by Geoffrey Ives
I’ve been gardening since the 1970’s when a friend taught me how to grow marijuana, largely an indoor affair. Back then I was surprised to find how much I preferred the planting and growing process to the smoking the weed process. After an embarrassing Saturday morning incident where a realtor, hired to sell the apartment building where I lived, held an unannounced open house, I decided growing illegal plants was really not my thing but that vegetable gardening just might be. And as soon as I had a yard to work in, I began vegetable gardening in earnest.
Most of my early vegetable gardens where just over-crowded, weed infested holes in the ground with the rocks removed. They yielded a few meager vegetables and made me realize that farming was hard. These early gardens overwhelmed my very limited gardening abilities leaving me feeling exhausted and defeated by early July. Yet, each spring I’d get the bug and try again. During Maine’s long winter months I’d read a few books on growing vegetables and have organic gardening magazines at the ready in the bathroom. As the Internet took hold, I’d find myself perusing gardening forums and joining a few social media sites for home farmers. As a gardener I sucked badly, but I was hooked on the activity.
Over time these various sources of information combined forces with my seemingly endless array of horticultural failures and, ever-so-slowly, began to impact my farming skills in a positive way. Today I tend a moderately successful garden that the family eats out of beginning in May and lasting well into the winter. It only took thirty years because I’m a fast learner.
I credit the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) for most of my limited success as a gardener. MOFGA’s annual Common Ground Fair, held each September, offers a question and answer session that can turn any failing crop manager into a pretty decent gardener. And their quarterly newspaper has provided in-depth approaches to overcoming many garden challenges for me; like how to grow spinach for early spring harvest and how to grow garlic that just kicks ass. After joining MOFGA in 2011 my abilities markedly improved and the entire garden process got easier.
Now as I look back over 30 years of gardening, I recognize some major bone-head moves. I thought some readers might derive comfort or personal gratification (if they know me) from a few of my most outstanding missteps along the path to becoming a certified mediocre gardener.
My top ten bone-head gardening moves:
1. Planting Jerusalem Artichokes — My sister in-law teaches organic gardening in Massachusetts. She is an organic marvel, from whom I have learned much over the years. She dresses like Mr. Green Jeans and is obsessed with berries. If I weed in front of her she usually tells me I’m composting salad. I view my sister in-law the way Michael Corleone viewed his brother Fredo; she’s my sister in-law and I love her. But, also like Mike, that doesn’t mean I won’t kill her someday. You see my sister in-law has a tiny organic mean streak in there. I suppose she may have been sincere when she handed me that bag of Jerusalem Artichokes assuring me, “These are great sautéed or in salads.” But something tells me she was giggling behind that serious gardener poker face of hers. Jerusalem Artichokes are completely and aggressively invasive. They grow tall and propagate by tubers with extra shoots that send the artichoke “chokes” out underground in all directions. You will never be able to weed them all out and a new choke plant will grow from a choke sliver. They are lovely and I use the mineral rich stems and leaves in my annual raised bed layers. I’m pretty sure that following my final garden season, as they cart me off to the dementia ward, my garden hillside will be sprouting new tubers of Jerusalem Artichokes ready to take over the entire five town area. Advantage sister-in-law, for now.
2. Relaxing In July — I start almost every garden season with a furious flurry of activity which, more often than not, lands me on my doctor’s table for back manipulation by June 1st. I adore the month of April with its cool brisk days in the barren early garden. At that time the birds are migrating through, a thrill I never grow tired of experiencing. But for years, by the 30th of June I feel I need a break. The garden looks great, things are weeded, fruit is set — and I need some down time. So I’d take a much needed breather for a few days. And those days might morph into weeks and by the time I looked closely at things again it could be August and my garden has disappeared, buried in run-away weeds or desperate for nourishment and water. Under my annual marathon spring gardening regimen, my beautiful garden is pretty much dead and buried by August until the following April. So please keep in mind, you need to pace yourself so you have the patience and stamina during the hot summer to keep things moving forward. I view August now as the month when I start prepping for the next spring planting. It actually keeps me saner and less depressed as summer winds down, when I usually turn to gambling, liquor, and fast women as a way to ward off the inevitable Maine winter.
