Jay and I are what might be described as food snobs. We like to eat whole, healthy foods, which means that I make most things from scratch, even tortillas. The simplest explanation is that if I make it, I know what’s in it. A few years ago, when our oldest daughter was four, she went through a severe tantrum phase and showed signs of what I feared might be ADHD. The nurse practitioner at the medical office where I worked at the time pointed me toward some research about the correlation between food additives and sugar and the rise in behavioral problems in children. I read the research, threw out all the processed food in the house, and switched to an organic, all-natural diet. Within a week, the tantrums ceased. Within two, Breanna was like a different child. We never went back and over the years I’ve learned how to really cook, the way our grandmothers did.
This year, Jay and I decided to take our organic lifestyle to the next level and put in a small backyard garden, just a couple of 4×4 raised beds and some herbs in pots. We’d done some reading, talked to a couple of gardeners selling vegetables at the farmer’s market, but we figured the best way to really learn how to go about it was to just do it, a trial by fire. We called it the “great experiment” and vowed to take note of what worked and what didn’t and not get too upset if the whole thing was an epic failure.
Now, the sad part is, I really should know what I’m doing. My grandmother always had a substantial vegetable garden, and my dad has always had a garden. He grows everything from corn to tomatoes and squash, and my stepmother puts it all up, as the saying goes, meaning she cans or freezes it. I grew up helping in the garden, but unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention. I merely pulled what they said pull, hoed where they said hoe, and ran off to play as soon as released from indentured servitude.
Every summer and fall, my grandmother canned vegetables. I sat in her kitchen and watched, pitching in where told. Again, I paid little to no attention to what she did. I perched on my stool, out of the way, until sent to fetch more jars, and otherwise gazed out the window and daydreamed. I’m kicking myself now.
We bought our cedar 2×4’s to provide the boundaries of the plots. I purchased more bags of organic gardening soil than I care to count, and we methodically dug the grass out of the area down to the red Georgia clay and filled it in with the soil. I bought organic seeds for two varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, watermelons, pole beans, okra, and zucchini. I purchased two kale plants, already started, from a man at the farmer’s market and took meticulous notes on everything he said to do for their care. A friend down the street started more herbs than she needed and gave me her extras. We were set. Some of you are doing the math right now, and if you know anything about gardening, you know we were already in trouble.
I started some of the seeds in pots in our sunroom. When they were big enough, I took them out to the garden and transplanted them alongside more seeds sown directly into the dirt. I wanted to see which way worked best and produced the hardiest plants. Initially, I was concerned the transplants wouldn’t take. They looked kind of droopy, but now at a couple of months in, I can’t tell which is which.
What we really didn’t know, which would’ve been helpful information, is how big the plants would get and which were helpful to one another and which weren’t. Knowing nothing about proper placement, we just started planting. We put the cucumbers and tomatoes, in cages, along the back edges. We did know that much. We put the zucchini and kale in the middle on one side, and the watermelons and carrots in the middle and along the edges of the other side.
We got a lot of rain in April. The six zucchini plants flourished; then, began to take on the size and appearance of something from the Jurassic period. They completely overshadowed the kale and began encroaching on the cucumbers. We’d failed to thin our plants, and to make matters worse, we’d caged them. You see, zucchini should really be planted on a hill or a mound. We didn’t have a hill and had no way of making a hill, or actually we just didn’t understand what was meant by “plant on a hill.” I’d seen some magazine at the grocery store about gardening in small spaces. It showed a lovely picture of a patio garden with vegetable plants in pots, one of which was a zucchini plant with a tomato cage around it. I didn’t read the article, just flipped though while I waited in line, skimming here and there, but that’s what gave me the bright idea of caging the zucchini.
Even worse, and this is where my real ignorance shows, I didn’t understand what the seed packets meant by “thinning.” I figured it out fairly quickly and in plenty of time to do it, but the thing was I just couldn’t stand the thought of pulling up any of my little baby plants. They were all doing so well, and it was difficult, impossible even, to tell which were the hardiest or best producers. Jay being the big softy that he is where I’m concerned said, “Just leave them, and let’s see what happens.” As far as the tomatoes went, no harm no foul. They’re all doing well and producing well. Although the sweeties turned out to be the size of cherry tomatoes, which was disappointing since I thought I’d planted the ones I typically buy on the vine, which are about medium. Oh, well. But the zucchini really should have been thinned because as the blooms began to turn into fruit, we discovered they were staying skinny and only about four inches long. Then, they’d start to shrivel. The only one producing proper looking zucchini was the only one not caged. It had come up later and had therefore escaped. It flopped over on the ground, and it finally dawned on me that as long as I forced the others upright, they’d never properly produce.
This really was a pickle. The plants were huge, completely enveloping the cages, and there was no way to uncage them without ripping them out of the ground. Jay said, “Well, now we know.” But I couldn’t just accept defeat. One night after watering, I stood looking at those humungous plants, and thought, “I’m doing more harm than good.” I started pulling. I pulled up four plants and managed to uncage one while still leaving it in the ground. I apologized to them before throwing them over the fence and into the wood line. Fortunately, the gamble seems to have worked, and now the remaining two plants are flowering and green again. They have yet to produce.
As for the herbs, once again, my ignorance got the best of me. I had basil, parsley, chives, thyme, dill, and cilantro. I planted all of them together in a large bushel basket. I don’t use much dill or cilantro, and they kind of got away from me, growing tall and flowering. One day, I noticed that the cilantro looked like cilantro at the base but took on a distinctly dill-like appearance as it neared the top. I did some research. Turns out, they are actually part of the same plant family and will cross-pollinate. I’d inadvertently grown “dillantro.” I, of course, had to taste it. I pulled it up immediately, once the spitting and gagging abated. I cut back the dill, hung it to dry in the basement, and replanted some cilantro in a separate pot well away from the dill.
We ran out of space in our raised beds; so, we put the okra and beans in a little 3×4 section by the back steps that only ever grew weeds. Of course, we tilled it and mixed in generous amounts of the gardening soil. The okra came up within a couple days, but the beans took awhile. Finally, I spotted little sprouts in the general vicinity of where I’d placed the bean seeds. The plant was about six inches tall when Jay’s dad came for a visit. He has extensive gardening experience, having grown up in a large mountain family on a small farm. He surveyed the plants and told us where and how to cut the suckers off the tomatoes and when to pick the cucumbers. Then, he looked over the okra and beans. He pointed to my bean plant. “What’s that?” he asked. “Beans,” I replied. He tilted his head to the side and took a drag on his cigarette, probably debating how to the break the bad news. “Naw, that’s grass,” he stated and sauntered away to sit in the shade. He’s a good man for not laughing out loud. I don’t know how he did it.