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Reap What You Sow

Starting your own vegetables from seed is time consuming—but worth the work—for Cape Cod gardens

Optimal soil clumps easily with enough organic matter to hold some water, and also encourages all-important natural soil-building activities to occur, encouraging the growth of beneficial organisms like earthworms, good fungus, and other flora and fauna that create healthy soil conditions.

When we dug our first Cape Cod vegetable garden several years ago, we added a good 6 to 8 inches of compost, purchased by the yard from a local supplier. (A yard is 27 cubic feet.) You can also buy compost by the bag from local garden centers like Country Garden in Hyannis—there are lots of good varieties, but our favorites are the completely organic varieties made in New England.

Compost is crucial for successful gardening on Cape Cod, whether your soil is a little light and sandy like our Centerville soil, or wet and full of clay like the soil on my son’s land, just one town over in West Barnstable. He had to laboriously pick, hoe and double dig his vegetable garden in unforgiving muck and then add reams of compost.

I only added a few inches of compost to my soil last year, a mistake I lived to regret, compounded by the fact that I made a second classic gardening mistake—I settled for inferior seedlings from area big box stores, not wanting to take the time to start my plants from seed under grow lights for eventual hardening off and then transplanting outside. It was a mistake I lived to regret in mid- to late summer when my plants refused to adequately flourish and fruit, sometimes even falling victim to nasty diseases like the dreaded Late Tomato Blight.

Situations like this are probably what prompted the famous American gardener, Thomas Jefferson, to say late in his life, “I am an old man, but a young gardener.” The truth is that you never stop learning when you are a gardener, which is one of the reasons I endure all kinds of disappointments and failures when I garden. In this case, I learned from a much younger gardener.

Last winter, my son stubbornly stuck to his plan of starting all his plants from seed, building a long wooden table in his basement and installing fluorescent glass lighting just a few inches above his seed pots. I sniffed a little as I purchased pots of 3- to 4-inch tomatoes, brussels sprouts, cucumbers and zucchini. My plants were in the ground weeks before his and I couldn’t imagine that his spindly little seedlings would ever catch up to my mass-produced magnificence.

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