The Seeds of Spring BLOG

Lessons From the Garden

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly September 27, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Seeds of Spring @ 6:51 pm

Why do we always insist on judging everything and everyone? We hear that this presidential candidate has all the momentum and that one is desperate. Jennifer Lopez and various Kardashians are hot; Jennifer Aniston and Tom Cruise are not, the so-called experts tell us. But who really decides, and what are their qualifications to make these (occasionally) important decisions?

With the possible exception of the guys who filled in for several weeks as NFL referees, small dogs that nip at your heels, and street mimes, everyone deserves a chance to be accepted for who and what they are. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Our gardens, which can be such sources of delight, ought to be above criticism and judgment, too. Yet here I am, taking stock of what the rapidly waning gardening year has been like—and judging what was good and what was bad.

Kelvin Floodlight dahlias light up any house.

I suppose that this inclination is natural. After all, we spend so much time, and invest so much hope, in our gardens that we need to feel that it’s all justified, that we have been rewarded properly, that any shortcomings can be blamed on weather and pests and the fill-in refs. All the good things, of course, can be attributed to our spectacular talent at growing things.

Yeah, right.

The year got off to a slow start as early heat doomed spring crops like lettuce, spinach and snap peas, and my asparagus crop was kind of listless. Then I was chased out of my garden by a massive swarm of bees. So by late spring I basically abandoned any hope of growing summer crops on my plot—located on a friend’s horse farm—in favor of four improvised raised beds in the side and back yards of my house. Those beds get five hours of sun on a good day right around the solstice. Other days, maybe four hours of sun.

That’s not a formula for success; most main-season annual vegetables and flowers need at least six hours of full sun, all the books and magazines remind us constantly. Add in the fact that the beds had only about six inches of soil on top of lawn, and that the soil was of limited quality, having been provided by a local garden center. The odds that things would flourish were particularly bad.

So how in the world did my garden do so incredibly well?

I’m amazed and embarrassed to say that I don’t really know.

The beans and peppers took a little longer to produce than usual. The tomatoes, fueled no doubt by the high temperatures in June and July, were more or less on time. The lone basil plant produced like its hair was on fire. The zinnias were slow to get going and kept leaning and twisting in search of sun. But the dahlias: Dozens of flowers from four plants, and some blooms nearly dinner plate size. They’re still coming in at a rate of a couple a day, especially the big yellow ones—a cultivar known as Kelvin Floodlight. They light up the house.

They’ve been so grand that neighbors begged repeatedly for cut flowers, rang the doorbell at odd hours to ask my gardening secrets, snuck into the yard in the dead of night to dig up the tubers, nominated me to state officials for gardener of the year, sought a congressional citation to recognize my gardening prowess and secured promises from both presidential candidates that they would be photographed with me and my prized dahlias by the end of the week. I’ve been offered my own network gardening show, and several foreign billionaires have offered me huge contracts to consult with their national horticultural experts.

Okay, I got a little carried away there. But the dahlias were, and are, quite nice this year.

After my friend John moved most of his bee hives to another corner of his farm, I started returning more frequently to that plot to do triage weeding. I’m still catching up, but the garden is starting to look almost respectable again. The raspberry plants had a second consecutive year of basically no berries, with blight being the culprit. But I had a couple dozen fat blackberries from four new bushes.

And a funny thing happened in a remote corner: Two “volunteer” tomato plants—offspring of fruits that rotted last year—have produced dozens of full-size heirloom tomatoes. They show no sign of stopping.

In a gamble, I planted fall lettuce and spinach twice: Once about the third week of August, and again in early September. I knew that the success for the first planting was dependent on unusually cool temperatures in late August and early September. That did not happen. But the first seeds have done fabulously anyway. The plants are approaching their peak now, and they are sweet and tender—at least as good as the best spring plantings. I’ve never had good fall salad greens beforfe. Never.

Now, one thing that might be considered tangential to gardening needs mentioning: At home, my lawn has been devoured by crabgrass. I mean swallowed whole.

I have never seen anything like it. My efforts to control the crabgrass have been as determined as ever, but the lawn has been a colossal mess all summer. The neighbors on both sides—and, for the record, I love them dearly—don’t treat their lawns for dandelions, crabgrass or anything else. And the bad stuff keeps invading. (Did you know that a single crabgrass plant can produce 15,000 seeds? I believe it.)

As I tally up the scorecard on the 2012 gardening season, I see lots of the good (tomatoes and dahlias and fall crops), the bad (peas and zinnias), and the ugly (losing my summer crops to a vicious cloud of bees). I’d like to hear how you rate your efforts this year. What worked? What didn’t?

Tomatoes love hot, wet summers.

But the process of evaluating what was good and what was not so good this year still troubles me. Who am I to judge what was good and what was bad? Who is anyone to judge?

