Around the Bend: Growing cranky in the garden
Every spring, in anticipation of my vegetable garden, I forget an important point: Gardening is neither easy nor particularly enjoyable.
Don’t believe those dreamers who insist that growing vegetables is a spiritually transforming experience. Sure, we all have those brief moments of awe when a bean seedling first breaks through the concrete crust of Addison County clay. And who doesn’t swoon over the taste of a juicy, just-picked tomato, still warm from the afternoon sun?
Whatever. Most of the time, gardening is the pits.
To start with, the timing’s all wrong. In May and June, when Vermont gardens are ready to be planted, most of us are spending nearly every non-working hour either throwing or attending weddings, showers, graduations, grand openings or diamond jubilees. Add in our children’s athletic events and we’re left with approximately 40 minutes a week for gardening — assuming the weather cooperates.
Statistics show that on average, during late spring in Vermont it rains nine days out of 10 (and by “statistics” I mean me noting how often my laundry gets soaked on the line). It doesn’t always rain, however; frequently there are heat waves, late frosts or hailstorms.
So let’s say you bail on your social obligations, take advantage of a clear day and manage to get your garden planted in a timely fashion. Sure.
Soon, the pests will arrive. And I don’t mean just the ones that bite, sting or fly up your nose. I mean the real threats, the ones that chew your tomato plants off at the base, hide in your broccoli and eat holes in your spinach. Prepare to spend hours spraying them or picking them off one by one. You’ll be rewarded with healthier plants, something the deer and rabbits will really appreciate during their after-hours buffet.
And then, there are the weeds. I finally figured out that mulching — using everything from newspaper and hay to cast-off queen-size mattresses — does help keep weeds in check. But cheerful TV garden show hosts who smile and say, “Mulch paths and between plants for weed control!” make it sound way too easy. Those mattresses are heavy.
Even if you have a good year and avoid all the potential pitfalls of gardening, there’s one thing you can’t avoid: hard labor. The work starts with preparing the soil — which with our clay requires, at best, a pickaxe, and at worst, explosives — followed over the new few months by endless hours of planting, upkeep, harvest, and whatever that last thing is (by October, I just don’t care anymore).
I’ve had a busy spring, but this past Saturday, breaks in the weather and my schedule coincided. With the sky free of clouds and not a single diamond jubilee on my calendar, I was finally able to put in my potatoes. Under the hot sun, I worked slowly, bent over my task, scooping out blocks of clay and setting seed potatoes, one after another.
Sweat dripped into my eyes. My hands ached. The garden stretched out before me. At the end of the fourth row, I stopped to rest, managing to bring myself to a full upright position in under a minute. I still had rows of garden to fill and pounds of seed potatoes waiting their turn. But I just couldn’t muster the energy.
In my clay-clotted boots I clumped back to the house, where my 12-year-old met me with a look of horror. Taking in my sweaty face, dirt-caked fingernails and filthy clothes, she shuddered.
“When I grow up,” she said, “I am not going to have a garden.”
In spite of myself, I could not let this pass. Yes, gardening is physically demanding, tedious, time-consuming and often (for me, at least) demoralizing. But clearly at some level it makes me happy. Why else would I torture myself like this year after year?
“You mean you aren’t going to want your own delicious, homegrown veggies someday?” I asked her.
“Oh, I will,” she said. “But I’ll hire someone to do the gardening for me.”
Shaking my head, I reached for a Band-Aid to cover a fresh blister on my palm.
“Hire someone?” I said. “Now where’s the fun in that?”
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