In my youth, I fantasized about living off the land, planting, growing and consuming all of my own vegetables. I knew almost nothing about gardening, and as I began to try this activity, I questioned whether my childish dream would ever happen.
I questioned this especially in the mid-1990s when I met Austin Springston, a retired farmer from Elkins, Arkansas, who lived next door to our house in the country. In his late 80s, Austin grew a most impressive backyard garden, sporting lettuce heads larger than basketballs, tomato trellises full of giant red fruit that seemed to touch the sky and enough zucchini to keep an entire high school football team fed for about a month.
A glance at his high-octane garden and back at my meager, hole-filled crops produced many sighs. I battled weeds, grass, bugs, fungi, varmints, too much rain, too little rain, too much water, not enough water. I planted my veggies in the wrong place at the wrong depth in the wrong soil at the wrong time. It was too hot or too cold, but never just right.
Austin and I often chatted over our shared fence, and he occasionally shared insight into his methods. He used a BB gun to shoot birds that landed in his garden, along with pint-sized steel traps to catch varmints who tried to raid it at night. He composted using horse manure from the local stable, which bred race horses, and I couldn’t help but wonder if his lettuce heads were chemically enhanced as a result. A visit to his garage revealed shelves of chemicals designed to kill every single thing in the yard except possibly the vegetables. No wonder my garden was a haven for all the neighborhood critters and weeds. I couldn’t bring myself to adopt these tactics — I preferred a more organic approach — so my garden was what it was.
Despite small yields, bug-ridden plants and failures, I kept planting a garden every year.
Over the course of several years, I began to learn a few things. Tomatoes don’t like nighttime temperatures below 50 degrees, and they won’t set fruit if the thermometer rises above 90 for a good portion of the day. They need to be pruned back and trained up to produce well. Cucumbers like space and should be planted in mounds. Lettuce does not like freezing temps but will bolt and excrete a milky, bitter substance when temperatures climb above 75.
My brain began to contain a mini almanac of information, and slowly, after several years of hit-and-miss, it appeared that I could grow vegetables.
What followed were a few years of happy growing. I grew lettuce and tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers. I grew jalapeños and we gave them away to friends and neighbors who liked spicy food. I grew strawberries and herbs — basil, rosemary and mint, oregano and thyme.
Then in Florida, my almanac seemed to disappear. During our 5 1/2 years there, I tried a few times to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, but the mercurial weather patterns got the best of me and the plants either gave a paltry harvest or withered away. I finally made the decision to stop trying and devoted my energy to other things.
But when we moved to California, our new house had a little raised bed on the side. It looked a lot like nothing. It sported some dry, tired, overgrown weeds that had withered away. But I saw its potential.
I ripped the weeds out. Brought in soil. Put up a small wooden trellis across the back and a small fence in the front so that our dark chocolate lab, Shadow, couldn’t use it as a resting place and wreck the tiny shoots.
Then I went to the farmer’s market and I bought a few plants: Two tomatoes, two peppers, two strawberries, basil and some cucumber seedlings. I put them in the ground, watered them and held my breath.
As the weeks have gone by, I’ve derived great joy from seeing the garden’s progress. I didn’t realize how much I had missed gardening until I began to do it again.
Every morning now, I devote some time to the garden. I check around the plants and under leaves and stems for flowers and fruits. I inspect the leaf tops for tiny holes made by bugs or discoloration from diseases. I stick my finger in the soil to see if the plants have enough water. I pinch off rogue shoots from the tomato plant so it will bear better fruit.
And my ministrations have paid off: The tomato plants have grown to five feet tall, still expanding towards the sky. The cucumber vines are heading up the trellis, creating a backdrop of green for the tiny space. Peppers, strawberries, basil — it’s all growing very well.
Now that I know I can successfully garden in California, my vision can grow along with my plants. I look forward to what happens next. And even if a particular plant doesn’t work, I can now see, looking back, that it was all those seasons of failure in the garden that have led to this current beautiful bounty.