Wanting again on gardening initiatives and interested by the longer term

Looking back on gardening projects and thinking about the future

It’s gray and chilly outside, but I have a fire in the new wood-burning stove that warms the house and delights me to look through its glass window. I’ve lived in the same house since 1970, so I’ve had a lot of time to plan and carry out projects. I would like to share some of my memories from this effort with you in the hope that some of you will be inspired to undertake similar projects of your own.

The biggest projects I did were in the 1980’s after returning from my Peace Corps days in Africa. When I bought my house I only had one acre, but I could buy another acre or two while I was gone and I wanted to put it to good use for gardens. My house was built on a hill in 1888 as a butter factory. The land dropped steeply to a field next to a small stream and some woods.

My first project was to terrace the hillside behind the house and create gently sloping access for wheelbarrows, people and dogs to the field where I wanted to grow vegetables and flowers. I wanted to terrace part of the slope so I would have drier soil for growing fruit trees – fruit trees hate wet feet!

When I came back from Africa I was 36 years old and had lots of energy but limited cash reserves so I did almost all the work myself. I found a local who sold me 13 truckloads of topsoil. He looked at the site and told me he couldn’t drive all the way to the other end of the potential patio with dirt so he dumped it all in one place and I had to move it with a wheelbarrow! The fruit tree area was 10-20 feet wide and 80 feet long, but that didn’t put me off at all.

After creating a nice flat spot for apple trees and a gentle 10 foot wide road to the lower field, I built an 80 foot stone retaining wall. I had a lot of rocks on the property so I set about harvesting them with a borrowed “rock boat”. It was a wooden sled on skids about 3 feet wide and 6 feet long.

I had a chain attached to the stone boat’s front skids so I could pull it with my lawn mower (I never thought I’d need a tractor). I rolled or twisted large stones together until I brought them out of the woods to the stone boat and hauled them away. A neighbor also gave me some large rounded stones from a collapsed stone wall.

I built the wall before the days of the internet and endless youtube videos, so I asked friends what to do. Drainage is important, everyone said: dig under the site for the wall and place small rocks there and behind the wall. Unfortunately I bought Peastone instead of gravel – small round pebbles. Big mistake. Round rocks act a bit like ball bearings – they allow rocks to move and tumble as the winter frost lifts them. Over the years I have had to repair and rebuild the wall many times. But I still like it, even if it’s not a perfect wall.

The back field had been overgrown with willow, alder and brambles in the years of my absence. I used a brush hook – a simple hand tool with a curved, sharp blade to snip them off. Then, using a cheap used riding lawn mower, I mowed the land to keep anything from growing back, digging up roots where I could.

The next year a farmer came with a plow on his tractor and plowed the area I wanted for a large vegetable garden. This type of plow digs up the soil about 8 inches deep and turns it over, burying any grasses and weeds. That mostly killed them and allowed me to start growing vegetables.

I also bought several truckloads of old manure from a farmer and worked it up with an old potato hoe—a 5-prong tool like a rake, but with 2-inch spaces between the 8-inch teeth. For at least a decade I worked in a truckload of old manure every year to increase soil fertility and improve crumbs.

I like brickwork, arbors and sculptures in the garden. Over the years I have made many bentwood arbors for the entrance to the vegetable garden. Since none of the “rot-resistant” trees (cedar and black locust) grow here, I used maple seedlings, which were plentiful but only lasted three or four years. I placed them 4 feet apart and bent the tips together across the walkway and wired them together. I wired 1 inch branches to create places for decoration and for vines to grasp.

I later decided to use cedar fence posts to make garden structures. Cedar stakes are available locally and will last for many years. I have a 10 foot diameter hex that I built to support grapes and wisteria vines that are only now falling apart after more than 20 years. I plan to remove the vines from the structure this summer and rebuild the whole thing.

It’s fun to tackle big projects, but at the age of 76 I’m not looking for more of the same. I’m planning to build some more vegetable raised beds this year – they’re great as you don’t have to bend down as far to plant, weed and harvest. I also find that there are fewer weeds and grasses than in soil beds as many weeds just crawl into the beds from adjacent areas. Even an 8 inch high wooden bed prevents this.

I don’t see that I’ll ever give up gardening while I can still get around. Yes, I can eliminate some high maintenance plants and maybe replace shrubs. But I started young and hope to garden until the day I die. Winter time is planning time, so think of your own projects now and let me know if you like. I’m always interested.

Email Henry with your own project ideas for 2023 at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or write to him at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746.