(Warning–this is an excessively long ramble about gardens).
I have a thing for failed gardens. We go way back. Every spring a fever of desire comes over me: the desire to plant seeds in the ground and watch them grow. Every spring, I start a garden. And every summer, I still fail to have homegrown vegetables to eat.
The urge to grow things first struck when I was a sophomore in high school. Spring was on the air, birds sang, and I decided that I wanted to dig up a patch of grass in the backyard and try out my green thumb.
My boyfriend at the time, Brad, and I hauled shovels to the backyard and–without much thought or planning–began to dig. I remember it being terribly hard, even though I should’ve been seasoned to hard labor by all of the stalls I’d mucked out over the years.
We’d chosen to start digging at midday, and after only thirty minutes we were both covered in dirt and sweat. Worse, we’d only uncovered a small patch of hard packed dirt.
My parents came out to watch amused. “Are you really going to grow things?” My dad asked, doubtful.
“Yep!” I said, so sure of myself. So cheerful.
We kept at it for the rest of the afternoon, and then finally called it a day. It was only after we’d dug it all up that I thought to check that the hose could reach.
It didn’t. I had a sudden vision of myself carting buckets of water back and forth. My hankering for home-grown goods dimmed in the face of all that work.
After that, apathy took hold. I never planted anything there. Never even went to the garden store to get seeds. From the back of the house, you could see a rough rectangle of barren brown peeking through the emerald grass.
My parents were kind enough not to mention me digging up their lawn for no reason, and over time my “garden” grew over, until it was only distinguishable by the mix of weeds that had repopulated it.
After that I gave up for a few years, until I reached college and discovered that there was an entire club based around eating locally–which also managed a community garden.
Surely, I thought to myself, I will become a gardener if I get involved with this club! And so I joined. But somehow I failed to learn much of anything. Or–as I’m now realizing– maybe gardening is just far simpler than I’ve always thought it was, it just takes consistency.
I stuck seeds in the ground with my fellow club members, watered them, watched–hawk-like–for plants to sprout. And they did–like magic. But then spring moved into summer, and most of the students left.
I’d gotten a research position for the summer and would be there for a two-month stretch–and so I volunteered to be the keeper of the garden for the summer. I can’t say that I was a very attentive keeper. I watered it when I remembered. Sometimes I’d go for jogs and end up there, so that I could turn the hose on myself after soaking the beds.
I got a few veggies for my pains–tiny zucchinis and summer squashes. A couple measly tomatoes. Kale and spinach. But largely, the garden was a flop.
I might have chalked it up to that just being gardens in general–their beds are filled with more bare soil and weeds than actual vegetable plants–but I’d seen the garden of a couple of my friends on campus, who had planted a small one outside their house. Their garden was utterly gorgeous. Their tomatoes grew like small trees, and were loaded with sweet, candy-like fruits. Long ribbons of curly kale fluttered in the warm summer breeze. Their spinach was a deep, emerald green. Every inch of that glorious garden was thriving.
When I became the co-president of the Sustainable Foods club the next year, my expertise fell outside of the garden. I organized workshops teaching people how to make things from scratch, bread baking events, herb planting workshops in classrooms, and pushed for more sustainable practices in our school cafeteria. But I stayed away from the garden.
After college, Jordan and I moved to Minnesota together. Our first apartment was chintzy–with cheap linoleum that bubbled in the heat, and carpeting that smelled perpetually like stodgy perfume. But its one perk was a massive, sprawling community garden outside of our apartment building.
We befriended the couple who had organized it, and for the rest of the season made off like bandits with all the excesses that they grew. When they had too many tomatoes, our dinner consisted of tomatoes fresh off the vine, sprinkled with sea salt and pepper and sandwiched between fresh bread and mayonnaise. When they had extra garlic, they taught us how to braid the stalks into a beautiful chain of garlic that’d keep for months. These wonders weren’t new to Jordan–he grew up with his mom’s thriving garden in his backyard. But they were new to me, who–aside from my few failed attempts at gardening–had always gotten veggies from the supermarket or farmer’s market.
