When Did Gardening Get So Complicated?

There is no gardening without humility. Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class for some egregious blunder. ~ Alfred Austin

At one time or another, everyone around my age has shared with their kids how things were different when we were growing up. A common memory is, ‘We played outside until the street lights came on.’ Or perhaps, ‘We had three TV channels, four if you counted PBS.’ It certainly was a simpler time.

The same, I guess, can be said of gardening. My dad is a simple man. I feel like he tilled the ground, planted the seeds, watered, pulled weeds, and then we had vegetables. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine him putting much more thought into the whole gardening process than what I’ve described here. And yet, I have put a lot of research and effort into planning and orchestrating my garden. Hours upon hours. Resources upon resources.

I feel like there are a million details that I need to nuance just right. The ordering of rows must be north-south, not east-west. Some seeds need to be inoculated before planting; some just need a healthy dose of fertilizer; and good luck trying to keep straight what kind of fertilizer goes with each plant. Some foliage can get wet during the watering process; other foliage cannot. And mulch. Lots of plants need mulch these days. I never remember my dad spreading straw mulch around anything!

And then we come to potatoes – specifically sweet potatoes, which really aren’t in the potato family at all. Most people don’t plant potatoes of any sort because they are so cheap to purchase. I have grown purple potatoes in the past, and did so again in this garden mainly for the novelty of it.  I didn’t think through the overall plan well enough, and had to stick the potatoes on the end of the bed, and then switch around the other plants – because potatoes are not good companions plants for most of the other vegetables in my garden (again – when did things get so difficult?). Then, I had the great idea to add sweet potatoes, mainly because Delaney loves sweet potatoes. I didn’t do any research; I just assumed that the growing process would be similar to that for the purple potatoes. Making an assumption is never good.

Delaney with purple potatoes - Seattle 2006

Photo: Delaney with purple potatoes. Seattle 2006.

So, my six sweet potato plants arrived last Tuesday, along with these instructions:

Plant sweet potato starts in well-drained soil in full sun, a foot or so apart at the bottom of a 20-inch deep trench. Hill up the soil as the plants grow, keeping 12-inches of foliage above the soil surface and a shallow trench for easy watering. On both sides of the trench, cover the bed with green plastic mulch, letting the plants peek out, and keeping the trench visible for effective watering. It is crucial that you mark your calendar to remember to slide these sheets of plastic away from the plants in mid-August. If you don’t, the moles, gophers, and voles may smell the growing potatoes and harvest them before you do!

Uh … did you follow that? I didn’t. And I think a diagram/photo would be most helpful!

I shared the instructions with my family. Everyone thinks it’s been over-complicated. No one can imagine previous generations of farmers going to such an extreme for this one crop. They have all suggested that I just put the plants in the ground and see what happens. That – or just cut my losses and throw away the plants altogether. I can’t do that. I have to at least make an effort. However, I didn’t plan appropriately and I’m not sure that I have adequate space. I certainly don’t have the ideal situation of digging a 20-inch deep trench.

“Seeing what happens” now amounts to digging a 10” hole for each plant. They are all crammed in next to the blue potatoes, encroaching on the corn and beans. I don’t have a ‘shallow trench for easy watering’. Nor do I have ‘green plastic mulch’ – mainly because I’m not even sure what that is or where to put it. And, I’m not really concerned with being attacked by moles, gophers, and voles.  The plants are in. I will ‘hill’ them as I hill the blue potatoes. And hope for the best.

my sweet potatoes

Photo: Sweet potato in Patch405. May 2018.

I am feeling challenged, but not discouraged. I’m already thinking about how to do this better next year. Perhaps it will begin with an expanded garden, with a new area devoted to blue potatoes and sweet potatoes. First, I must convince Brad to let me expand … perhaps a sweet potato pie will do the trick.

2 thoughts on “When Did Gardening Get So Complicated?

  1. Oh my goodness, no wonder you were confused. I didn’t understand that at all. I’ve grown sweet potatoes twice in my raised bed potager, and they, both times, did famously. I’ve never put plastic, or dug trenches or anything. I just planted the silly plants.

    I hope you get loads of sweet potatoes, and Delaney enjoys every last bite with you.~~Dee

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  2. Those instructions were terrible. That aside, I disagree that gardening wasn’t complicated in the past… It’s always been complicated- and people very much did go through those lengths and more to cultivate many species of various edibles, all around the world; just because we never experienced it first hand, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t going on internally (or in the background when we weren’t watching).

    Still, it doesn’t have to be complicated. “Best growing practices”, “fertilizer”, “mulch”, etc, are really more guidelines than they are hard and fast rules you absolutely need to abide by. In other words: For most things, they’re not requirements- and in some grow zones, following all those “rules” can ensure you never get a healthy yield (many of them are written generally and don ‘t take local climates into account). So do what feels right, experiment, and adjust accordingly each year. Eventually you’ll get it down- and you’ll probably even find an easier way.

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