Garden Rebound

You want to know something funny?  I wrote this post in April of last year, anticipating a new garden season with great pleasure.  It turned out to be the worst garden I’ve had since I called myself a gardener. Throughout the summer I shook my head every time I thought about that essay – who did I think I was?  Obviously I knew nothing about gardening, let alone enough to philosophize about it!  I could not keep a single cucumber nor winter squash plant alive long enough to bear fruit.  My pepper plants withered.  The eggplants only produced from a second planting in mid July, the okra was stunted and blight hit the tomatoes earlier than usual.

Nearly a year and a half later, I cannot suppress the corners of my mouth from turning up when I think about my mortification.   In response to my garden’s depleted output, I tried a lot of things throughout last summer.  I tried to hand pick and trap the hordes of cucumber beetles, squash beetles and squash vine borers to no avail.  A friend suggested nasturtiums as a valuable squash pest deterring companion plant, so I planted as many of them as I could, but it was too late.  They bloomed in October in a nearly empty garden.  I took mulch off and put it on.   I started new seeds over and over, and bought all kinds of seedlings.  I added organic fertilizers around new seedlings and plants that seemed to need it, just to have some kind of critter dig them up to eat the fertilizer. Towards the end of the summer, I planted daikon radishes in a bunch of the beds, hoping they would grow, rot the next spring, and break up what seemed to suddenly be deeply compacted, heavy soil.

As our garden is on a slope in a hollow in the shadow of the Blue Ridge nearly as low as you can get without being in the floodplain, it’s a funnel for many square miles of rain run off.  It was a very rainy spring and summer last year and we had foolishly tilled when it was too wet. It had rained so much last year through April and May that I decided on my own time table versus reality’s that we had waited long enough.  Usually, we don’t till at all because we don’t want to disrupt the soil microorganisms and we want to protect the soil structure but it seemed so much easier to till than to pull up all the weeds in the beds (which wouldn’t have been there if I had mulched deeply enough over the winter). 

Fast forward to this spring.  The radishes grew and rotted, we did not till, and it was a much drier spring and it has been a very dry summer.  We covered the beds with the litter from our chicken run before planting and did not fertilize at all afterwards to thwart the hungry digging mammal.   I also planted many more seeds directly in the garden, instead of transplanting, to help them adapt to difficult conditions.  I tried a new variety of zucchini, which I have never grown successfully, in the hopes it would out maneuver the vine borer, and many new varieties of peppers and eggplants. 

So many surprises! The nasturtiums I planted last year had gone to seed, and they sprouted early everywhere.  The chicken litter had viable pumpkin seeds from a gorgeous reddish orange variety a friend gave us last year.  I let the volunteers grow, assuming they weren’t likely to get far, but they did! The green of the widespread foliage this year spilling out of the beds is interspersed with brightly colored 2 foot plus diameter pumpkins, many yellow and orange nasturtium blooms, and big bright yellow squash flowers.  I have unbelievable numbers of butternut and spaghetti squash too! Cucumbers fill the fridge.  Eggplants, peppers, okra, green beans, tomatoes – check, check, check!  But the best has been the zucchini.  I planted it because it was supposed to have a “leaping” habit, where one plant spreads from another.  One plant spawns “babies,” which lead to other “babies”, which continue and produce, even as earlier “parents” get killed off by pests.  I keep thinking the zucchini is done, only to find another fruit bearing plant hidden among the sprawling winter squash.

I ‘m loving the increased chaos, wildness and color of the garden this summer.  I also feel intrigued and appreciative of the whole experience, the cycle of lack and plenty of this summer and last.  Clearly, the different weather patterns and tilling were major differences, but we’ve had equally super wet summers before.  I feel closer to this bit of earth in my backyard than I have. I understand more about its unique conditions within the greater context of unpredictable weather conditions.  I can’t control the weather or my garden’s intrinsic nature, but I can respond to its needs in a fine tuned way with greater attention to current conditions, patience, and knowledge of what works here and doesn’t.   These seasons illustrate the dynamic nature of the gardener garden relationship in a way that speaks to me about the difference between mechanical and living systems.  Powerful players are pushing ever more to increase what they call the “sustainability” of food production by measuring, monitoring, and precisely controlling inputs through machine learning (AI algorithms). 

