For the past few days we’ve been experiencing temperatures in the freezing and “oh my god even the dog doesn’t want to go outside it’s so cold” range. But that doesn’t keep me from dreaming about my summer garden.
In the dead of winter I am missing the crunch on dirt under my fingernails, slapping away swarms of bloodthirsty flying vampires and, yes, even the smell of chicken-made fertilizer. The sunburn, the aching back and broken nails are all worth it when you pluck the first vine-ripened tomato from the bushes or slice into the season’s first zucchini.
I had grown tired of container gardening. Not only was my backyard filling with orange Home Depot pails turned pots, but I was constantly fighting a losing battle with continuous watering, blight, blossom end rot, and countless other issues related to plants not growing in the actual ground where nature intended.
The yard in the back slopes uphill and scattered trees don’t provide a lot of much needed sunshine. Not to mention, before we moved in there had been a black walnut tree in the back which has left parts of the property unable to support anything other than the occasional picker plant.
With no room on either side of the house, and the backyard lacking even the basic needs for a simple plant, we had no other recourse. We must tear up the front yard and transform it into our summer garden.
Mind you, we live in a city, so the sight of my husband dragging a rented rototiller through lush, green sod, didn’t go unnoticed. Neither did it go unnoticed when he, and a few helpful friends, shoveled truckloads of dark, rich and potent compost on top of the turned up soil.
“He’s making one hell of a mess,” an older man passing by was heard to mumble during the transition.
However, after the (mostly) rabbit proof fencing was bordering the soil, people starting taking notice for all the right reasons. People were offering me gardening tips left and right and loaning books on the “no till” method, common garden pests, and the like.
My parents, recalling how much I loathed the chore of picking weeds from our garden as a child, suggested we try a small garden the first year and, if all works out, expand it the following year.
But that’s not how things are done around here. Here, we go big or go home. That summer, almost our entire front yard was transformed into a 1,200-square-foot vegetable garden. We, indeed, went big.
This was also the first year that I went big when it came to starting the seeds for the garden indoors. In previous iterations of my gardening experiments, I had half-hearted attempts at starting seedlings before the season, most of which were usually destroyed by the cat. When the home-grown seedlings didn’t work out, I purchased starter plants from the local farmers’ markets and grocery co-ops.
But that year, I finally had a room with decent lighting, that was able to be made inaccessible to any fluffy four-legged creatures looking to cause trouble. It didn’t work out half bad, except for the issue that my sister and her family planned a visit for Memorial Day weekend and the floor of our only spare bedroom was completely covered by little green plants. So there was a mad dash of planting taking place after work until sundown for a couple of days.
After all the various bell peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes and cabbages were planted, and all the cucumber, squash, lettuce and radish seeds were sowed, it wasn’t long until the dark barren front yard was booming with life. Buds soon turned to flowers and butterflies and bees flocked to the fenced garden of Eden to feast upon the blooms. The blooms fell away and grew into robust St. Pierre tomatoes, hearty zucchini and cool cucumbers.
You know those people that post on social media every time their toddler does something earth shattering, such as breathe? Well, that was me with this garden. Needless to say, I was thrilled with watching it grow.
During the daily grind at work, I counted the hours until I could be back in the garden, with plants towering over my head and feeling the dirt between my toes and under my fingernails - to feel connected to the earth and the fresh goodness it was producing for my dinner plate.
It wasn’t long until people walking past started to make comments that we were the smartest people in town (a title that would promptly be taken away if they only knew how many times I’ve walked into a room and forgotten what I was looking for). Not only did we not have to mow the front lawn, we were actually getting something from it. Instead of a perfectly manicured, golfer-ready fairway, we had an organized chaos of fresh vegetables steps from our front door.
No matter how much I research online or speak with experienced gardeners, I have discovered that gardening is a trial-and-error sport. And sometimes, what worked great the season before, will produce diddley the next. Why did cucumbers grow like crazy last year but this year the seeds barely sprouted? What trellis works best for which variety of tomato, how do you get rid of cabbage-stealing slugs, what the hell is that thing?
Every season as I’m sowing my first seeds in moist soil and placing them under the warm grow lights, I think I have it all figured out. Then, as I peek through the open door checking on their progress and don’t see signs of sprouting within 24 hours, I fear the worst. The seeds were duds, the soil too wet, maybe the pots weren’t cleaned well enough and now the poor defenseless seedlings-to-be are being devoured by an unseen fungus….If anything is for certain, it is that my garden is surely ruined.
Then one day, a little green sprout pushes its way through the peat and I know all is right with the world. …but wait, why are they taking so long to grow? Planting time is only a few weeks away, they won’t be big enough to transplant outside when it arrives, I started them too late…
Each season my garden fails a multitude of times in my mind before the seedlings are even sporting their true leaves. My husband takes no mind to my green-thumb worries always simply stating that things will be fine.
It is this fear that I will somehow manage to murder most of the plants before they can produce a single fruit that left me with more than 100 extra tomato plants last season. That’s right, extra.
I potted them up, set them out at the end of the driveway with a “free” sign and watched them disappear as people nabbed them up. If there is one thing I should have learned by now it is that heirloom plants are hearty as hell. If I can’t kill them, no one can.
Alas, winter will have its cold grip on the Midwest for a couple more months, and the reality of summer garden feels ages away. For now, I have my daydreams of planting and my seed catalog to keep me company.