A Talk About Gardening

July 28, 2012 

In this week when Mr. Romney, over in London, couldn’t seem to keep his foot out of his mouth and Mr. Obama, back here, couldn’t seem to keep the foul taste of the still defunct economy out of his, I’ve decided I’d rather talk about gardening.

My sister, who lives in Kansas, seems to suffer under the delusion that I am some kind of master gardener who (unfairly – admit it now, Sis) inherited my dad’s green thumb and gardening genes. Nothing could be further from the truth. If I inherited anything from my dad in the gardening department, it is his persistence and, honestly, even that wavers once in a while.

Truth be told, the reason I talk about my garden so much on this blog is precisely because I am not a master gardener. I grew up watching my father tend his garden (he didn’t like us kids tromping about in it), helping my stepmother can the extra produce for winter eating. I even helped my ex plant, tend and can from our garden on the acreage we had for the several years before he became my ex.

But, for most of my adult life, as a harried single mom working full time and trying to earn that elusive bachelor’s degree, gardens were those lovely, but mysterious things other people planted.

It was not until seven years ago, after I’d retired and my son and I bought this house with the big backyard that fairly screamed, “Plant a garden here,” I took up the challenge. And I freely confess that the act of gardening is still a mystery to me, even after seven years.

For example, I do not understand why, when every year I prepare my garden in the same way, one year, the squash, beans and tomatoes will run riot, while the corn and okra stand and sulk or barely grow at all. And the next year, it will be the opposite. And some years they all produce or they all sulk. Perhaps it is the weather.

Nor do I understand why the skunk that makes its semi-annual journey past my yard, going from somewhere to somewhere else, decided this year that, with both the yard and the garden fenced, he (or she) simply had to find a way to breach both those fences and eat the entire bottom half of my biggest, yet-to-ripen cantaloupe on the way past my house.

I accuse the skunk because of the faint, but unmistakable odor of eewww d’skunk that still lingered along the side of the house when I went out to the garden that morning. No mystery in my mind as to the who, but I am mystified about the why. Perhaps it is the brutal drought this year.

Last year, after good spring rains, we had a hot, “drought-y” summer and everything quit producing in the heat. Yet, this year, with little spring rain, a frank and honest drought and unceasing heat, most of my garden has been, and is, producing at least small, but ongoing quantities of everything. Perhaps it is because I planted the later crops a couple of weeks early in hopes of beating the heat.

This year, growing up my cucumber trellis is a plant I would swear is a bean vine, though it has no beans on it. Its flower buds are larger than the average bean, they never open during the day and I never planted anything even remotely resembling a bean there. Perhaps the birds stopped on the trellis to do some transplanting of their own while I wasn’t looking.

And, of course, there is the mysterious case of the grapes vines run amok along the fence this year, dripping with large and luscious bundles of grapes, both sweet and sweet-tart, even though we are in drought, even though they have not produced this vigorously in previous years, even though I did not get to trim them back this year as all the books by master grape producers say you should. Perhaps it is just one of those kind, but fickle acts by Mother Nature to keep us ordinary, pale-fingered gardeners striving.

So, why would I bother to talk about my mysterious and decidedly un-masterful garden on a doomer blog where everyone accepts the necessity of a garden if we’re going to survive what lies ahead? As I said, precisely because I am not a master gardener.

And because I suspect that, as the political circus in Washington grows more ludicrous, the world economy circles the event horizon of the next financial black hole and nature gets even more hostile to we fossil fueled fire monkeys – destroying huge swaths of crops and driving up food prices – more ordinary people will look around and say, “Boy, I need to plant a garden.”

Like me, most of them will not be master gardeners and, like me, they need to know, their gardens may be as mysterious, sometimes fickle and probably un-masterful as mine is. And they need reassurance that this is not a reason to give up on gardening. In fact, I find it the best reason to not get discouraged – to persist, to relish its mystery, work around its fickle nature and strive for whatever mastery one can achieve.

This year, I’ve been slicing okra, peppers and onions literally one or two at a time, trying to fill the freezer bags, because that’s all they’re producing at a time in this drought. But, they are still producing. Next week, I’ll clean up the spot where my early vegetables were, prepare the soil and plant the late vegetables. Next month, I’ll buy the jars and lids to can pickles from whatever cucumbers pop up and turn the grapes I’ve frozen into jelly (and, perhaps, grape conserve). A couple of months after that, I’ll plant the seed onions and garlic cloves I saved, for next summer’s crop. This winter, I’ll grow sprouts and herbs in the kitchen and all the leftovers from the garden and the kitchen will go into the compost pile to continue the cycle next spring.

But, I don’t garden just to survive. I garden to remind myself that there is more to life, even at my age, than just surviving. Nothing sends the fire monkey in me scurrying away and reminds me that we are “of nature” like slipping into the garden in the cool, early morning. The vagaries of the garden remind me that life is – without guarantees – and we have a choice, always, to savor life without the net, or fear life, ensnared by the need for guarantees that simply are not there. Like the garden, we are part of the cycle of life. From dust we came and unto dust we all return. At no time in our history have we been closer to destroying that cycle on a planetary scale by our persistence in denying its reality.

These lessons, we knew once – lessons we desperately need to relearn. These lessons, not even a master gardener can teach us. But the garden, itself, can.

I will never be a master gardener, but I will be a persistent one, a loving one. One delighted by its vagaries and its mysteries. And if, by writing about my pale-thumbed, un-masterful days in the garden, I can take the fear out of gardening for someone else, I’ll be a happy one.

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2 Responses to A Talk About Gardening

  1. graveday says:

    I think the new climate irregularities, I almost said vulgarities, are making ‘pale-fingered gardeners’ out of many who thought they had green thumbs.
    I am beginning to become very put off by the term ‘master gardener’. There is only one, and she has a temper, heh. And again, heh, in case she’s listening.

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