Our Lives

Our Lives: Gardener draws a lesson from Mother Nature

CorrespondentJuly 13, 2013 

JohnValentine.AL.050213.JEL

John Valentine.

JLEONARD@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — JULI LEONARD

Twenty years ago our household garden was all about the yield, the earliest tomato, most yellow squash, and the biggest pumpkin. We were good at it. We turned in truckloads of manure and canned, dried, froze and documented our hard earned rewards. Such industry!

This year I simply can’t keep up with nature’s fickle furies. Who doesn’t like a little rain? But every weekend? Today, slipping through the garden gate is like going into the wild. Heaven forbid a mere mortal tries to tame the chaos.

This year’s garden is about stepping back for the moment, slow gardening, a site-specific nod to slow food. Sure, there’ll be a harvest. Always is. Just not sure what, even this late in the game. Rather than a work station, the garden this year is pure retreat for me, all good news.

Starting the garden this year was more like starting an old lawn mower. Lots of false starts and flooded engines. Bell pepper and Better Boy tomato sets got water logged; zucchini seeds rotted in their once-symmetrical mounds, lettuce bolted and lay down.

Each year for as long as I can remember (I even used to keep charts about it), the perfect planting weekend arrives. The sun rises, drying the soil and inviting us outside. The grumpy rototiller awakens from his long winter slumber. The local feed and seed stores beckon us with new and improved seed packets among colorful displays.

This year that one perfect weekend, the one that every Old Farmer’s Almanac promises, eluded me.

True, the seeds are now in the ground. Veggies are growing. Some slippage of the beds has been duly noted. Proper drainage is a life-long endeavor. A few new weed species have decided to vacation with us. Japanese stilt grass has crept through the fence near the thriving mint. Instead of the planned raised bed grid of vegetables, I now have a renegade patch of survivor vines, hybrid volunteers from the pumpkin/squash family, and stalky who-knows-what, their identity yet to be determined. And I love it. I’m embracing their independence, these plants that came through the torrents of our perfect-storm spring.

Every garden, even if it’s not exactly coming up the way you planned it, is about nurturing and hope. Kneeling in the dirt, planting, watering -- even the weeding -- they’re all metaphors. The clock is ticking, you get seeds in the ground as the soil warms up, and then you wait for some kind of sign that you’ve done something right. Then you do it again. That trusty tattered to-do list in the kitchen says it’s just about time to plant the last cascade of tomatoes.

My favorite walk these days is around the outside of the garden, peering in, but not disturbing a mulched leaf, like at a zoo, where we follow the well-trodden perimeter path, hoping to get a surprise glimpse of where the wild things are.

Once inside a few minutes later, I can’t help pulling up the obvious weed invaders and notice which tomato towers have been breached by sweet potato vines looking for better purchase and squash vines doing their sun salute. I’m particularly rooting for the sweet potatoes this year, wherever they roam. My daughter and I planted them together, all the while talking about months later digging them up for Thanksgiving dinner.

Our garden has gone from a skeleton city of wire cages, with struggling tenants, to a humid jungle of 8-inch yellow squash blossoms flaunting themselves for the attention of the neighborhood bees. If I miss a few days, rediscovering the garden’s spaces is like slipping through a natural crease into an alternate universe. Where did these robust cherry tomatoes come from? I’ve lost track of what varieties are tucked in where, so most surprises are pleasant.

We count our blessings with our daily nature encounters. Take the brown, degrading, leaf bag pile I accumulate every fall from northern Durham. It festers and becomes compost and mulch for next year’s spring and summer gardens. The deluges of April and May made the leaf piles into wildlife condominiums. Worms are active everywhere. Squirrels burrowed in for the raked-up acorns and ants created safe, dark, thriving habitats. In the past few weeks I’ve been bitten by a surprised spider, shoed away a few black snakes and chopped off the head of a copperhead.

All this for a ripe, sliced tomato and mayo sandwich on a sweltering July afternoon? Worth every wheelbarrow trip.

Valentine: johnvalentine732@gmail.com

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