Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring Planting

Every year it comes to this in the spring:  I plant with big dreams for my gardens. Then, as the summer unfolds, nature exercises her prerogative to do as she pleases. Sometimes nature brings phenomenal surprise gifts and sometimes she laughs at my delusions of grandeur. Last year my peach trees went crazy. I made pies and jam and shared with the neighbors. This year I practically drooled when the peach trees blossomed. I remembered standing in the yard in the June heat last year as I ate warm peaches straight off the tree, the juice drizzling down my arm. But this year the blossoms faded and to my chagrin the peach trees (one white peach and one yellow peach) produced almost no fruit. Meanwhile, my enormous old purple plum tree, which has not fruited for the past three years, is laden with fruit this year. Sweetest plums you could ever imagine. I can hardly wait for them to ripen. What gives?

I planted three cherry trees in my yard six years ago and none of them has ever borne fruit. They grow taller every year and look magnificent, but they produce nothing, no matter how I feed them and water them and tell them how much I care. They are matinee idols:  all glitter and no substance. One year the kiwis mysteriously produced a dozen perfect pieces of fruit. But it was apparently a one-night stand and now that I have been seduced and abandoned I have not been the beneficiary of any further kiwis. I moved my blueberries to a new location this winter and I am hoping to become a prolific blueberry farmer. We’ll see about that.

Last year I had three gorgeous cherry tomato plants well on their way on my deck. I had a Sungold, a yellow pear, and a red sweet 100s. I frequently admired their beauty, eagerly awaiting their fruit, until one morning when I noticed that the yellow pear had been almost entirely devoured by some horrible beastie overnight. By what? Upon closer inspection, I discovered an enormous green caterpillar perched on a stem picked clean of leaves. The caterpillar found itself catapulted into the yard as I screeched with frustration. I swiftly doused the two remaining cherry tomato plants in Neem Oil and they were saved. But one of nature’s children had made short work of my yellow pear tomatoes. C’est la vie, as they say.

Once, I planted a bed of basil and thought the seed was bad because it never came up, but I suspect that earwigs may have eaten up all the first tender shoots the instant they appeared because when I replanted and threw Sluggo (an organic deterrent to earwigs and other little green-eating critters) on the bed, the basil plants came up. By then I had lost a few weeks of the growing season, of course.

I have never been very good at growing peppers, but  I put in a few a couple of years ago and they did shockingly well. So last year I planted a whole bed of Marconi sweet red peppers. They came up beautifully; however, before they reached fruition, an over-zealous house-sitter over-watered them and killed them off. This is why I have trouble going on vacation in the summer. I worry about what is going on in my gardens while I’m gone. You just can’t trust a garden to behave for long without constant vigilance.

One year I started lemon cucumbers about three different times and none of them took off. The following year I only planted two plants and they went completely berserk. I couldn’t keep up, even though I would eat several like apples during the course of a day. I never thought I could burn out on lemon cucumbers, but I did. Talking to other gardeners that year, I learned that everyone had lemon cucumbers coming out their ears. It was just a good year for lemon cukes. In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver says that she lives in a quiet rural hamlet where she does not need to worry about locking her car; however, during July and August she always locks her car because otherwise people leave zucchini squash on the front seat. It’s easy to grow too much zucchini (in fact it’s hard not to), and in a gardening community people will give those excess zukes away at every opportunity, particularly the zukes that escape notice for too long and grow as big as bazookas. Last year I should have left lemon cukes on people’s doorsteps, rang the bell, and ran away.

In truth, I am not a master gardener. I know many other people who are much more knowledgeable than I; however, I do have a significant level of skill and I am committed to organic gardening. My gardens are not the magnificent orderly rows of perfect plants in rich dark soil that you see in photographs. I am not so orderly when it comes to gardening. I throw things together, mixing plants in the same bed, some here, some there. Let’s just say I don’t grow a showcase garden, but I harvest a lot of food from my yard. The absolute bottom line for me is tomatoes and basil. If I grow nothing else, I need these two longtime friends. Nothing compares to the taste of a tomato straight from the garden, and in our house we celebrate when the first Early Girl is ripe enough to eat. It is an unbearably long time from autumn, when the last of the garden tomatoes are picked, to that bright day in late June or early July when the first summer tomato is ready.

As spring wends its way into summer, I am always surprised, delighted, chagrined, and awed at the ongoing turn of events in my garden. Each spring, I plot out what I want to grow and where I will plant it. I imagine the meals I will cook and the harvest I will enjoy. Then nature takes over and I roll with the punches. Nature is ever a wise teacher. Gardening provides a good lesson about life and I appreciate the reminder that there are no guarantees. We make plans and life happens. Sometimes results exceed all our expectations and at other times our gardens, like life, throw us a curve ball.

In the next few weeks I will immerse myself in the excitement of spring planting. Then I will watch to see what happens. I will try to provide good stewardship and hope for bounty. By August, the gardens will be overgrown and rather out of control. I know I will give up on weeding certain areas and just let them go wild. I love to wonder what will appear, what will happen, what will go as planned, and what will astonish me with the most unexpected twist. (As I write these words I watch a magenta-throated hummingbird plunge into a red-bristled bottlebrush flower just outside my window.) Please do not take this as a smug comment when I say that I feel sorry for people who don’t grow a garden. I simply can’t imagine a life without the thrill of that summer adventure; a journey I love more with each passing year.

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