Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Now... What Was Your Excuse Again...?

We can always find an excuse to not have a garden!

I'll admit that many of the reasons are much better than others, but here is a story of a Texan serving in Iraq that didn't make excuses...he made a garden!

Gardening in Iraq: Officer's effort lifts spirits

Forty-two miles north of Baghdad, a small contingent of U.S. gardeners has gained some homegrown ground. Their vegetable plot at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, has had its ups and downs. The giant lima and snap beans have been a hit. The 'Clemson Spineless' okra was mostly a no-show.

Gardening there brings a good dose of failures as well as successes, reports Lt. Col. Donal Dunbar, the top gardener and director of operations at the Air Force Theater Hospital on the base. Dunbar, who's due to return home to San Antonio next month, is serving his second, six-month Iraq tour. His 14-member gardening club began planting in February.

Balad lies near the Tigris River and is more suitable for agriculture than other parts of Iraq. Irrigation water from the river helps. But with no rain and high heat during the growing season, the gardeners contend with great odds: Triple-digit temperatures. Soil that clings to shoes like peanut butter when it rains at planting time or is wind-whipped into brown dust as seedlings attempt to grow. Zero humidity. High winds.

When the lack of humidity and wind dealt the okra a one-two blow, Dunbar knew variety selection was key. 'Clemson Spineless,' which does well in the humid Southern United States, didn't fare as well in Iraq as a type grown from local seed.

Dunbar, 46, has gardened since he was 9 years old. The Troy, Ala., native grew a row of onions during his first Iraq tour in 2008. Although he works 12-hour shifts six days a week, his second tour has allowed more gardening time.

The nutritional and psychological values of gardening during wartime are well-documented. Americans planted victory gardens during World War II, when fuel-rationing made food transportation difficult. But gardening can also provide a mental escape and a connection to nature and home.

Growing vegetables has been a morale booster to those living spartan lives in CHUs, or containerized housing units, on the base.

"I knew it would help me, and I guess I was far from alone," Dunbar says. "People heard about it and wanted to jump in and help, so I expanded my original concept. Several people have told me that the work on the weekends (when most have their day off) is like therapy."

One is chief nurse Col. Eleanor Foreman. "Gardening has always been a favorite hobby, but I never thought I'd be enjoying it here, too," she says. "In this demanding environment, even just a short time tending to the garden each day allows me to relax and clear my mind while still remaining productive. Being able to witness this quiet beauty even in a place like this is inspirational."

With few resources and poor soil, these gardeners had to improvise. Digging with shovels and a pick-ax, and using parachute cord and rebar to make straight lines, they created a large plot with three 40-foot rows. The rows are 2- to 3-inch-deep trenches that direct water to thirsty roots and protect young plants from the wind. Raised beds were planted in the hospital courtyard. Carrying water to the plots in gallon buckets, the gardeners are growing summer squash, cantaloupe, peppers, tomatoes and Iraqi eggplants -- all started in small pots on windowsills before being transplanted outdoors.

Weeds, they discovered, can provide wind protection while vegetables establish. Then, it's a good idea to pull them so they won't rob the crops of nutrition.

Two boxes of cigarellos helped battle aphids. Dunbar placed the small cigars in water and let them sit in the sun for a day, brewing a pest-tackling "tea."

Summer squash were transplanted by Feb. 1, and beans and cucumbers were in the ground by mid-February. In March, some plants struggled in the heat and wind, but the red potatoes (shipped from the States) grew vigorously.

The white pumpkin vines were a surprise.

Beans were the great success story. Mid-April, the gardeners enjoyed eating them fresh in SPC Nazha Lakrik's Moroccan lamb-bean stew.

This month, 100-plus degree temperatures and harsh sun rays are bearing down. The lima and snap beans are working hard, and the peas, from local seed, are holding ground. But a rabbit is attacking the potatoes.

"I knew the danger he would pose once the weeds and grass started to dry out, leaving our little patch as the only juicy, green spot on his dinner menu," Dunbar writes in his weekly gazette. "We'll just have to see how this one plays out."

Dunbar will possibly skip that chapter. He's scheduled to rejoin his wife and two daughters next month in Texas, where he'll turn his attention to the family's vegetable garden and enjoy homegrown tomatoes.

A palm tree Dunbar planted in the 'Oasis' in 2008. He said it's doing well. There's another raised bed behind it with the basil growing in it.


Now, if they can do it...we can do it! Right? Right!

Fresh coffee on the patio this morning, if that's OK with you!


Anonymous said...

Gardening and growing stuff is good for the soul.


Momlady said...

There's nothing like homegrown veggies.

Sissy said...

I agree with AV; it is good for my soul. Now if I can just learn to maneuver with the mower around the boxes after shattering two to "splintereens", my gardens may succeed. Think I may need more coffee or some driving lessons.

HermitJim said...

Hey AV...
That's so very true, my friend! So very true...!

Thanks for coming by today!

Hey Momlady...
It's a taste unlike any other, that's for sure! Makes you appreciate all the effort you put into it!

Not to mention how much better it is for you!

Hey, thanks for coming by today!

Hey Sissy...
I guess you'll just have to keep practicing, huh? Don't want to be running over all the goodies!

More coffee can certainly be arranged!

Thanks for the visit this morning!

JoJo said...

Good Morning My Special One
great post, brings a little bit of home to the troops.
I can't wait to plant some things on my new homestead the soil here is so rich compared to the valley.
Coffee on the patio is always OK with me

HermitJim said...

Hey JoJo...
I'm sure that anything that helps to bring a taste of home is greatly appreciated for sure!

I'm glad that you have some good soil in the new place. Fresh veggies are on the menu before you know it!

Thanks, sweetie, for coming by today!

Mechanic in Illinois said...

I like gardening because it brings the deer,squirrels,and rabbits around. They become the protein part of the meal. Thanks for another great lesson.

HermitJim said...

Hey Mechanic...
Better than putting out just the feed corn, huh?

Never hurts to have a little meat to go with the fresh veggies!

Thanks for coming by today, my friend!

Cygnus MacLlyr said...

VERY inspirational, Makes me wanna send them a care package of seeds!! I'll avoid the Clemson Spineless, though! HA! (I'm not having luck with okra this year, either-- same variety I couldn't kill in Houston last year...)

Good day to you, Mr.Hermit!!!

HermitJim said...

Hey Cyg...
Now this is what you call dedicated gardeners! And I note that he from Texas...so he is used to having a garden in rough weather!

I'll bet that those veggies never tasted so good to these guys! A real taste of home1

Thanks for the visit!

Ginger said...

Lovely story. And you'r so right - if they can do it with their limited resources, we certainly can with our many resources. Thanks for sharing!

HermitJim said...

Hey Ginger...
I figured that even in the desert, if the guys in Iraq can grow things...then in our desert here, we should be able to do it as well!

Sometime it just takes a little inspiration to get us started!

I'm so glad that you could stop by today! Thank you...!

Tatersmama said...

What a great post! Now that's truly food for the soul!!

I wonder if it would be possible to send them seeds? I know that here in Oz with our strict quarantine regulations, we're not supposed to even send seeds from state to state, but maybe if it were for such a good cause...hmmm?
And if it'll grow in Oz, surely it would grow in Iraq too?