How Does Your Garden Grow? Not Well

July 23, 2014

Sometimes I feel left out of my family because I don’t have the ability to conjure something out of nothing. My dad can build houses and decks and rock walls like it’s nothing. My sister is a book designer, canning freak and ace gardener out in Portland. My mom, the queen bee of the house, can manage gardens that can be measured in acres, not square feet, while simultaneously turning out some beautiful weaving, knitting or culinary inventions day after day. They’re a crafty bunch, those Gateruds.

And what can I do? Sit in front of a computer and write things? I suppose I can fix a motorcycle, but any idiot (see: me) can read a manual and learn which screws to tighten in which places. When it comes to hands-on, crafty projects, I’m always the one left scratching my head.

garden master

There are actually green edible things growing!

So, each summer since I moved to college in 2007, I’ve tried to get a garden going. In some ways, it seems like the easiest, most “male” craft you can start. Seeds. Dirt. Throw seeds into dirt. Add water. Voila! A garden.

Of course, my perceptions of your average garden were a bit skewed by my mom’s horticultural prowess. Her gardens are idyllic: lush flowers, huge veggies and all the splendor of the natural world in our very own backyard. Butterflies and bees float about while docile rabbits browse on the ground. “I’m going out to the garden,” she’d breezily announce, a pail slung under her arm and gloves in hand. She’d come back into the house half an hour later with heaps of picture-perfect carrots, radishes, cucumbers and herbs all ready to be made into dinner. It’s just that easy, I thought.

(Now, I’m not saying I thought “the garden” was like some outdoor supermarket where you just grab things off the ground in ready-to-eat condition. I certainly saw the number of hours she spent every year weeding, reorganizing, condensing and rotating her crops. But it just seemed easy: seeds into ground, vegetables come out.)

My first two gardens were abysmal failures. In the yard of my first-ever rental house, a poorly insulated dump near the University of Minnesota, I dug up an L-shaped patch of dirt and tried to plant some lilies. Naturally, I couldn’t be bothered to water more than once a week, and my lilies had scarcely sprung from the earth before they withered away and died. I’m sure my (terrible and negligent) landlord was none too pleased with my unprompted landscaping nightmare.

My cucumbers have spread all over the place.

My cucumbers have spread all over the place.

Later, in a nice Northeast house I rented for three and a half years, I used some leftover pavers in the backyard to create a flowerbed underneath the eave of the garage. The deep seam cut into the earth by years of rainwater spilling hard onto the soil — which leached to a nice bone-gray, with nary a nutrient left — was apparently not enough indication for me that nothing is going to grow here, Alex. Try I did, though, and all I managed to do was send those flower seeds to their anonymous grave. My potted marigolds comparatively thrived, though.

Now, as a homeowner enjoying his first summer with a “real” yard that I need to take care of, I’m happy to report that my veggie patch –with some help from mom — is doing well. I cut out an inconvenient strip of sod above my alley parking pad to get some real growth going. Early plantings of peas and cucumbers did well — the ratty chain-link fence finally served a purpose as the peas started to climb– until my previously harmless family of yard rabbits became my mortal foes. Peas are my favorite vegetable, and those [unprintable] rabbits destroyed my entire crop. I ate exactly four pea pods before the remainder were lost.

I redoubled my efforts. After some Martha-level crafting with some chicken wire, old screens and window frames, I now have a totally fenced-in, rabbit-free zone that supports a second batch of peas, the original cucumbers and new plantings of lettuce, spinach and green peppers. A tomato plant is slowly taking hold nearby. Soon, I’ll be able to go into the backyard and gather up a salad. My yard looks better than it did before and I get the infinite pleasure of seeing the obviously dumbfounded rabbits sitting outside my fence, just staring. Hit the bricks, bunnies.

And, most importantly, raising a bunch of plants where there was once just a rectangle of dirt is a great feeling. I finally get to experience what the rest of my family does when they embark on one of their little Sunday-afternoon projects that results in a closet full of freshly canned jams, or whatever. I think I’ll cut out even more of my lawn and add some raspberries next year. Then we’ll see who’s really creative.