3. Falling In Love with Brussel Sprouts — Brussel Sprouts are so damn good for you. If you Google their nutritional benefits they’re listed as a cure for practically everything. I love them in salads, soup, sautéed or just plain boiled. So adding Brussel Sprouts to the garden planner made total sense to me, but I have struggled to grow them well. I’ve over crowded them. I’ve under watered and over watered them. I have started them too early and pulled the leaves off too late. And now I have a fungus or bacterial infection that makes their leaves fall off and then rots the stem. My Brussel Sprouts look and smell like a Civil War battlefield’s hospital amputation dump. So, for the foreseeable future I’ll get my BP’s at the grocery store, thank you.
4. Taking Naps in the Compost Pile — You laugh, but this “bad habit” has recently turned deadly serious. When I first moved to Maine and gardened outside in early April, each garden day around mid-afternoon I’d get tired and I’d know it was time for my nap. The afternoons here in our sunny yard are fairly warm, and as long as it wasn’t wet I’d just lie down on the closest compost pile and fall asleep. Now-a-days that’s a guaranteed way to get Lyme disease. I know, because I’ve contracted it two summers running. So I have a little screen room now that is my garden nap nook, much to my wife’s chagrin, for she expected shared utilization out of that $1400 family investment. But I miss those naps in the open air and sun. Lyme disease is serious business and difficult to diagnose. Be proactive about protecting yourself. Advantage ticks, for now.
5. Walking the Dog in the Garden — One fall afternoon about twelve years ago, I was walking our hyperactive bichon frise in the back yard. For some reason she was actually on a leash, usually she’s allowed to roam free. We wandered into my fall garden, which was at my usual late summer weed-mageddon stage. Suddenly out of the nettles and golden rod jumps a screaming bob cat. It quickly leaped off into the field below the garden. Our bichon went a little nuts, and I nearly dropped a personal manure pile, but the bob cat was gone. I was left to ponder if it had really been there at all. It had. I’m pretty sure it was feasting on chipmunks who were feasting on some other pest I’d let get out of control. This is what marriage teaches you, any strange event that takes place is generally traceable to something the husband did.
6. Planting Comfrey — We have friends who are natural food enthusiasts. You know the people I mean. No soap, lots of lentils and beans in their diet, they can fart on call. Well these people have a thing for the herbal miracle plant — comfrey. At least they talk that way. “It’s very medicinal,” I heard our friend assure me. So when I saw a few cute little comfrey plants at a yard sale one day I bought them. Yeah. I paid for comfrey. Fortunately I planted them in a contained area around which I still mow the grass, because comfrey is an aggressive and invasive weed. (Notice a bone-head pattern here?) And it loves my yard. One garden expert at the Common Ground Fair told me she’d heard there was only one way to get rid of comfrey, “Move.” Thankfully I read these plants are great for apple trees, so I’m moving many of them to be near apple trees. I will confirm this benefit to apple trees sometime in the next twenty years, if I’m not smothered by comfrey leaves.
7. Surprising My Wife with Borage — Speaking of aggressive plants, one winter night a few years back I read in the FEDCO Seed catalogue that borage was great for pollinators. As it happened, that was the year my wife took a class on honey bees and became a bee keeper. As any loving husband of a bee keeper would do, I looked for plants that year that would provide a bee colony with pollen and nectar. And borage turned out to be very popular with the bees. But like comfrey and Jerusalem artichokes, it too is invasive and I’ve taken to pulling the plants as soon as the bees get done with them — so I don’t get stung. As to my wife, she never even noticed I’d planted borage. Welcome to the club, borage. If you’re not a infant, a bee or a cat at our house, you’re strictly second class.
