from sky to seed

Under wraps: solarizing an organic garden

I… seldom know what I’m doing in the garden. There. I’ve said it. If I start spouting some (semi-bullshit) information on nature or whatnot, someone in my small inner circle inevitably  retorts with, “Well, what do you know?” and my pitifully honest response is, “Well, not much.”

At least it earns a few chuckles.

But oh! So many people that I meet seem to know exactly what they’re doing! Their gardens are miniature squares of Eden, perfectly tamed and manicured — and I know they’re not hiring help to work through the midnight hours. It comes of their own accord. But how? I don’t understand! Apparently they’re raised to know (as Jon was; he was given his own garden patch at age three) or it’s in their genes. Perhaps they inherited some obscure genetic tendencies toward agrarianism.

If it comes down to bloodlines, I have no advantages. My people hail from the South Pacific.

But who’s to say we can’t learn?

I have an entire bookshelf devoted to my efforts. From optimistic titles like Grow Cook Eat to workingman’s publications like The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control, I appear to be doing my homework. Somewhat. So it seems.

Mostly, though, I find myself poking around on Google like every other troll on earth.

In the matter of weed control, it’s pretty widely agreed that mulch is the way to go. But I have so many questions that the universe doesn’t seem to want to reveal! I understand that you must spread the mulch once your plants are up above ground, but what about when they’re still seeds? Is the ground bare until then? It must be, right?

Mine is, and just about the time that beans begin uncurling their little necks, so do the weeds. So then what? How am I to solve this?

Sweat equity is what I’ve employed the last two years. But honestly, my heart can’t take it anymore. As much as I love the harvest, I can’t deal with the constant and persistent daily reminders of failure. I need a garden that’s a little kinder to me. I need my garden to give me a big ol’ hug every damn day.

Jon just shakes his head.

“Spray the damn thing. You’ve gotten crazy about that not using chemicals thing!”

I just ignore him. I ignore him on most things, actually. (He doesn’t even know the name of this blog! How hilarious is that? In that light, he’s just like some 1950s sitcom clueless sitcom husband! And I write about him all the time!)

I was browsing through the beautiful Heirloom Life Gardener book from Missouri’s own Baker Creek Seeds (love you guys!) and came upon one little page that talked about mulch. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought, dog-earing the corner. But then I saw a little segment on biodegradable landscape fabric and… plastic.

Plastic.

Of course!

It was literally one of those cartoon-like ah-ha moments in which the main character slaps their palm on their forehead, which is exactly what I did. I resorted to Google: PLASTIC IN ORGANIC GARDEN

It took a few searches and chat boards, but I finally found the term for what I aimed to do: solarization.

The idea is that you lay down large sheets of plastic and seal it above bare dirt after tilling. As the ground warms, those pesky weeds start sprouting and then they suffocate and boil to death as the oxygen-less ground heats to temps above 100 degrees over the next 4-6 weeks.

Before the newspaper/cardboard jihads come after me: Yes, I know that you can use newspaper and cardboard to kill weeds, and I’ve used it to a small degree in years past, but it’s totally impractical for early-season gigantic gardens in windy climates. That shit blows everywhere. And my garden is 2,000+ square feet.

So I set to work.

I actually had a couple hundred yards of plastic from an earlier attempt to do a winter garden. I studied my garden plan and found, with relief, that almost every row that wouldn’t be planted immediately, as in the next week or so, seemed to fall into categories that could benefit and accommodate the time required for solarization. Armed with landscape pins, I unrolled the plastic and staked it down. This sounds easier than it was.

In fact, it was a pain in the ass. But worth it.

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I guess the condensation under the plastic is a good sign, right? That means it’s airtight? (Those little rocks — I threw those on there to keep the air pockets down while I was sealing the edges.) Because otherwise any of the moisture coming up out of the ground would be drying out? (Am I now one of those pathetic women who, like, always speaks in questions?)

The entire job took about a day and half because I wanted to get it perfect, or as perfect as possible. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m pretty tired of looking like a dumbass. If I’m going to be ridiculed by neighbors for trying to grow organic, I better finally at least start looking like I sort of know what I’m doing!

A lot of people use bricks or concrete blocks to hold down the plastic, but I don’t have the access or muscle to for those methods. Instead, I pinned down the corners and used rocks to weigh down the centers of sheets because the wind kept catching it. The next day, I shoveled dirt around all the perimeters to permanently seal it.

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My favorite old-timers stopped by and watched me work. “Whatchya doin’?” they asked.

I almost didn’t want to explain myself. “Solarization.” Nothing. “It’s, uh, an organic weed suppression method,” I said meekly, then scrambled for a subject change to an interesting NPR story I’d just been listening to.

“Oh. PBS, huh?” they asked slowly. Eyebrows lifted.

I just laughed. What else is there? I pointed to the plastic. “Supposedly, this’ll kill all the weeds that try to come up and then when I take it off in May to plant corn and beans, they won’t have to compete so hard and they’ll have a head start.”

They nodded slowly. I braced myself for an all-too-familiar lecture about how dumb I am for not using modern chemical-based weed-control methods. But they surveyed the garden through pinched eyes and looked back at me and said, “That’s sorta how we did it back in the old days. Works good.”

**Slow clap.**

How about that? I finally got me some Missourian old-timer approval! This city mouse might not be a lost cause after all.

So now what?

Now we wait.

Die, weeds, die!

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