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Intrepid Urban Farmer: First time taking space in community garden offers chance for something new

This year, I did something that I never thought I would do. I took a space in a community garden. I had never been interested in doing it before, because I always had plenty going on in my own back yard.

I had also developed an smug attitude about the convenience of having my garden just a few steps beyond my back door. It is just so much easier to keep an eye on things! The closer the garden, the greater the vigilance. Vigilance over bugs, weeds and blights, to be specific.

As I learned to garden over these past twenty-five, or so, years, I found that the more attention I paid to my garden, the better it did. This is not rocket science. Nor is it a prescient revelation to you experienced gardeners who humor me by reading this column. However, it is amazing how long it took me to come to this conclusion… probably about ten(?) years.

Once again, if I had any sense, I would keep these little eurekas to myself. But recently, when I found myself running after five rebel goats making a break for the Roebling Suspension Bridge after their escape from the Covington Farmer’s Market opening celebration (and their literal interpretation of the “running of the goats”), I had a 4H flashback–my lambs escaping at the county fairground. It was hell on earth for this ten year old girl. The memory grabbed me by the throat and I just couldn’t help myself. I flew, like a banshee, after them and I discovered a truth–I apparently have no sense of self-dignity. None at all.

I don’t keep my shortcomings to myself. I gladly recount any and all mistakes that I make about, well, ANYTHING. Anyone who knows me realizes that they get me totally unedited. I wear Doc Martins. I run like hell at the drop of a hat even though, I guess, women over fifty aren’t supposed to do that. I cuss. I’ll even eat Spam, if that’s all that’s available. I do, mercifully, have a modicum of charm, thank God.

So, I offer this column up as instructional. Learn from my mistakes. If you want anyone to take you seriously, don’t run after goats.

Now, back to that community garden.

Tomato Teepee

The tomato teepee (Photo provided)

I decided I wanted to try an experiment in growing cherry tomatoes for the Dee Felice Cafe in Covington. I worked there many years ago and we’ve always been friends. This is not any big hoopla, just a small project that would also give me a reason to try a new tomato support. Since this would be, essentially, a self-serving pursuit, there would be no charge for the produce resulting.

The particular tomato support that I had in mind was big. Really big. I call it a teepee, but it really is an A-frame. “A-frame” reminds me of those dreadful, cheap houses that popped up all over the place in the seventies, and I can’t abide by that. Your garden is your kingdom, and my kingdom has teepees, NOT A-frames.

I didn’t have enough room in my backyard for this structure, so the search for additional dirt was on.

After a few inquiries about town, I landed in the newly expanded Riddle-Yates Community Garden located in Covington’s Westside. This neighborhood is experiencing a robust renaissance and popularity. An additional plus is the fact that there are very nice people in the Westside. Tomatoes, more dirt, nice people. What could possibly be better?

I secured a twelve by fifteen foot plot, which turned out to be the perfect size for my plans.

I set about preparing my dirt. And, of course, there were stones and concrete footers to be excavated. In the scheme of life, I have way to much experience with this sort of thing. I mean, really. I do have a college education. But by providence, I have a PhD in large stone removal.

One rock, in particular, was so big I had to resort to my high school science for help. In my memory of simple machines, the lever and fulcrum came to the fore. Fortunately, there were a couple of two by fours of a good length on site. What excellent luck! After much heaving, swearing and grunting (no personal dignity…none), I extracted the beast and rolled it off to the side. The other stones were easily dealt with, as they were runts compared to that one.

The soil in this plot was pretty heavy with clay, so I added composted manure, peat moss and topsoil to it. This further led to my decision to plant my tomatoes in raised mounds with a side trench so that they would drain more effectively.

After I finished amending the soil, but before I made the two raised hills with side trenches, I constructed the tomato teepee.

This was a joint project with my Dad, who is a fourth generation Ohio farmer. He has taken to referring to himself as a “grain producer” as of late as he feels this is more dignified. Well, at least HE has a sense of personal dignity. I must have fallen a little too far from the tree.

Between the two of us, we came up with this plan: Four sections of 4 1/2 by 8 foot cattle fencing, Six 2 by 4’s in 8 foot lengths and a slew of zipties configured into a teepee (OK, it’s an A-frame) with an 8 by 8 foot footprint. It’s about 6 feet tall at its top peak. The 2 by 4’s give the tent a more rigid support.

After much discussion and even more direction from the foreman of this project (my mother), we erected a very nice structure. Well, we like it.

Telepathic tomatoes leaning in

Telepathic tomatoes leaning in (Photo provided)

The next step was mounding up the soil at the outside foot of the teepee on both sides. The idea is that the tomatoes will grow up the side of the structure and continue on over the top and possibly down the other side a short distance. If they get really ambitious and overlap too much, I’ll prune them back.

I had started eight cherry tomato plants for this project. Cherry tomatoes are generally very prolific, so I thought this might be a good start. I also added three Okra plants to the plot.

From the Dee Felice Cafe, I was able to get a number of huge restaurant-sized tin cans with both ends cut out to put over the little plants until they got up to speed.

As per my usual method, I planted the tomatoes—four on each side, ran a soaker hose around them, put down two layers of newspaper and finished them off with a good layer of straw.

As of today, the tomatoes look really good. I removed the cans before the plants got too big and an amazing thing is happening—the plants are actually growing towards the teepee, on both sides! How do they know to do this? Is is tomato telepathy?

I am really glad I decided to take a plot in a community garden. I enjoy the camaraderie with the other gardeners and the chance to try something new. The only downside is that I’m afraid they’ll get a clear picture of how obsessed I am with gardening since I visit the garden, sometimes, twice a day. But, even if they didn’t see me, I’d probably just tell them anyway.


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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