First-time vegetable gardener starts with a raised-bed box

FORT KENT, Maine — For most of my adult life I have had a lingering desire to plant my own vegetable garden. Grocery store vegetables are great, but there is no tastier salad than that made with fresh homegrown vegetables. I thought it would be exciting to visit my garden, pulling on mysterious carrot tops to reveal what has grown hidden beneath the soil, kind of like fishing on land.

My lack of knowledge about gardening, as well as being distracted by work and other responsibilities, has steered me away from dipping my thumb in the green. That changed in response to the pandemic, as I came to realize that people who are able to acquire their own food, chop down trees and perform other survivalist skills are in a good place when disaster strikes.

Lumberjacking is not in my future, but my 16-year-old son built me a raised-bed garden box, an early Mother’s Day gift, during his high school construction trades class, and this gardening season I intend to use it. 

With the raised bed complete, I figured all I really needed now were a few bags of soil, seeds, perhaps a watering can and some floral printed gardening gloves, so I headed off to Pelletier’s Florist, Greenhouse and Garden Center in Fort Kent. There I encountered employee Melissa Babin, who taught me there is much more to vegetable gardening than seed packets and dirt. 

When it comes to gardening, Babin knows things. 

She has been exposed to gardening her entire life and said at 2 years old she would run through her great-grandfather’s garden and eat raw onions. 

Babin began gardening in earnest at 20 years old, with tips learned from her great-uncle, who she described as “a master green thumb.”

“He could grow cabbages that looked like a Cabbage Patch Kid would pop out of it,” Babin said.

She said in place of pesticides, he would spray a mixture of epsom salts, dish detergent and cayenne pepper on his growing vegetables to keep harmful bugs away. 

Perhaps the most profound of her great-uncle’s gardening wisdom, and something Babin follows steadfastly, is not to plant a northern Maine garden until June 6.  

“That is when the frost is pretty much gone,” Babin said. 

Choosing vegetable seed packets can be fun and enlightening at Pelletier’s Greenhouse and Garden Center in Fort Kent. (Jessica Potila | St. John Valley Times)

This meant planting my raised-bed garden would have to wait a few weeks. In the meantime, though, I could begin by growing some of the vegetables inside. 

I began by picking out seeds. This was fun. I could choose to grow whatever food I wanted, and I pretty much wanted all of it. 

It was also enlightening to learn that a tomato is not just a tomato. There are many different types including one called a yellow pear tomato, and if that is not confusing enough, green beans are not always green, and in fact some are purple.

Babin recommended I select scallions and black-seeded Simpson lettuce, the vegetable ingredients of salade de jardins, a popular Acadian summer treat that includes sour cream for dressing. 

I also chose old-fashioned heirloom tomatoes, after Babin told me they are what my great-grandmother would have planted. Carrots and those purple green beans rounded out my seed packets. 

I could begin growing the scallions and tomatoes now, by putting them in a cut seed starting tray in my house. The tray has a plastic lid and works as a mini greenhouse. 

Babin asked if I have cats, which I do, and advised me to keep the mini greenhouse out of their reach. 

I decided the top of my refrigerator would be the safest location for the mini greenhouse. Of course this meant I would have to clean the top of my refrigerator, but that was okay because I found some interesting stuff up there that I forgot I owned, including an outgrown dog collar and chewed-up leather sandal.

Once June 6 arrives I will purchase my soil and start planting in my raised-bed garden box. 

“It’s still a garden; you’re just getting it off the ground a little bit,” Babin said. 

If all goes well and my garden is successful, my next goal will be to learn to can my own vegetables.

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