Patience With the Experiment

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Future perfect

Though gardeners are supposed to put down roots, I’ve made an awful lot of vegetable gardens in the last decade. When I first bought a weekend place in the country, I made a garden right behind the house. It worked well in high summer, but my fall crops did nothing. When the sun got lower in the sky in late summer, shade from some giant white pines, even though they were at a considerable distance, became a problem.

So I made another garden, in a fertile boggy sunny spot which I loved and which was perfect in every way, as soon as I figured out I needed to spend one muddy April on my belly in a trench, nailing cage wire to a fence to keep out the groundhogs.

Then I helped make a first garden at my daughter’s elementary school. We were given a spot on the east side of the school, and once again, shade turned out to be a problem, in this case, a sheet of afternoon shade cast by the building. So we moved the garden to a better corner of the schoolyard, to a spot that had the worst soil I’d ever seen in my life–lifeless sand compacted by 80 years of traffic by small feet into cement. Yet in year three, after two years of intense application of city-provided compost and this year, a more casual sprinkling of second-cut hay, that garden is beautiful.

Last year, I decided my weekend garden in the country was no longer working for me, since my kids’ various interests no longer allowed us any freedom on Saturdays. So I made a new garden in the city, just by wheelbarrowing city compost over my sod. New garden, new troubles. I’d never seen  seedlings eaten off by cutworms before. Seedlings I’d babysat for months in the basement. The only proper reaction is operatic–hair tearing, arm waving, anguished shrieking.

I seem to have solved that puzzle by mulching heavily last fall.  Apparently, cutworm moths like to lay their  eggs in grass and weeds, not on a blanket of maple leaves.

But my garden has other irritations. I sat on my screened porch this year and watched a squirrel just casually lift out a lemongrass plant I’d  rooted and pampered for months in a sunny window.  The squirrel carried it up a tree–and then five minutes later came back for the other lemongrass plant.  (What is it about lemongrass?  It’s also the only plant in my garden that my dog likes to eat.)

Now that I’ve seen that performance, I think I understand a few other crime scenes, including a young gooseberry plant found half-dead beside its empty hole.

I’ve also noticed a lack of germination in the garden that puzzled me. It wasn’t until I planted my pole beans and saw that the ones on the lawn side of the arches were fine, while the ones in the garden were nowhere to be seen, that I realized squirrels were responsible here, too: They were eating my seeds.

I don’t know what the answer to this question is. My husband and my kids like to set up targets in the country and shoot at them for fun. But they have yet to do anything violent or useful with their weapons. And this is a city. I think if we tried to shoot squirrels here, we’d be arrested.

Also, I’ve been shocked to realize how pernicious the influence of the Norway spruces on the north side of the garden are. Thanks to the greed of their roots, the second half of the garden barely limps along. Potatoes seem fine. Other crops just don’t quite work.

In other words, I’ve been a vegetable gardener for 20 years, but nonetheless, I currently have some very serious problems.

But I also have faith: by improving my timing and tinkering with simple tools such as mulch, water, compost, fencing–and our fantastic local tree removal guy–I’ll get it right eventually.

I’d like to give that information to beginners. Vegetable gardens take a few years to figure out.  Have patience. They tend to be halting at first, and then they are ridiculously beautiful and productive.

Posted by

on June 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm, in the category Eat This, Feed Me, Real Gardens, Shut Up and Dig.


  1. Timeless Environments 1 January, 1970 at 04:00

    I was once frustated this one year when I kept losing my Sweet Corn in the furrows. There was this little tiny hole where the seeds had been but no seed. I had alwats presoaked all my seed also to give it that headstart, so I knew they should have quickly appeared. Those holes though and what was doing it was a mystery. Was it happening at night when I was in bed ? But why no tracks or digging around the tiny hole ?

  2. admin 22 June, 1995 at 14:40

    What Kevin said, about how it’s never the same year after year! I’ve been gardening for decades, and farming for 20 of those, and I have a mantra (actually, it holds for most life situations too): “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect”.

  3. skr 23 May, 2013 at 18:49

    Chickenwire everything! I battle birds, squirrels, and f&#@%*%# gophers. I make chickenwire baskets to keep the gophers out of roots. I also use hoop tunnels made out of 6″ welded wire concrete reinforcing mesh which I then cover wire chickenwire. Big ones for garden rows, small ones for the nursery flats in which I start seed. I once left the hoop off of a nursery flat overnight by accident, and in the morning all the seedlings had been mowed down by the birds. I keep the plants protected until they are big enough to handle the abuse.

  4. Jason 26 November, 2016 at 15:45

    In our neck of the woods the main culprits are rabbits and squirrels. Of the two, I’d say squirrels are the worst. They have a prediliction for digging up all kinds of newly planted additions to the garden. My brother, also a gardener, has a fantasy where he shoots them and then puts their heads on stakes like they did in the Middle Ages as a warning to the others.

  5. Anon 30 December, 2016 at 15:34

    Ok, maybe it’s not pc, but squirrels are rodents, as are chipmunks, and they can be caught in rat traps, basically just bigger mouse traps. Cruel, maybe. But after watching them destroy a veggie garden and do serious damage to new perennial beds for 3 years running, my heart hardened to their cuteness.

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