As the justly famous garden expert Yogi Berra once observed, “You can see a lot just by looking.” Hey, they don’t call them “farm teams” for nothing. And baseball seasons are bracketed by first and last frosts.
But as far as I can determine, Yogi never went public with the essential companion wisdom that he surely acquired while studying Friedrich Nietzsche’s garden classic Beyond Good and Evil: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that’ — says my pride, and remains adamant. At last — memory yields.”
There’s the rub. We forget our failures.
This is further abetted by the optimism innate to every gardener’s soul. Who, other than a pie-eyed optimist, could hold tomato seeds between thumb and forefinger in April and envision rank, 5-foot-tall greenery loaded with bushel-basketfuls of two-pound fruits, red and bursting with sun-warmed, slightly tart juice that drips from chin to overalls?
If the vision-thing had reminded us in April of hornworms and early blight, we would have planted lawns and played badminton or croquet, instead of busting our butts tending and defending helpless seedlings that show no prospect whatever of future glory.
By now, you (like my editor) are surely demanding, “Get to the point!”
The point is that now is the time to take a good look at this year’s garden and take notes. You will thank me for this, next spring.
This needn’t be a big deal. You don’t have to jot down every last detail like Jefferson or Thoreau. The simplest way to go about it may be to sketch a simple outline of your garden. Then, fill in what is or was where. If you planted succession crops in a particular spot, you might write “peas/carrots” or “lettuce/potatoes,” etc.
Next, take a few minutes to think about what worked and what didn’t. Did you lose all of your tomatoes to the blight this year? Did the broccoli yield a bumper crop? Did you have too many zucchini? (Okay, that’s a rhetorical question.) Did the pole beans overshadow the peppers?
After this exercise, you will probably find yourself thinking about it at odd moments. So try to take a moment to add those further bits of insight to your list.
Most of us have to cope with limited garden space and too much shade. The sun’s path in spring will fool you. Did the tomatoes you planted in a splendidly sunny spot end up languishing in late July, in the shade of your neighbor’s gorgeous oak tree? (Maybe that’s why the vines grew spindly and stopped flowering.) Did your greens bolt early? (Next time, you might want to plant them where they only get morning sun.)
The point of this exercise is simply to have something to jog your memory a few months from now, when the seed catalogs and the promise of spring fire your imagination, and passion begins to overtake common sense. You’ll have a treasure map in hand.
Six paces from the hedge is where the cukes succumbed to vine borers last year; that means there are probably clear-winged moth eggs overwintering there, and it would be a great place to plant onions or beans next time around. (“Sixteen beans on a dead moth’s chest. Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum.”)
Repeat this exercise for a few years and you will be amazed what you teach yourself about your plot of land, about its soil and micro-climate, and what works and doesn’t.
I conclude with a quote from another famous garden expert, Casey Stengel, who called ground balls “worm killers,” indicating his concern for our little soil-building buddies. Everyone else in the ballpark was focused on the scoreboard, while Stengel was worried about the worms.
Stengel once observed, “Mister, that boy couldn’t hit the ground if he fell out of an airplane.”
The problem, of course, was “that boy” didn’t have a map.