Growing a gardener

A healthy volunteer squash
A healthy volunteer squash. photo by Cecil Bothwell

I am not a fastidious gardener. Looking over my backyard jumble as I compose these words, I can well imagine a reader peering over my shoulder and sneering, “You write about this stuff?”

I easily retort: “This is the garden I have always dreamed of growing, exactly as I planned and planted it, and every bit as surprising as I hoped it might be.” (So now you know I talk to myself, too.)

As I recommended back in the spring, I didn’t stake my tomato plants, preferring to mulch heavily with dry hay and just let them sprawl. I’ve lost quite a few tomatoes to rot and insects — but I’ve harvested far more than I could eat or give away, and the plants are still going strong. If maxing out production had been my goal, staking or training the plants onto wood pallets might have salvaged some extra fruit — which I didn’t need.

I’ve treated all varieties of peppers the same way, though they tended to stay more erect until the volunteer squash climbed through them. Peppers, too, are still producing, though they’re more reliant on sunlight, and my too-shady yard has not been ideal.

A helpful reader, learning of my fledgling garden last spring, gave me a load of compost that must have contained some viable squash seeds. Hence the butternut- and buttercup-squash vines that sprang up all over and set a welcome and entirely unexpected crop.

The squash vines took down the gladiolus growing amid the tomatoes and peppers, but not until after the flowers were cut or spent. And for a while, the squash plants covered up the nasturtiums. Now the nasties are up above the squash leaves and in full bloom, together with zinnias that outpaced the vines.

The herbs have done just fine, a textbook example of how varying amounts of sunlight influence plant growth. They’re planted north-to-south from the sunniest part of my yard to the shadiest, and the heights of my basil plants are tapered as perfectly as if they’d been pruned — proud and tall in the sun down to nubbins under the trees.

A goodly portion of the yard remains fallow. After I leveled things last spring while converting a gravel parking area to a growing space, I buried the whole place under dead leaves I collected from curbsides last fall. There are patches of weeds coming up here and there through the mulch, but they’ll be easy to suppress with another load of leaves this fall. Though I intend to bring the whole of the back yard into cultivation, I’m no more driven about my horticulture than I am fastidious. My goal is to move most of the area into perennial flowers, but building soil is always worthwhile, and nature does most of that work if you just liberally sprinkle the ingredients.

What I have reclaimed in this first garden season after a few years of condominium life is my connection to the sun and the cycle of the seasons. Each step — from double-digging some of the yard, to hand-picking rocks, to planting seeds and tending seedlings, to mulching, to scouting for slugs and caterpillars, to pinching back flowers on herbs and deadheading ornamentals, to harvesting (and, finally, dining) — has let me reconnect with that large loop of life in a personal and visceral way.

What was a seed too tiny for my clumsy fingers to readily hold just a few months ago has now become a food processor-ful of pesto. The handful of dry bulbs bought at a local hardware has exploded into gift bouquets of brilliant glads. A tray of black-eyed Susans dug by a friend has become a spreading clump that will grace my driveway for decades. In directing or redirecting this sprawling patch, this tiny fragment of the vast sprawl of living systems on our planet, I have eaten a little of the bounty — and been intimately rejoined to life’s miracle and power.

So yes, I write about this stuff. Because it matters.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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