gardening. or, backyard warfare.

In my quest to learn new things I have taken on gardening. I am pretty sure it was a decision my subconscious made in protest of acquiring additional survival skills like trapping and butchering wild game. Because when someone you love gets cancer you don’t really want to focus on surviving, you want to focus on living.

So in March I visited the used bookstore down the street and went directly to the section on gardening. I pulled the lone copy of The Vegetable Garden off the shelves. It was yellowed with age, but well preserved otherwise. I opened to the first chapter.

“The last decade has seen America make rapid strides in a deeper appreciation of the home vegetable garden.”

I flipped to the copyright date. Published in 1929 for the National Garden Association.  In my mind, back then everyone had a garden, composted, and recycled out of necessity, rather than because it reflected your political and environmental ideology. You did it because you always had. Or so I thought.

I began wondering when people started replacing veggies from the garden with those in shiny canisters of convenience. Was it because of cost? The novelty of the new? Laziness? Or were we just working so hard we forgot how nice it is to pour a glass of ice water, throw on your gardening gloves after work and attack the weeds bragging about their resilience in your backyard.

There are a number of reasons I wanted to learn how to garden, but mostly because I like good food. And I am cheap.

I hate overpaying for apples that crunch but remind you of something that used to have flavor. I am tired of being duped by perfect looking strawberries whose taste doesn’t quite match their fire engine red exterior. I like the idea of eating lettuce that does not come prewashed, precut, and prepackaged. Basically, I want to eat how we are supposed to: by consuming real food. Not items disguised as it. I want my meal seasoned with the satisfaction that I grew it myself.

The other reason is because I have three raised planter boxes in my new home and no excuse. In previous posts I talked about wanting to learn new things. Well, my opportunity came with the house. And I want to see what I can put into the earth and nurture into being if I just try.

My efforts had to wait longer than I hoped. We had a long cold wet spring in Utah. D and I turned the soil in April, preparing the ground for our first domestic experiment. I joked that we were dirt farmers. By early May the snow kept coming and I worried that the growing season would never arrive. But eventually the snow in the valley melted. The rain eased. And I was finally able to put my seeds in the ground.  This is what happened since:

May 15 – I plant. I chose a Sunday because that is when our neighborhood is in church and there is no one around to watch me consult my reference guide on planting depths and go back and forth to the house to search online for ‘which direction do you plant onions?’ And such. I spend hours combing the dry soil, pulling out rocks and breaking clumps as hard as rocks with my fingers. I add peat moss and compost to the beds. Still, it looks inhospitable to life.

A few nights before I mapped out the plots. In theory, this worked. However, I neglected to account for the spacing between rows and didn’t realize until examining the chart after dinner. I think I focused too much on the planting depths of the seeds to notice my mistake. It just didn’t seem possible that my carrots would germinate only a quarter inch below the surface of that cracked desert dirt. But I guess life is always looking for a chance to climb out of unlikely places and announce that it can be done.

May 22 – D and I depart for Germany. We (he) programs the sprinkler to water the garden while we are gone. I worry that they will not turn on and my seeds will roast in the Utah sun. At 4am, I inspect the ground and find three onions pushing through the topsoil. I check the forecast and am relieved to see rain on the horizon. Just in case.

June 3 – We arrive home at 10pm. I bend down in the moonlight to see if there is anything to see. The onions are standing tall in the back, and what I believe to be the spinach sits in elegant bouquets on the surface. Our 88-year-old neighbor Jack greets us in the driveway. “Cache Valley welcomes you back,” he said. Perhaps I am finally understanding what it means to put roots down.

June 4 – I visit the garden in daylight. The peas look strong. I look closer and notice that someone else has been appreciating them too. Tiny bite marks mar their leaves. I flip over the leaves and examine between the folds. I find nothing.

June 6 – “Look at you!” I squeal upon the discovery of three new green patches pushing through the topsoil. This is replaced shortly after by confusion. I already have potatoes and chard growing in this box. I cannot account for the new arrivals. I know this box contained squash the year before. Are new plants emerging? I decide to leave them and see if they get along with the other vegetables until I can figure out exactly what they are.

June 7 – My potatoes are not actually my potatoes. They are weeds. “The nasty kind,” my landlord says as he looks at the planter. My new additions are actually my potato plants. One is missing. I pull out the weeds and make nasty faces at them wondering if they are to blame.

June 8 – The culprit eating my peas remains at large. However, my fourth potato plant showed up. It broke through the topsoil overnight. The leaf stems are bright red and orange. They change to green by the evening. Until today, they have never formally met the sun.

June 9 – Something is very wrong. The leaves of my apple tree are bumpy. Much of the fruit, although tiny, is also scarred. And the apricots look worse. At least the apples are still green. Patches of brown cover the apricots. Sunshine sparkles through hundreds of holes in the leaves fluttering in the wind. I bring samples to the local seed supply store. The man at the counter shakes his head as he hands them back. Its blister mites on the apples. Cosmetic damage only, he says. But the apricots are in trouble. They are infected with a fungus called Coryneum Blight. Without treatment the tree will eventual stop producing fruit and die. I buy two bottles of fungicide and oil spray and recruit D to help (do) the spraying.

June 14 – The potatoes look healthy. So do the peas. No pods yet. Although I did catch a bee checking out their progress. I take this as an encouraging sign that he has high expectations too.

