No one plants from seed in August. That’s what I was told when I first moved to Texas. But two weeks after settling into our new apartment I was tired of looking at the wreck outside the front window. The previous tenant had planted a garden. My landlord mentioned he was a veteran who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. And he needed a project when he got home.
He shored up the soil with four wooden planks and gathered clippings from the neighboring lawns to keep the soil moist. He planted carrots, tomatoes and peppers, which I could identify by the shriveled remains. Plastic markers scattered in the garden box indicated the presence of soybeans, lettuce, spinach and squash, but I never located any. Everything was alive when he left.
But when D and I arrived a month later, the plants lay dried out and drooping. The neighbors opted not to water it in his absence. We thought about it. But we don’t like tomatoes, they explained.
One afternoon I walked outside and yanked everything dead out of the ground. I turned the soil and shaped rows with my bare hands because I couldn’t find my gardening gloves in the mess of cardboard boxes inside. I decided to replant because the worst that could happen was nothing would sprout. And in a strange way, it felt like a test of faith.
In the first row I planted tomatoes, then moved on to the next, poking holes along the top with my forefinger and dropping kale seeds into the divots. As I covered the mound with dirt my hands started to burn. I recognized this feeling.
It was the same I experienced decades before as a child when standing in the pool area as my mother weeded near the shrubs. I had been playing in the mulch when my legs seemed to erupt in flames. I screamed, flailed around and couldn’t find my words. I still recall how she reacted. She inspected my body for injury, lifting my corduroys at the ankles and noticing tiny ants covering my flesh. Next she did what any mom would do. She tossed me in the pool. I stopped crying and the ants floated to the surface and toward the suction of the filter.
I looked down at my hands and saw tiny red fire ants going to war with my wrists. I watched as they raised their antennae and stood on their hind legs as if rearing to attack. I ran into the house, turned on the faucet letting cool water flush ants and dirt down the drain. The next day I wore gloves.
Within a week the kale popped through the topsoil. The rainbow chard caught up a few days later. The peas surprised me by showing up at all. Slowly the green is overtaking the brown and new leaves appear every day. A gentleman at the nearby nursery told me the problem with planting kale in the heat is that the leaves will likely get tough. Maybe that’s a good thing, I thought to myself.
The truth is there are a lot more bugs to offend here. So far in the garden I’ve spotted grasshoppers I’ve managed to crush underfoot or chase into the path of grackles; a cluster of microscopic black something or others that chew through my basil but have yet to identify, earwigs that burrowed into my rows and grew irritated the time I backfilled them with dirt to see what was down there; fire ants that hate it when I weed; and snails that munch on my peas and avert the pools of beer I’ve kindly set out to drown them in. I think about different ways to kill them every day.
So far I’ve managed not to use any pesticides or chemicals. But all bets are off when they cross the line. You know it too. The lesson is simple: you come inside my house I break your legs off. There is no bargaining. No wrapping you in a napkin and carrying you outside to the front stoop. You come in my home, I will hunt you down like the insect you are, crush your exoskeleton, and dispose of your carcass in a deep watery grave where no relatives will ever recover your remains. Because I am not a sucker.
However, one month in to my life in Texas I will admit I don’t have many friends here. To ensure I manage to sustain civil discourse with humans, I have signed up to volunteer later this month at a dig-in with the Green Corn Project. The organization plants organic gardens for elderly, disabled and lower income individuals and community centers. The group mentors new gardeners for four growing seasons with the hope that they will in turn mentor others. I like this arrangement and just happen to be free to assist. But at this point my level of expertise is pretty low. Just a few seasons ago I thought having grasshoppers in my garden was a positive sign …
But over time you learn. You find that the presence of life in your garden is not always a good thing. That sometimes gambles do pay off. Occasionally evening temperatures drop just enough for seeds to germinate in August. And you happen to have the right amount of afternoon shade to protect seedlings from frying in the sun. Sometimes, forever whatever reason, you just want to prove everyone wrong.