Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and Girls! May we present to you…our garden! We are officially gardeners since the reopening of the community gardening program hosted by the Michiana Master Gardeners Association. Originally canceled for health concerns, it has since been relaunched with social distancing guidelines. In the open expanse of the Elkhart Municipal Airport is a community garden program where the Jagers have committed to gardening a 20 x 20-foot plot of land for the summer of 2020.
After the last day of frost and the “May 1st” launch date from the master gardeners, we arrived on the scene to see a stake with Ashley’s name on it for our designated plot.
Our first task from the masters was to mulch the perimeter of our plot so that our fellow gardeners could have walkways to access their sections. A mountain of mulch was supplied for everyone to prepare their garden plots for the summer. Derek attacked the mountain with our new spade, filling the community cart to the brim for four loads of mulch until we had covered the walkway with mulch layers.
With the perimeter secured, our next step was to implement our plans for the 20 x 20 foot space. Prior to this, I had been completing learning modules on a community course titled “Smart Gardening with Veggies 101” through Michigan State University’s Gardening Extension program. The instructors provided digital resources for self-paced completion with live-recorded video demonstrations and weekly webinars on their Gardening in Michigan Facebook page. I learned that for beginner gardeners, it’s best to start small in a square section or raised bed so that the plants can be accessed from all sides to weed and water. Square gardens are also more manageable to plan and maintain instead of tackling an overwhelming garden size.
As an apartment gardener, I was used to arranging as many containers as I could on my limited porch space and had never encountered such a large amount of land to use in whatever way that I wanted. To break up the plot into organized areas, I drafted 9 sections of 5 x 5 foot designated square gardens as a 3 x 3 grid within the total expanse of the 20 x 20 foot plot. This would give us space to walk through the garden sections and focus our attention on each square. We weeded the entire plot until all of the grass was removed and measured out the squares with traced lines for the grid.
Inspired by my gardening interest, my grandparents, John and Mary Frances Berger, gifted me with their Mantis-20 rototiller, well-loved and maintained since 1986. My mom and dad were willing to pick it up in Maumee, Ohio on their trip back from moving my little sister home from college. Excited with my new gardening equipment, I unpacked the components, reading through the hand-written instructions from my grandparents.
Although I was looking forward to fire up the engine, I decided to hold off on tilling the plot after a little research and advice from my neighboring gardeners. If the soil is overworked, it can negatively impact soil composition and plant growth. This land had already been prepped by the master gardeners before opening day and had invested years in maintaining fruitful soil. This would have been a different story if we were starting a garden from scratch in the yard. With that said, I now have a beautiful rototiller for my future gardening endeavors.
Alternatively, we activated the top layer with a little manual labor to break apart the soil for a softer, almost fluffy nature that would compare to what rolls out of a bag from the store with what is known as the “Double-Dig Method.”
The Double-Dig Method is a simple, yet physically engaging process to over-turn the soil.
Step 1: DIG! Thrust the spade into the ground, lift the soil and set it aside to your left in a pile. Step forward and repeat until you have completed digging a trench.
Step 2: Begin digging a new trench to the right of your first row but this time, toss the soil into the previous row on the left.
Step 3: DOUBLE-DIG! Overturn the soil in the first trench by digging and flipping the spade over on itself.
Step 4: Continue this process of digging another trench to your right and tossing the soil into the previous trench on your left until you have finished your final row. This time, scoop up the first piles of soil and overturn them in the last trench. Rake over the plot to smooth together. The result is a lighter, aerated soil quality that you could run your hand through making it easier to sow seeds.
After hours of hard work, our garden soil was ready for planting. While many of our vegetables would be directly sown from seeds, the sprouts from our nursery on the porch garden had been “hardening-off” each day increasing their outdoor exposure in the elements from their previous home on the bedroom windowsill. After about ten days of progressive hours outside, our transplants would be ready for their new space in the garden plot. The community garden had debuted and was ready for its summer performance!