June 16 – The first items from our garden appear on the chopping block. Green onions. The victims of thinning and the flavor in our quinoa. I can’t say I really noticed a difference, but I was grateful to have them in my recipe just the same.

June 17 – My spinach plants are squished. I have known this for some time, but until now have done nothing about it. I consult my book and the author chides me for waiting. “The seedlings must be thinned to give ample room for the unhampered development of the individual plant. Everyone sows them too thickly. The result is crowded rows, spindly seedlings, a war of ‘survival of the fittest,’ a waste of plant food on the unfit and permanent injury to the crop,” he writes. It has to be done. Choosing who was to be sacrificed wasn’t easy. But I left the strongest and claimed the rest for a salad of boiled eggs and feta. Yum.

June 21 – Summer solstice. My peas look drunk. They are beginning to drape over one another as if they can’t stand up on their own. I go online and find that they need to be staked. No one told me about this. The problem with beginner gardening books is that they never really start at the beginning. I go back to the seed shop to buy some wooden stakes. The store is out of chicken wire. I will buy some this weekend and build paneling for the peas to climb.

June 22 – My mother gives me the following gardening advice. “I never give up on the plants. Even when they are shriveled and look hopeless. Because there’s always a chance they could come back.” I write it down. I think it applies to people too.

June 25 – I stake the peas. I build trellises using chicken wire and wooden supports. I am a hero.

June 26 – July 5 –  I am at war. The garden is under attack. Slimy brown stomachs first began appearing on my peas. I pulled the slugs off the leaves and crushed them on the planter boxes, leaving their carcasses to shrivel in the sun. I was trying to send a message to their friends. It failed to register. Every morning I find slugs raiding my peas plants. Every morning I shred them with sticks. The tactic of using beer to lure them off the plants comes up empty. They do not imbibe. I think my slugs are Mormon slugs. Or else, they are in recovery. Then came the ants. They attacked the root system of a few of my beets. However, one dose of ant killer appears to have knocked their forces back. Grasshoppers invaded on the fifth. I find aphids covering the tops of my carrots.  I am growing weary of battling these pests. I do not think pest is a strong enough word for them.

July 6 – I thin the carrots, spinach, chard and beets. I pull out an onion just to see what it looks like. Small, but definitely developing layers. I put it back. I love bulbs.

July 7 – Every morning I take roll, finding out who is still with us, who is missing, and who doesn’t belong. Every morning I look for something to kill. I take out seven slugs and one grasshopper. D applies the Neem Py oil and insecticide. It is a good day.

11 thoughts on “gardening. or, backyard warfare.

  1. I found this line inspiring:

    “Or were we just working so hard we forgot how nice it is to pour a glass of ice water, throw on your gardening gloves after work and attack the weeds bragging about their resilience in your backyard.”

    Thanks for your balanced presentation of details.

  2. Thank you Tom. This gardening thing has been a bit of an adventure. This morning my sprinklers exploded (literally) and tried to take out my spinach.

    Anyhow, thanks for stopping by the site.

  3. Hello, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this blog. I love how you gave us a diary of sorts on you garden experiences. I like the humor that you have shown in your writing. If you have a moment, you might enjoy the blog I did about (garden update) my vegetable garden. I will be back to visit often.

  4. Hi Karen, Glad you find the site and enjoyed it. I am happy to find another newbie gardener to follow the adventures of. Especially in New England. Take care.

  5. Kris,
    I am so happy that you have taken up the challenge of gardening. It can evoke so many emotions; from excitement, curiosity, frustration, disappointment, and gratification. As you know, I love to garden; kneeling down and getting my hands in the soil is like a therapy for me. My senses seem more heightened; the smell of the moist earth, the texture of the rocks and roots, the sunlight on the green leaves, and the trickling sound of the cool water from the hose to water your plantings; how wonderful is that? The best part is when you sit back in the evening and experience a sense of accomplishment for your efforts and joy at the beauty and wonder of nature; the cycle of living.

  6. That was my post Kris, but I know that Dad would agree. He has learned to enjoy gardening too! Glad I am better at gardening than I am at the computer!

  7. No worries Mother Hen. I knew it was you. I would know it was you anyday. The best feeling for me is when I sit down to a salad and know exactly where it came from. My backyard!

  8. keep up the good fight!

    also, i should put you in touch with my friend lauren. she has an insanely productive garden in NH.

  9. Abby indeed sent along this link – I enjoyed reading!

    I am currently at war with Japanese beetles. I have two traps set and each morning go to the garden to find those who have not succumbed to the lure and are still attacking my hop and bean leaves…if I catch them before they get woken up by the sun, they are easier to stuff into a plastic bag, where they spend their last hours. I’m also keeping a careful watch for this white patchy mildew that invaded the squash last year.

    I hope you’ve already discovered this book, but if you haven’t you MUST get Animal, Vegetable Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver.

    Happy gardening!

  10. Hi Lauren,

    Abby has mentioned your garden before! Good luck fighting off the Japanese beetles, white patchy mildew, and whatever else finds its way to your garden that doesn’t belong there. I remember my mom putting out those same traps for beetles when I was a kid. It was crazy how many would find their way inside. Hopefully you are on the right side of the battle in the end.

    And thanks for recommending Animal Vegetable Miracle. I will pick up a copy the next time I am at the bookstore/library.

    Best of luck.

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