A huge pile of dirt occupies a significant portion of my driveway, a mountain of soil. It will take me all weekend to fill the four little raised beds I just assembled and to dump the rest of the soil in various places around the yard.
In the raised bed I now approach, the soil is filled almost to the rim, but it will settle at least an inch over time. It’s time to dig three furrows in parallel. And to spread bean seeds generously.
The pale white seeds settle effortlessly into their new environment. It’s already late May, and temperature is high. Rain is abundant. It takes barely four days for the first bright green stems and seed heads to start peeking through the dirt, and it takes only eight days for the first true leaves to begin to unfurl. All seems right in the garden.
But this is not the garden I have formed, filled and feted for the past decade. This is not John’s farm. This is not the sharecropper plot where “The Seeds of Spring: Lessons from the Garden” was inspired. This is my own back yard, a yard where, at most, four hours of sunlight appear grudgingly on a good day. In early spring and late summer, when the sun is closer to the horizon and the hours and quality of daylight are diminished, it might be closer to three hours. Assuming clouds don’t get in the way.
Having been chased out of my beloved garden on John’s property by thousands of angry, swarming bees—some of which inflicted their stings on me before I wised up—I am starting over. Back to basics. Placing four raised beds in the least terrible spots of my own yard. Two beds in the back, two beds on the side. One with beans; one with zinnias; one with dahlias; the final one housing three tomato plants, two sweet pepper plants and a single basil plant.
There can be no doubt: I am desperate.
I very much hope that this is a temporary arrangement. John, who owns the horse-and-honey farm exactly one mile from my suburban house, says he will move the bee hives that are closest to my garden plot. But he can’t do it while the summer is upon us and the bees are in full honey production. Maybe this fall or winter. So next spring, I hope to be back on the farm, with its full sun for most of my 65-foot-by-30-foot plot. Unless he accepts my heavy-hearted suggestion that he let someone else work the plot—assuming they don’t get chased out or murdered by the normally placid bees.
But that’s next year. This is Memorial Day weekend. The beginning of this summer. So much promise. So much hot weather to spur the growth of our main season plants. If I have four small, shaded beds this year instead of a big plot with six medium-sized beds and tons of sun-drenched perennial plants to weed and feed, well, so be it. I can handle the reduction of time spent on my knees and bent over pulling weeds for seemingly endless hours every weekend. At my house, at least I have SOMETHING to do that resembles gardening, something that reduces the sense of frustration and loss. I have four raised beds, freshly planted. And, I must admit, I have no real hope of growing anything.
Three to four hours of full sun a day is a recipe for disappointment. For disaster. For failure.
But wait. I’ve been in this situation before, though I recall vaguely that I have done poorly with such conditions. These plants need six hours, maybe even eight, of direct sunlight each day to thrive. All I can do now is keep them alive and hope that they do something.But wait. Many of my friends and acquaintances have been in this situation before. And are in it again. Now and again they ask me: “What can I grow in my yard? It gets only about four hours of sunlight a day. Maybe three.”
I commiserate, then list some plants that like shade or partial sun. Begonias. Impatiens. Some other flowers. The occasional herb. But summertime veggies? Afraid not. Thanks for playing.
Yet they try. As I will try. Because, well, we have nothing better to do, and we really like growing things, and, gosh darn it, maybe that advice by that book author Bates guy isn’t really accurate—despite the fact that he just won an International Book Award (I hadn’t heard of the contest either before I applied). Who set him up as the EXPERT on gardening? Sure, he’s old, if that’s a good thing. He has been growing stuff a long time, so maybe experience has taught him something. But he has no training in horticulture.
So you try to grow plants where there is not enough sun. And I’m trying to grow plants where there is not enough sun. You know, and I know, that the chances of anything remotely resembling success are low. Very low. Sure, the plants look good now, less than two weeks out of the nursery or after surfacing from seeds. They haven’t had time to be stressed, or to show the effects of stress, related to inadequate light. Soon they will exhibiting the attribute that I term “becoming leggy”—starting to lean at odd angles toward what little sun reaches their area, and sending out stems and branches much too thin to support vigorous growth. Fewer and smaller flowers than expected will form. Fewer and smaller fruits, and later ones. Very sad. But that’s down the road. We’ll deal with that level of disappointment when it manifests later in the summer.
Right now, I am inspired by all of you who face these same odds and plant anyway. Those of you who persevere, who appreciate the good, the surprising, the process, the warm sun on your faces and the dirt on your knees. I salute you. Not because you “succeed” by some textbook definition: X pounds of ripe tomatoes and dahlia flowers Y inches across.No, I salute you because you have dreams. Because you don’t give up. Because you have hope.
And because you have hope, so do I.