ve grown has brought us joy and hope in each harvest. At the end of each harvest, I look through all my growing notes for the season, and decide what I’m going to grow next year. I don’t wait until next year to decide. My garden next year is already planned (that’s true. I already know what I’m going to focus on next year and am making plans to facilitate my goal). I have feelers out for specific cultivars I’m curious to grow (note the magic jordan reference a few blogs ago).

For me, the good news is after four years, we are beginning to see the fruits of our labor. Last year’s grow demonstrated the days of plants being inhibited by sticky soil are over. Years of burying fish in different parts of each bed has created capable growing mediums from one end of each bed to the other. We can now have a main plant growing, but companion plants like marigolds in the corners of beds. Each bed can now support multiple plants growing at the same time, without any depreciation. The first three years, that was not the case. Companion plants actually drained resources those first two years. Not anymore.

The long view involves research and leg work. I’ve mentioned learning about the plants that grow well around you. Knowing this will help you choose the best plants to grow. Learning about what grows around you, going into the history of your region, will give you vital clues about what works best where you live.

If someone walking around your land tells you that you can probably find mycorrhizae around the oldest tree growing on your property, it’s time to break out the shovel, find that fungus, and figure out how it can help you. I’ve done this, and it certainly seems true what they say about mycorrhizae and the increased intake of beneficial nutrients.

Something as valuable as mycorrhizae growing right under your nose is something that benefits any grow. It benefits the entire ecological environment. The long game is opening your eyes and your mind to the remarkable aids and solutions to your growing problems that are all around you.

Mostly, however, the long game is about acquiring and maintaining a patient, steady approach to gardening. The perfect garden is not going to happen overnight. It requires time, and consistency. Good gardening is like any discipline. The rules and strategies must first be learned before they can be applied. Learning can be frustrating, but in the long game, learning is actually the essence of joy. Solutions take time. Applying those solutions takes more time. Waiting to see if the solutions work means you can’t hurry the process.  

To become a good, mindful gardener is a lifelong pursuit. No matter what you grow, each year of growing brings more accumulated knowledge. Every plant has special needs. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to blow it. Just keep gardening.

I took a lot of notes the first two years, and I read a ton. I’m still reading a lot, but my need for notes has diminished. Every step in the process is now committed to memory in a reflexive way. The timing, the duration, the goals, the problems, the solutions. These are issues of the long game. When you embrace this process, you gradually come to understand you are actually doing this for the benefits of the process, as much as the vegetables or cannabis. The process of growing, if done mindfully, will improve you as a person throughout this long game we call life.

Jeffery Hickey
Oaksterdam Alumni

Jeffrey Hickey is a 2014 IPPY award winning novelist, performing in over 900 Reader’s Theater shows that featured his authorship of adult novels, and books for children. His accomplishments include a program of self-empowerment and effective oral communication, “Find Your Voice,” that he taught in public and private schools throughout Northern California. Jeffrey is the father of twin sons, and is arguably the happiest married man on the planet.