Broken gardening

In spite of still recovering from a broken leg, Miki Collins was glad to get on with planting. 

LAKE MINCHUMINA — “I had to transplant the cole crops,” my sister told me. “They were out-growing their pots, and Shawn had already rototilled the garden for us. But I put them near the bottom of the garden instead of in the middle.”

I sighed. Being stuck in Fairbanks on crutches for eight weeks during garden-planting time had been torture. Not only did I miss one of my favorite chores of raising garden sets, but I also had to coach Julie over the phone on what to do. During the last 40 years of gardening, I had not only learned numerous little tips and shortcuts but had also become set and inflexible in my beloved routines and techniques.

“Julie usually won’t help in the garden except for harvesting,” I had told Ed, my physical therapist. “I’m too tyrannical!” Normally that suits me fine; who wants to be pumping water or repairing dog houses when you could be planting peas? This year, though, flattened by a leg broken in a dog sledding crash, I missed most of the fun, and Julie got stuck with it.

Luckily, a neighbor generously volunteered to till the garden — twice — so that big job (and one of my favorite chores) was finished, late enough in May to wipe out the first widespread crop of greenery (weeds), but still early enough to warm the soil nicely.

By the fourth of June when I finally stood gazing at the garden, both feet planted on the ground but still leaning on crutches, Julie had the tilled furrows mostly raked. She had planted some carrots and Swiss chard; started on the potatoes; and the aforementioned cole crop — broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage — now spread their leaves happily skyward as their toes expanded into compost-enriched soil.

“I didn’t want the cole crops at the bottom because mice might eat them,” I lectured, pointing at the overgrown raspberries crowding the nearby fence, a protective haven for hungry voles that can fell a whole baby broccoli in one snip. But Julie had remembered to install protective tin cans, their ends removed, over the more susceptible plants, and the four dozen broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage plants stood proudly, shooting up and out under a warm June sun.

A 5,000-square-foot garden takes awhile to plant, and I usually aim to finish the bulk of it by early June to take full benefit of the 100-day growing season. However, just a month before the area had been frozen ground. Allowing the soil to warm an extra week frequently proves advantageous for heat-loving crops including beans and the pre-planted squash sets, so we only had to rush the cold-hardy vegetables that would feed us not only the last half of summer, but throughout the following winter as well.

Unable to kneel yet, I sat on the ground, legs extended ahead as I dug a shallow double furrow along a row Julie marked with a string, and dropped in chunky Swiss chard seeds, spacing them well apart since each seed sprouts two or three plants.

After two months indoors, I reveled in the lush, fertile soil, ignoring the dirt grinding into the jointed brace that still encased my leg from hip to ankle. I sopped up sun beating down on bare arms, the chortling of robins and the sight of three service berry bushes I’d transplanted from a distant patch, survivors of that first critical winter.

Julie, her hands unencumbered by crutches, planted potatoes. “Make a big hole,” I ordered. “Then backfill the bottom with compost and dump in about three gallons of water. Put in three or four potatoes — five or six if they’re small — and cover with an inch more compost and then two inches of dirt on top.”

Demandingly specific indeed! “You don’t have to have to do it that way,” I added before lecturing didactically: “When compost surrounds the potatoes it holds water like a sponge in addition to providing nutrients. And if harvest time is muddy, potatoes come out much cleaner. But horse manure compost can be infested with weed seeds, and sometimes turns into a weed patch unless smothered under that last two inches of dirt.”

I didn’t insist on adding sulfur, which increases the acidity that potatoes appreciate (and decreases the likelihood of scabs) as well as supplementing the soil with this essential element that our garden has tested low in. However, because it takes awhile to disperse throughout the soil, I normally add sulfur before tilling if not the fall before.

Every time I inch-wormed to the end of the row I had to whine for Julie to bring my crutches. Once I’d clawed my way back to my feet, the hobble sticks sank deeply into the loose, light garden soil as I picked my way to the next row.

With the crutches requiring two hands I couldn’t shovel a potato row, but I did manage to weed and loosen dirt in the eight half-drum raised beds and one leaky horse trough where our pumpkins, squash, and tomatoes thrive in the warm, rich, elevated soil. Having added a little sand and six inches of compost to each the previous year, I dispensed with the soil amendments this year.

Two days after I arrived home, our garden lay finished except for bean seeds and pumpkin transplants that would benefit from more soil heating. Although requiring a joint effort this year, at least the bulk of the garden was in.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina