Monday, June 8, 2015

Gardening: Thankfully, there is no cure for the Green Plague

Dear Gillian,

It would be overly polite to call the place where my father grew up a “dirt farm.” Dirt, yes. Farm, no. It was more of a divot in the vast forest of northern Idaho with enough bare ground that you could coax cabbage, potatoes and other hearty vegetables through the brief mountain summer.

The 10 Bentley kids did the vegetable coaxing at the end of hoe handles, but only because my notoriously stern grandfather had and used a bigger stick. There was no way in the world he was going pay good money for undistilled consumables.

Dad, then, had a hard time seeing gardening as a hobby. It was a chore that put food on the table. He planted gardens during the leanest times of my boyhood, but treated them a small farms that would ease the grocery budget. He even tried to introduce us to a frost-fighting, north country favorite – Swiss chard. My brother and I drew the line there. We would hoe the weeds, but not eat something with the culinary appeal of pond scum. Or kale.

But when I was in about seventh grade, I caught the Green Plague. I was a voracious reader who became fascinated by stories of farm life, huge vegetables and loan between your toes. Dad thought I had gone mad when tilled and planted a plot near the house. I’m sure he chuckled, however, while I was learning that pulling weeds and
watering is no where near as fun as planting.

My new love affair with gardening even survived my freshman year, when I came down with appendicitis a few weeks after planting what had to be the biggest and most boring garden in the county. I wasn’t very good at planning harvests, so I just planted two entire packets of Big Boy tomato seeds, a couple of net bags full of onion bulbs and everything in the bonus-size of packet of zucchini seeds.

The vast rows were just looking magazine-perfect when my innards invited me to the hospital for a week. Mom ensured me that my brother “volunteered” to take care of the garden through my lengthy recovery. Mark’s translation of that was he would turn the sprinklers on a couple times a week.

By the time I was well enough to amble out to the garden, the Johnson grass was taller than anything I had planted. Still, I could see the tomato plants poking through the grass and the onions were holding their own. For the life of me, however, I couldn’t figure out where zucchini went.

I ended up with so many onions and tomatoes that I sold several crates to a restaurant. Right about then, I also found the zucchini. One morning there were dozens of bright orange, rock-hard and inedible gourds laughing at me.

  • I no longer let zucchini plants congregate, but I’ve never recovered from the Green Plague:
  • I spent more time and money on my first drip irrigation system than I ever did at the supermarket.
  • I spit in the face of northern Idaho’s chilly summers by running electrical heat tapes under my tomato bed, which was planted with a “storage” variety that could be picked green and ripened inside.
  • I scratched out a garden bed in the rocky Sierra soil when we lived at Lake Tahoe – then wept like a baby when it snowed on Father’s Day.
  • I was damned-Yankee aghast to find that all of the garden stores in San Antonio closed after Mother’s Day. Then I watched my new garden burn up in the Texas summer.
  • I tapped Cecile’s artistic eye to design and build beautiful beds for our expansive new home in Missouri.

Then came the big shock. When we decided to downsize, I told Cecile that I didn’t really need a garden anymore and we could buy that wonderful hillside house with no lawn – and no garden.

I lied, of course. What is a life without soil under your finger nails. You just must be creative. I am very satisfied to grown my tomatoes in large clay pots – set up on a railing where the groundhogs can’t get to them. But the squirrels still can.

I also have a 4x15 raised bed on the south side of the house. Not much grows in the shade of the adjacent oak and black walnut, but I get to watch a few beans, squash and zinnias reach for the sun just before that groundhog comes home for dinner.

That’s OK. Despite my heritage, I will never see gardening as a larder-filling chore. It’s an opportunity to share. Share a meal with friends or family. Share your crop with the wildlife. Share your experiences with other gardeners.

But most of all, it is an opportunity to share a piece of your soul with Nature.



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