by Teresa Smith
San Juan Island
I have romantic thoughts about growing my food. Fresh organic food. Fresh picked and becoming salad. Packet of seeds two dollars and 99 cents.
I make raised beds. I buy untreated fir 4X6s and treat them with some kind of all-natural organic wood preservative. It takes a few days. I hire a handy guy who can assemble the wood into raised beds. I purchase several hundred dollars’ worth of organic soil and fill them. Now I am ready to plant.
I plant the seeds. Lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard. 30 days to harvest it says on the packet. This seems to me, that may be an optimistic assumption. If everything goes right and a garden has 4 feet of organic material, a perfect amount of water, sun and ideal conditions, maybe. On the other hand, if the temperature is not quite right, not enough water, too much water. Too cloudy, too sunny. Late frost, cold nights or hot days. The moon is not in the correct quarter. The stars are not aligned. You know the ones. Then the seeds don’t sprout, and the salad is not ready in 30 days.
I keep buying more seeds and filling in where seeds have not made it. If, after 30 days, I still have seeds sprouting and becoming plants and the cats haven’t dug them up and the deer have not discovered them, and the rabbits are staying away. If the house sitter hasn’t forgotten to water when I went away for the weekend and the bug that eats the tops of the peas and beans has missed a few and I remember to harvest the plants before they bolt, I consider the garden a huge success.
I am working on the second year. I added 6 inches of manure in the fall. I amended and mulched. I prune and preen and talk to my beloved plants. It is May and my kale is 6 inches high, lettuce the same. I have some lovely little radishes. I am gloating with pride, and then I go to the farmers market. There, I see kale the size of small trees, lettuce so beautiful it looks like the kind they photograph for the cover of a gardening book.
Tomato plants four feet tall. How is this possible? I ask advice to find out why my plants aren’t growing as fast as the plant ladies at the market. Opinions come freely. “You probably aren’t watering enough.” “You are probably watering too much.” “Did you wait until the moon was in the first quarter to plant?” “Oh no!” “Did you mulch?” “Slugs.” “Probably slugs.” “Must be voles.” “Happens to me every year.” “Deer, that’s the problem.” “Birds.” “You should never have a bird feeder, or the birds will eat your seeds.”
I have two main obstacles so far this year. Cats and pill bugs. I have three beautiful cats that are now looking for good homes. Cats dig up my seeds right away or they wait until the little plants are barely up. I read that coffee grounds work to keep cats away. Cats don’t like coffee grounds apparently. So, I give up tea and start drinking coffee. It takes a lot of coffee. Wood ashes work if there are enough of them, but the seeds don’t seem so happy. I begin to pile sharp objects onto my garden. Pieces of wood, wire mesh, rocks, branches, metal grid. Now my garden looks like the Mexican border wall. Dismantle that.
I am confident that by now the cats will have found new places to go and will leave my garden alone. No. Not so. I get a huge pile of sand and make them sandboxes. No. I make them a dirt box. Nope. Next is the motion sensor sprinkler system. If that doesn’t work, an electric fence with barbed wire around the premises.
Something is eating the seedlings as they emerge. I have been replanting thinking that they are not germinating. Then with closer examination, I notice stems sticking out of the soil. Only stems. Pill bugs only eat decaying matter I am told. Wrong. Pill bugs swarm attack and devour my new little beans as they peek above the soil line. First, I try
Diatomaceous Earth. This is made of Crustacean fossils and is not at all toxic. It is composed of tiny sharp shards that either dry out the bugs or debilitate them. But I have to re-apply every time I water which is twice a day. Thirty dollars’ worth of the stuff in 30 days. And if I forget or don’t get the timing right the little creatures swarm, attack and devour the fresh new leaves. I can trap them with beer is another suggestion. Collect little cans; make holes in the soil around the plants. One can per square foot and fill with beer. Not exactly attractive and I don’t even like beer. Next, I make little walls around the seeds using toilette paper tubes or plastic bottles. When the plants emerge, the bugs can’t get to them. Little walls to keep out the bug terrorists and is another hypothetical solution that doesn’t work. I buy more seeds and I buy small plants already started. I also start my own seedlings. I will succeed.
I persevere. I plant the seeds, reseed after the cat digs up the first lot, reseed after I accidentally apply too much wood ash. Reseed after the pill bugs eat the seedlings. I am addicted. The first thing I want to do each morning is to check on the garden. Water and nurture. Watch things come alive.
What is it that compels me to grow year after year? What is it that gives me a rush when I see that first seed catalogue come in the mail each winter? The pure unadulterated pleasure of appreciating and sharing my first tender greens mixed with herbs in the spring. The taste and the exhilaration. Delicious yes, and that first salad is worth about 60 bucks. Money well spent.