8. Planting too Early — Maine once experienced such an early spring that I was able to plant peas and carrots before the end of March. That’s one time in thirty years. But the truth is I can never wait to plant. I prepare the raised beds in the fall so I can plant ASAP in the spring. Part of the reason is so I can take that nap in the compost pile feeling self-satisfied and ahead of schedule. Alas, this way of thinking is not beneficial for all vegetables. Brussel Sprouts do better if left to mature into the fall. Chinese Cabbage varieties planted too soon are just a big chow wagon to the flea beetles that flourish early in the Maine spring. And if the spring planting season is cold and wet, which is often the case in Maine, by planting early all you are doing is setting the table for an army of slugs to settle down in your lettuce beds and motor-boat your leafy greens. I’m the guy who’s early for everything. Patience in my case is learned and carried out under duress, but I find if I wait the garden does better.
9. Broadcasting Carrot Seeds — This one is my wife’s favorite. Early in my gardening career, when I thought carrots could simply be planted in freshly turned soil with little additional planning or work, my wife stepped into the garden as I was about to plant carrot seeds. There had been some rain that day, so garden walkway boards were wet and slippery. After preparing my carrot row, I carefully opened my packet of FEDCO carrot seeds and gently shook the seeds to the front of the package, preparing to plant as thinly as possible to avoid tedious thinning next month. I’m pretty sure I was lecturing my wife on garden planting protocol as I hurriedly approached the row and my boot slipped across the wet board. Reacting quickly to my slipping foot, I began an ugly and awkward body motion similar to a runner sliding into home plate while doing the Watusi. And as I slid, my hand, holding the open carrot package high up, offset my sliding torso and flung itself upwards in an arc distributing all of my carrot seeds across the entire garden area. This blundering spectacle belonged at the end a Broadway number not in my spring garden. Needless to say, my carrots that year were off Broadway and not very well attended. Decades later I have finally figured out how to grow carrots but many failed carrot rows came and went before I did. There’s a YouTube video about growing carrots in large containers that is well worth watching. And there’s no dance number required.
10. Blaming Crop Devastation on Things Other Than Slugs — Over three decades of gardening in Maine I’ve suffered many setbacks in the garden, and in life. And for a long time, in the garden, based on things I’d read, I would hold all sorts of pests and diseases responsible for various plant decimations. I’ve blamed basil seedling disappearances on chipmunks, Brussel sprout holes on flea beetles, and even shredded broccoli tops on deer. And I was wrong almost every time. Surrounded by hay fields and with a tendency for wet, cold springs, our land is often the perfect breeding ground for big fat ugly slimy slugs. And big fat ugly slimy slugs will eat, shear, slime, and generally destroy almost any plant worth growing. In fact, the only plant they don’t seem to eat are onions. So I now surround my lettuce and early beets with onion seedlings. If you hate slugs as much as I do, plant onions everywhere, and pray for a drought.
Bonus Bonehead Move. Compost Mouth — Our lovely niece took a shine to hanging around her aunt and uncle’s house every summer for a week away from her family. She was about five to six year’s old and loved to help care for our baby girls. She was the sweetest child, always kind and gentle and very much interested in learning about life. At the time I was struggling to control potato beetles in the garden and she would help me hand pick and squish the buggers. I eventually stopped growing potatoes because the beetles were so difficult to manage organically. At any rate, my niece and I were on day five of her visit when one sunny morning we stepped out of the house and headed to the garden and she sweetly stated, “Let’s go kill some [F-bomb] potato beetles.” Shocked, I quickly realized there was no one else to blame but her compost mouth uncle — me. Sister in-law 1, Geoff 1. All evened up now.
Being a certified bone-head gardener isn’t all bad. I’ve learned way more than I ever dreamed I would about organic gardening, slugs, and stink bugs. And gardening, after all, is its own reward — you’re outside, you get exercise, you eat fresh vegetables, you get to nap on the compost. What’s not to like, right? Unless you count the agony of total defeat from time to time — things like rotten Brussel Sprouts, poison ivy hiding in weeds, wood chucks moving in, more slugs than an Old Testament plague, muck mouth inducing potato beetles, the neighbor’s kids, the neighbor’s cows, and the neighbors. Not counting things like that, gardening is great. Really great. Really.