I’ve only lived here for 7 years, and only really seen massive fluctuations in my garden in the last two years, teaching me what it needs.  How much more knowledge would generations of farmers on the same bit of land have about their place? While machines aim to model the farmers’ knowledge (and replace them), they will only ever be able to incorporate a fixed set of variables or conditions and responses.  The more I creatively engage with my garden, my effort as much a part of it as the soil, the more I know that there is nothing “sustainable” about replacing farmers with machines.  The garden taught me this and it will teach anyone who listens.

Gardening is Like Parenting

I’m one of those people who could always easily answer the question: do you plan to have children?  “Of course!” I’d say, though when pressed for reasons for my certainty, I was more circumspect.  I felt like children were part of life, an experience not to be missed, like finding a partner, having a career, growing old.  Nevertheless, after the decision had been made, and pregnancy occurred, I was very conscious of a feeling of jumping off a cliff, blindfolded.   Yet, I had faith in my ability to adapt, learn and persevere.  Now my sons are older teens, and you’ll be happy to know that I have, indeed, managed. 

Gardening is a lot like parenting.  In both cases, we start out as newborns ourselves, bereft of experience, yet empowered to work with the force of life itself.  When we look at our children, we see living, beautiful beings.  We know that our efforts and sacrifice to raise them, usually so great as to have permanently and sharply divided the universe into “before” and “after,” have in no way solely produced this outcome.  In the same way, gardening can feel nearly miraculous, as we realize the limits of our control and power.  We plant seeds and they come up! Flower buds develop and then open! Insects pollinate!  Rain falls! The vegetables’ colors deepen into rich reds, purples, and greens – a feast for the eyes and how much more so for the mouth!  Gardening gives great joy as we witness first hand perfection far beyond our labor, intense as it may be. 

Like parenting, you don’t have to garden perfectly, or even well; you just need to do it well enough.  I really wouldn’t want to meet a parent that never made a mistake – I’m afraid they would be an alien or robot rather than a human.  How often does a parent lose their temper or their patience? Fail to pay attention at a critical moment? Say the wrong thing or the right thing at the wrong time?  Children thrive or at worst, survive, in the face of a litany of parental failure.   In the same way, gardening can be closer to an endless misadventure than to perfection, yet still the miracle persists.  Fruits will grow even when there is not enough sun.   You may water too much or too little.  You may plant too close together or fail to support your vegetables enough.  Fortunately, gardening is very forgiving, as long as you can forgive yourself enough to persevere.  

Books and blogs on parenting tell you to focus on your connection with your child, first and foremost.   Similarly, there is no gardening knowledge that can replace your connection to your garden.  Gardening is very forgiving, but correcting your mistakes before, for example, your plant dies, requires that you notice that it’s doing poorly.  Connection is also essential to manage the curve balls nature throws like storms, pests, and diseases.  I like to look at every plant in my garden every day.  I notice the plant’s color, its “posture” or tone (firm and flimsy in the right places), and how close vegetables are to ripeness.   I look for pests and beneficial insects.  As I walk through the rows, I make mental notes of too many weeds here, needs watering, thinning or fertilizer there.  I imagine empty spaces where plants past their time sit and plan to start new seeds to replace them.  I envision delicious meals I’ll make with the produce coming soon.  My thoughts and imagination flow effortlessly with time and experience.   In the beginning, I used to just enjoy walking through the garden each morning or sitting with coffee and admiring the freshness, the colors, the buzzing, and the life.   

When you have your first child, you can’t imagine the ways that squalling imp will change your life or how much you have to learn.   As they grow, and you do your best through exhaustion and frustration, you may even think at times that you are working so hard for them.  But like so much else in life, it’s in the giving that we get, and the treasures for our own growth shine deep in the parenting box of tricks.   Gardening is like that – full of spiritual, psychological and physical rewards through the sweat.  While I used to bemoan the anxiety I felt wondering if my seeds would sprout, now I recognize the invitation from Mother Nature to trust and relax.  She has never let me down, only invited me deeper into the co-creation inherent in gardening.  I’ve harvested plenty of food from my garden, but the most fulfilling harvest has been a greater understanding of our relationship, one that clearly extends beyond the garden.  To get the good fruit, whether in parenting, a garden, or life itself, it takes a willingness to act, albeit imperfectly, with faith and intention, and a strong connection and presence to discern direction, alter course and fix mistakes.   And the fruit IS good.