After spring seeds and sprouts come the garden’s version of teenage angst. Or maybe it’s my own. But after studying master gardener Eliot Coleman and savoring the charm of companion-planting guru Louise Riotte, I thought I had this garden business figured out.
My tomato plants would produce bushels of plump, tasty beauties. My corn would leap in the pan and cream itself. My arugula would make acclaimed aficionado Barack Obama beg for more. Rain would fall, the sun would shine, bees would buzz all at the right times.
Delusion comes in garden green.
In May, I made ready for the mad rush to plant and transplant everything. I had waited, not so patiently, for Mother’s Day. According to climatic data, that’s the average latest-frost date in my area. But as you might recall, a cold, wet spell hit the region around that time. My tomato seedlings huddled with me in the warmth of the house, grow lights buzzing. I rattled my packets of corn seed and daydreamed about harvest time. I read and re-read passages from Riotte’s Carrots Love Tomatoes.
“Few garden projects are more fun to experiment with than companion planting,” Riotte opines. Among her 12 books of gardening lore are Roses Love Garlic and Sleeping with a Sunflower, and though Riotte died in 1998, her work lives on. Reading Carrots Love Tomatoes, which first appeared in 1975, was like sitting down with my grandmother for a little garden wisdom.
“Try this recipe for garden use: Take three to four ounces of chopped garlic bulbs and soak in two tablespoons of mineral oil for a day. Add one pint of water in which one teaspoon of fish emulsion has been dissolved. Stir well [and store in a glass container]. Starting with one part to 20 parts of water … use as a spray against your worst insect pests.”
Early in my efforts to encourage seedling growth, I discovered that my incorrigible dog Molly loves fish emulsion. She overturned a whole shelf of seedling trays I’d fertilized with the smelly stuff, and I lost most of my habañero crop before Mother’s Day.
But enough crying in my fish emulsion. Eventually the sun came out, and it found me behind schedule. If I didn’t get my tomatoes and peppers in the ground, I’d be feasting on lots of fried green tomatoes come August and September. If I didn’t plant my corn, there’d be none of Grandma’s baked creamed corn coming out of my oven at summer’s end.
I became a planting maniac, dirt under my fingernails, sun on my cheeks and the knees of my jeans worn bare. Beans sprouted, pepper plants filled out, corn pushed its eager stalks skyward. By the end of May, we were enjoying early arugula and Amish sugar-snap peas, both planted during April’s cool rains. At day’s end, I would sink into my grandfather’s old recliner, exhausted. All seemed well.
Then came June, with a record heat spell one week followed by a late-season cool spell. Days and then weeks without rain. I watered and watered and kept things alive and green. Soon, very soon, we’ll be enjoying baby chard, I told myself—only to find almost the entire bed of chard and baby beet greens picked clean the next morning. A mere two plants remained, I discovered as I peered at the dirt. I didn’t need a forensics crew to analyze the clean cuts.
Riotte didn’t mention that rabbits love chard.
So my garden rhythm got derailed by a fence-building stint followed by re-seeding the chard bed.
Then I noticed that where there’d been two neat rows of young jalapeños the day before, naught but a stalk or two was left—plus a single top lying beside them. Rabbits don’t leave such evidence, so I dug in the earth around them. Cutworms, fat and white and curled up into the letter C. The words “crop loss” acquired new meaning for me. I had no more seedlings sprouting, so we cheated, buying replacements from a local organic supplier and planting again.
“We are sometimes surprised when we go out into our garden in the morning to find that the bugs have held a candlelight ceremony and arrived overnight,” Riotte observes with understated humor. She suggests resorting to a little sleight of hand, noting, “Fall-planted squash is entirely free of squash bugs.”
Good lord, I thought: If I survive midseason, it’ll be time to rev up for fall plantings. I wished, too, that Riotte offered ways to trick the weather, because the June drought was still going. My corn stayed green but stopped growing. Was it the drought or the cool spell? Tiny black bugs chewed my purple-hull pea sprouts. Colorado potato beetles made themselves at home in part of my ‘Rose Finn’ potato patch. Another beetle critter munched my basil, coming out at night for an Italian feast.
But at least when I weeded, the invaders didn’t grow back in the hot, dry dust before I planted my first cover crop (buckwheat and white clover).
After some study, I opted for a variety of organic approaches to each pest, all the while feverishly watching weather forecasts and hoping for rain. One by one, I hosed the aphids off of every purple-hull pea seedling and tomato plant. I smashed Asian garden beetles and saved most of the basil.
Amid it all, I couldn’t help remembering a passage in Coleman quoting Thomas Jefferson: “When earth is rich it bids defiance to droughts, yields in abundance and of the best quality,” the Virginian told his daughter in 1793. “I suspect that the insects which have harassed you have been encouraged by the feebleness of your plants and that has been produced by the lean state of the soil.”
This I’ve learned firsthand, alas. Long-ago tenants of my mountainside plot grew tobacco, which strips the soil of nutrients. Soil-test results from my local agricultural-extension office confirmed it, and I knew my first year would be a long row to hoe. I’ve got to rebuild soil structure and add nutrients—all organically, if it doesn’t wear me to a frazzle. I figure that some pesky bugs must have come with the free, composted horse-and-mule manure I carted home; others somehow seem to know that I don’t have my sustainable system all in place quite yet. I didn’t manage to get all of Riotte’s suggestions in play, such as planting mint near cabbage to discourage the white moths whose larvae devour the plant.
Nonetheless, the garden has persevered. We’ve eaten coleslaw made with our first cabbage: So what if I had to peel away a few bug-chewed layers to reveal a flattened globe that looked like a flying saucer? Meanwhile, my early-season corn has tasseled, and silk has risen out of the first ears. I tasted my first Cherokee purple tomato, ripened on the vine. My purple-hull peas have grown new leaves. And my arugula appears to have broken all the rules, caring not a whit that summer’s warmed up: I have bushels of the stuff.
In fact, all things Italian seem to be doing well: The ‘Principe Borghese’ tomatoes (which seemed near death as seedlings before I solved the lighting problem) have popped out so much fruit, I’ll spend August canning. Dainty yellow pear tomatoes dangle on the sprawling vines.
Still, I wish Riotte had mentioned that deer love green beans. I’d added a tasty haricot vert recipe to this week’s menu but had to settle for yet another variation on arugula salad.
[Margaret Williams plows her fields a stone’s throw from the Appalachian Trail northwest of Marshall. She can be reached at email@example.com.]