Jessie Raymond: Hapless gardener seeks wisdom
When you’ve been growing vegetables long enough, you develop an almost instinctive understanding of how to nurture your garden.
Or so I’ve been told.
I’ve been gardening for years, and I’m still winging it.
This year, I’m trying an unconventional (for me) and untried (by me) gardening tactic: putting in a lot of time and effort. It’s too early to say for sure, and maybe it’s just the heatstroke talking, but it seems to be working.
I get that correlation is not causation, but I’m starting to believe that diligent weeding and watering are having a positive effect.
Over the past few rainless weeks, I’ve spent so much time holding the garden hose I’ve developed calluses. And every morning, using a hoe or my bare hands, I scrape or pull every weed in sight. By the next day, they’re again ankle high, but at least I’m keeping up with them.
This alone has been enlightening. I mean, I’ve known that weeding was important, but I don’t recall anyone ever explaining that it had to be done more than once a season.
Friends of mine just seem to know how to grow vegetables, and they say things like, “My mother’s secret to strong tomatoes is to bury a Pop-Tart in the planting hole.”
I didn’t have anyone to teach me, certainly not my parents. They didn’t see the appeal of spending their spare time getting sweaty and dirty and covered in bug bites when they could be sitting in air conditioning, sipping martinis and listening to Sinatra records.
So, as an adult, when I first decided I wanted to grow my own vegetables, I had no idea what I was doing. Wise old Vermonters act like you should know to plant certain seeds by the light of a waxing gibbous moon and bug-proof your cucumber plants with a spray made of Tabasco sauce and Dr. Pepper.
Anything I know about gardening I got from Mr. McGregor, the mean old man in the Beatrix Potter stories.
And all I learned from him is that gardeners are irritable (check) and that rabbit clothes make good scarecrows. Maybe in England. But in Vermont, rabbits frolic in the nude.
YouTube is only so helpful. Once, for instance, I found a video on how to hill potatoes. The woman obviously didn’t have Addison County clay in her garden, or she’d have had forearms like Popeye.
And the video skipped over the 45 minutes she previously spent scouring three barns looking for the hoe, only to find it lying in the garden where she had left it two days earlier (which is a thing that does happen to some people, often repeatedly).
Without someone to teach me time-tested planting methods, I tend to rely on seed-packet instructions.
That is not enough information.
Pumpkin seed packets, for instance, say to make hills four feet apart. But they don’t tell you that pumpkin vines grow like giant squid tentacles, so if you plant them in your main garden bed, you won’t be able to reach half of your tomatoes or any of your beans at the end of the summer.
This would have been good for me to know in 2019.
I’m not trying to make excuses. But I can’t help feeling that if I had grown up learning to garden at someone’s knee, I’d have absorbed all kinds of garden knowledge that would be second nature by now.
Instead, I have to rely on my own common sense, something that no amount of research or education has been able to give me.
I mean, one time I tried to discourage slugs by telling them they were just lazy snail wannabes. (I later learned beer traps are more effective.)
But I’m not giving up. This year, I’ve already stuck with the garden through the first heat wave of the summer, hordes of deer flies and the daily gauntlet of a pair of tree swallows fiercely defending their young family against my presence.
Yes, I’m sweaty and dirty and covered in bug bites, but I will not stop my bold experiment: I will continue to weed and water, possibly right through harvest, assuming I don’t lose interest.
Still, I could use the counsel of a wise old Vermonter. I know what to expect from pumpkin vines now. But I still have no idea what to plant under a waxing gibbous moon.
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