When I step out of the minivan at the local gardening center, you can hear and feel the rush of air, as if every plant in the place is sucking up as much oxygen as possible in preparation of selection. They can feel me coming, and their little sapling stems strain in the other direction. They can sense a plant-killer in their midst.
Okay, I’m being dramatic, but the carnage speaks for itself. Part of the problem is lack of interest in gardening. When my husband and I bought our first home, I attempted to do some landscaping. I didn’t care to do any research about native plants, soil, and blah, blah, blah. I bought plants that appealed to me visually. Two days after putting them in the ground, I learned that those same plants appealed to the taste buds of the neighborhood wildlife. The rabbits alone decimated most of what I had bought. I was bitter and resentful, considering I had knelt down in the grass and had to touch dirt, of all things.
The perennial flowers I planted that first year did return, and that was a huge source of pride for me. I have an uncle who keeps meticulous garden beds on his property. When he stopped by for a visit, I couldn’t wait to show him the 5 Chrysanthemums I was nurturing. He let out a hearty laugh after I described how I had been weeding the flowerbed and watering the plants every morning. “Those four are coming in nicely,” he said, “but this one here by the door is a big, healthy weed.” My jaw dropped. We had been invaded, and I didn’t even recognize the enemy!
I have repeated that story to many people, and most offer an example of their own gardening stupidity to commiserate. Notice I said “an” example. One. My conclusions are:
a) They learn from the experience and then do better to educate themselves going forward.
b) If they really don’t care to garden, they use that experience to throw away the trowel. They hire a landscaper and don’t deal with planting and maintenance.
Not me. Oh, no, both of those options are too easy! Spend some time educating myself with a few internet searches or a book with instructions? Nah. Have someone with a degree of skill come over and walk me through it? No, thanks. Annually waste large sums of money on a vegetable garden that is in a shaded spot because “it fits better in the yard there”? Sure! How about flowers that either drown due to over-watering or dry out because they were forgotten about for a week or two? That sounds more like me!
The previous owner of our current home must be rolling over in her grave to witness what I have done (and, through neglect, haven’t done) to her flowerbeds. But after the breast cancer diagnosis and the confirmation of the BRCA2 genetic mutation, I made a decision. Nutritional counseling was extremely helpful during treatment and eating real food is important for my survival. Furthermore, it is imperative for the health of my children. It was time to empower myself and take control of what I ate.
The problem with it, though, was that I fell into old habits quickly after growing seeds inside the house. I took those tomato- and pepper-plant seedlings that looked healthier than anything else I had ever grown and put them in their trays outside…and then forgot about them. For a few weeks. When I finally remembered where they were and that they needed to get in the ground, they resembled those nasty fried onion strips that are used on green bean casserole.
This summer, I was determined to do a better job. The seedlings started out great
and they kept right on growing.
I kept a journal (provided by one of my favorite crafters, Bumble and Sweet) to record my activity and the seeds’ growth, and waited to put the trays outside until I knew it wasn’t going to be a hectic week. I left myself notes around the house as reminders to water and observe the seedlings. My husband did a terrific job creating a raised-bed garden for me, and he chose a location that could not be ignored/missed: directly outside our backdoor, next to the sunroom windows. Fool–or, as we say around here, Amy–proof!
I found a few packets of herb seeds I had never planted, and added them to the area where some carrot seedlings didn’t survive the transition. It wasn’t until after we had put them all in the ground that I realized there is a reason gardeners don’t put more than one carrot seed in a tray’s space…and the wisest don’t start them in trays at all. (Truth: I “realized” this because Baby #4 watched an episode of PBS’s Curious George, where George wants to grow a vegetable garden. Suffice to say, there are a LOT of parallels between the monkey’s actions and mine. I’m going to keep my dignity and just move on here…)
We spent weeks weeding, watering, and watching. Growth seemed slow in the beginning, but picked up after a few good rainstorms lent a hand.
We never staked the cherry tomato plants, and they ran wild and overtook the peppers. We harvested maybe four or five decent carrots, and I didn’t plant the beets deep enough for consistently good growth. Only the basil grew from the herb seeds, and only one sunflower.
But what a flower! Man, the stem was thick and sturdy and it just shot right up. I was shocked when it sprouted multiple blooms, but hey! what do I really know about sunflowers, anyway? One day, my husband examined it more closely…
…and insisted that I give it a good once-over, too…
Aw, dammit! I nurtured yet another weed to showcase!
It took me over 15 minutes to get that thing out of the ground. I had to hack away at thick, tenacious roots that cracked like twigs when I tugged on them. I had to rock the whole thing back and forth numerous times, while listening to Baby #3’s comments:
“Wow, that’s the biggest plant I’ve ever SEEN! It’s like it can suck the life right out of the other plants around it!”
“Mommy, maybe I can climb it like Jack and the Beanstalk?”
“Can we just let it keep growing, and see if it blocks the sun out of the sunroom?”
Once the garden was free of the evil green monster, the older kids decided to experiment to determine what it would take to destroy it. They ran over it with motorized riding toys. They dropped it from the top of the swingset. They took wiffle bats to it. I can report that they barely nicked the stem. Finally, Baby #3 told me I could have my “indestructible plant back.”
Mutant weed-cultivation aside, I was able to harvest some successful vegetables.
What we didn’t grow, we received through a weekly farm share. Those were the best vegetables to pick, because all I had to do was pick up the bag. No labor, no lessons in humility, no inferiority complex from looking over the fence into my neighbor’s bountiful cultivation.
I did learn a few things:
- Farmers deserve to be treated as the national treasures they are. The amount of labor and skill that goes into their profession is ample.
- Patience is a virtue and, like Curious George forewarned, not waiting 60 days to pick a carrot is going to leave you with a disappointing experience.
- I really don’t like to be dirty, but I’m lucky to have a couple of kids that who will stick their fingers in the soil to tell me if it needs to be watered or not.
- It’s a good idea to follow the directions on the seed package. Whoever put them there is trying to save you the aggravation of growing three puny carrots in a cluster, or a tomato jungle that will frighten you.
- Farm cooperatives are designed for those who are too busy (or incompetent) to garden. They provide you with all of the benefits of fresh, healthy produce and none of the dirt, bugs, sun exposure, watering, humiliation, and work that go into tending a vegetable garden.
- As much as I complained and griped, I enjoyed the entire experience more than I expected. The beets we grew were the best beets I’ve ever had (maybe that isn’t saying much, since I’m talking about beets.) The cherry tomatoes are addicting snacks. The red and orange peppers never changed to red or orange before spoiling, but we’ve cooked them with eggs, added them to pasta sauce, stuffed them, and dunked them in hummus. The basil dressed up multiple meals. The carrots were disappointing, but after I peeled them their shavings were a pretty and flavorful addition to vegetable stir fry.
- And the most important thing I learned by having my own vegetable garden? What I eat and how I eat it is my lifeline to many more years of watching my kids’ weed-destroying experiments. The way we eat will dictate the way we live.
Next year, we are going to compost and expand the plot.