My desire to garden only grew stronger. When we moved to Mississippi–to an apartment with a real bona fide balcony–I envisioned a thriving balcony garden, with plants spilling out from pots every which way you turned.
But alas, it was not to be. We’d moved mid-summer, long past the prime time to start a container garden. Outside in the wicked Mississippi heat, my plants withered. It seemed that I couldn’t water them enough and they quickly baked in their dark colored containers. By the end of the summer, I had nothing to show for my efforts except one spindly basil plant. Its sprigs adorned many a meal–but it wasn’t enough for anything truly delicious, like pesto.
Next up we moved to a little brick house with a backyard, with the intention to stay for the rest of the time we were in Mississippi. This time, I got serious. We built raised beds and purchased a truck load of compost. For my Christmas present that year, Jordan got me a watering can.
As soon it was warm enough, I spent hours poking seeds into the ground and tenderly watering the bare earth where I hoped there would soon be sprawling veggie plants. But alas–it was not to be.
A scant few germinated to begin with–just a couple skinny tomato plants and few bug-bitten hot pepper plants. But just as my tomatoes formed their first flowers, we decided to move again. Our landlord had forbidden us from adopting a second dog, and we cared more about the dog than the house. As soon as our plans were finalized, I stopped watering the garden. It was heartbreaking to watch the plants wither in the early Mississippi heat, but it was enough work to lug that watering can to and fro when I had delicious veggies in my future.
My basil plant traveled with us to the little house on the horse farm. I knew better than to try to grow anything there, because Jordan had been offered a PhD assistantship in Georgia for the coming year, and I wasn’t about to pour time and love and effort into a garden only to abandon it again.
And then, at long last, we moved to a permanent spot with a big, sunny backyard. This year, I was determined to make a garden happen. In fact, I decided that if it didn’t, it was a reflection on me as a human being. Surely, with enough persistence, I could get a garden to grow.
So I had Jordan build me two raised beds, I read the Vegetable Gardener’s Bible from cover to cover, and I bought seeds at our local gardening store (a heavenly place called Cofer’s that has a resident cat and so many plants and is basically just glorious).
The universe has not made it easy.
First I tried to start seeds. I must have overwatered them or something–or maybe it was just that I was using old seed packets or that the window wasn’t sunny enough–but not one plant germinated. NOT ONE. Finally, mold started to grow on the soil, and I gave up and threw the whole thing in the garbage.
Direct seeding it’d be. I waited until the weather had warmed enough that frost was a distant memory, and then harassed Jordan into helping me finish the garden. When we finally found time to pick up compost at our local landfill, our car broke down. Broke down right at the dump. We contemplated just leaving it there.
And as that was the only car able to transport compost, the project had to be delayed until two days later, when we were able to rope a friend with a truck into helping us.
When at last we had two raised beds with actual dirt in them (and a car that worked again), I marched out with Linden on my hip and handfuls of seed packets. I’d drawn up a garden map, complete with a key, but planting quickly got out of hand. I forgot where I’d put things, accidentally shoved handfuls of seeds in random places, and forgot to plant zucchini altogether. While I planted, Linden ate grass.
The days that followed were ruthlessly sunny, but I watered religiously–carefully showering down my seedbeds to the perfect level of moist. On the advice of my gardening book, I even took up watering in the late afternoons, so as to let the leaves dry before night.
Soon things were sprouting. All kinds of things–carrots and onions and kale and basil and tomatoes and soybeans and squash and cilantro. I held my breath and watched as the teeny leaves grew bigger with each day.
And then came the first true leaves. And then staking the tomatoes. And before I knew it, my little garden was a gorgeous jungle of vegetable plants. The squash leaves are like massive umbrellas, the tomatoes practically bushes. Shiny green orbs weigh down each branch. My basil plants are growing fast and furious–I can practically smell pesto in our future. And the delicate stalks of my carrots sway in the breeze.
The other night, we even had our first harvest from the garden: a bounty of kale that brightened our meal. I feel validated as a human bean. And I’m totally hooked on gardening.
So I suppose all of this is to say: if you suck at growing things, do not despair! It’s not a green thumb that does it. It’s consistency, patience… and for some of us, decades of persistence.
What are you growing this season?