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.