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Fifty-Two Square Feet

One March day in 2010, Mr. Lee woke up and began turning the dirt on a plot of earth that was once his father’s prized patch of grassy lawn. Adding dozens of shovelfuls of our friend Jerry’s magic manure, he produced two good-sized mounds of regenerated soil.

The very next day we headed to Home Depot, bearing a list of the supplies needed to construct two raised beds and a fence to contain them. For the record, we have javelina—and bunnies and squirrels and chipmunks (and, as we would come to learn, a gourmet deer partial to heirloom tomatoes).
Beds: $197.44

The day after that, our friend Steve showed up with the consummate garden gate, and we started work on our wire fortress. The gate reminded me of the one I imagine Mr. McGregor hoped would keep Peter Rabbit out of his carrot patch. It had clearly been well used and often repaired. The gate, due to the fact that Mr. Lee and I are not the least bit handy, hangs slightly askew. Nevertheless, it became the visual focus for our garden-to-be.
Fence: $139.34

Meticulously following the recipe recommended by Joe, another friend and vegetable-gardener-extraordinaire, we amended the native soil and horse manure mixture with equal parts of mulch, peat moss and vermiculite. After the addition of approximately six pounds of bone meal, we stirred thoroughly and watered generously. It was beginning to look a lot like a garden. I scooped a snackbagful of soil from each of the beds, which had now been named the East Bed and the West Bed, and delivered the samples to the Yavapai County Extension Office where they would be analyzed by a certified Master Gardener. A pH of 6.5 is ideal for vegetables. When the East Bed tested 6.4 and the West Bed 6.6, I rewarded them with a pint of earthworms.
Soil: $170.55

By the middle of April we had sectioned the beds into square-foot plots and commenced planting peas, leafy greens, and broccoli. The remainder of the month was spent sowing a multitude of seeds, protecting vulnerable starts from freeze and snow, and replanting those that didn’t make it. Everything was in the ground by mid-May, even though it meant we rushed out many evenings to cover the most frost tender plants. Having lived here for less than a full year, we were surprised when it snowed in May.
Plants and Seeds: $203.25

Not long after the temperatures had stabilized and I was feeling prematurely victorious, trouble of a different sort discovered our garden. We found a crate of old glass insulators under the house and placed them on top of the fence posts, in hopes that the critters would think we’d installed an electric fence. They didn’t. I ultimately enlisted the help of a plastic owl, a handcrafted whirlybird called Snoopy, and some organic remedies: habanero sauce for the critters; tomato leaf tea and garlic elixir for the pests. It was man against nature for the remainder of the summer, man finally resorting to laying granules of Repels-All around the perimeter of the garden and dusting the beds once a week with blood meal.
Critter Control: $76.76

We learned a thing or two from that first vegetable garden, which came to be known as the $500 tomato. For instance, plant only as many radishes as you will eat. Don’t sow forty seeds that will all come due at the same time. No matter how much you like radishes, forty is too many. Tomato plants need to be tamed. Be tough. Fava beans are much more interesting in the seed catalog than the garden. Basically, plant only what you and your Mr. Lee will consume. Think less is better.

But the most important thing to remember is, you’ll never break even. Don’t even try. In fact, don’t be surprised when improvements the second year end up costing as much as the first.

You have to love gardening for the sake of gardening, and genuinely like getting dirty and sweaty.

On the mornings when Mr. Lee wakes up early he knows right where to find me, usually enjoying a cup of tea while admiring our handiwork.

I’m always amazed at how many individual shades of green can exist in fifty-two square feet of earth.

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