Better yet: Why can’t we just accept what is?

Our gardens are among our most valued possessions, are among our favorite places. Sure, some things will stun us with their “success.” Others will sadden or even anger us with their “failure.” In the long run, and maybe even in the short run, however, these things tend to even out. It’s always good year for something and a bad year for something. Karma rules.
Perhaps the best reason to review what was good and what was not good in the garden is to learn—to learn what to do differently in the future, and to learn how not to apply labels such as good and bad.

So I hereby resolve to try to stop judging. To accept the good, the bad and—yes—even the ugly. In gardening, and in life. It will be an uphill struggle at times, I’m sure. Maybe a hopeless one. But I’m going to try.

Anybody with me?



The 33rd of August September 13, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Seeds of Spring @ 3:54 pm

Is the summer really over?

Technically, no. The autumnal equinox won’t occur until 10:49 a.m. Eastern time on Sept. 22, 2012. But it certainly feels like summer has left the building and slammed the door.

The kids are back at school and brining home strep throat. Football has resumed. There’s a chill in the morning air. Dew collects on the lawn and weeds more thickly. It seems like the angle of the sunlight is noticeably different. Maybe that’s just lower humidity or reduced pollen or something my brain has manufactured, but if seems like there has been a dramatic shift in the world.

Why is it so hard to let go of summer? Songwriter Mickey Newberry captured that feeling in his much-recorded song, The Thirty-Third of August:

It’s the 33rd of August
And I’m finally touching down.
Eight days from Sunday
Finds me Saturday bound.

When you start counting August days past the 31st, you’re really high, or really in denial, or both. But the spirit of that desire—to keep summer with us—is undeniably strong for me. And grounded in reality.

When summer yields to fall, some very bad things happen. Gardens grow old and die. Frost comes. Ice comes. Snow comes—or at least, the rumors of it haunt our nights.

Those of you who have read “The Seeds of Spring” or have followed this blog have observed how viscerally I love summer and hate fall. Perhaps you have commiserated as I lament the death of this sprawling tomato vine or that six-foot dahlia. And no doubt you are expecting me to launch into one of my predictable rants about how crappy this time of year is for gardeners.

Bright dewdrops and cool mornings usher in the fall.

Sorry, folks. Been there. Done that. Time to move on.

Am I ill, you might ask. Or too muddled by age and stress to dare to speak the truth burning in what’s left of my heart? Have I really turned traitor to the concept that, when it comes to the end of a gardening season, one should not go gently into that good night?

Maybe so. Or maybe my career and life have changed so much in the past year that I really am beginning to see the glass 10 percent full rather than 90 percent empty.

Yes, I am much happier these days. There’s no denying it. Instead of being stuck on the toll road with a complaining bladder and then waiting and waiting for that Blue Line train to show up, I’m spending that 90 minutes most mornings walking on the Washington & Old Dominion trail, dodging emaciated cyclists and wildlife. In the past month I have witnessed a bald eagle, a fox and uncounted deer.

The most recent deer encounter was particularly interesting. First, the mother sprinted across the trail. Right behind came two young ones. But rather than diving into the woods, the mother stopped and turned to look at me from a distance of about 50 feet.

At first, I just assumed that she was assessing the danger I posed to her and her two offspring. While I’m not normally a violent person, I have been known to launch into tirades when my satellite carrier drops AMC or my favorite team drops an easy popup.

But after moment, it seemed like the connection between Mom and myself had more to it than your typical “deer in the headlights” scenario. With her two youngsters already under cover of foliage, she continued to stare me down from a spot near the edge of the underbrush. No “grunts,” as some deer will do when they are frightened. Not the usual tension, as if she was ready to run full speed all the way to Toledo the first time I blinked.

Aging tomato vines struggle to remain upright, and productive, as fall arrives.

No, she seemed to be checking me out. I began to imagine the line of thought that consumed her for those seconds as we stood still, eyes locked. Several possibilities came to mind:

Option 1: “Wow. Maybe it’s the season, but I’m seeing a lot more humans these days than usual during my morning walks. I suppose they are over-populating.”

Option 2:  “I think I’ve seen this one before. Looks like he’s really putting on weight and losing hair. Maybe it’s a fall thing for his species.”

Option 3: “Sure wish I had a gun.”

I broke the spell by moving on. She turned to her children and resumed the business of survival.

Encounters like this, and having very few meetings to attend, definitely make fall a little less miserable.

Of course, not everyone is sad to see the summer leave. And there are parts of fall that are really lovely.

But real gardeners always shed a silent tear when frost savages what’s left of their summer plants. I know I will, this year and every year.

The trick is to look ahead. As long as you don’t wake up dead, there’s always another gardening season out there to look forward to—eventually.

Enjoy the season!