THE NOVICE GARDENER

by Russell T. Johnson

It's about time to decide whether or not to rent my garden plots again.

For many years I grew a few tomatoes and peppers in planters under less than ideal conditions at my home, which sits on hillside made of stone and clay. The scant topsoil at my house is as fragile as a dusting of snow. If the sun scorches a patch in the yard, the next rain will wash all the dirt away and I get to start over building a lawn. When I was in high school and mowing the yard was something my dad made me do, I told him that when I got my own place I was going to pave the property and save the effort. I used to pontificate endlessly about the wastefulness of yard care and the starving millions that could be fed if the water and fertilizer and labor were spent more prudently. I used to complain about my dad's annual tomato madness. There were tomatoes in the stores. They looked better. They cost less.

Things are different now. Mowing a yard that belongs to you is an entirely different experience from mowing a yard that belongs to your dad. And I don't know exactly when it happened, but all the stuff I knew for sure when I was twenty turned out to be pretty much wrong. That doesn't mean my dad turned out to be right about very much either, but how could I have have thought that a store bought tomato was the same as a home-grown vine-ripened one? How could I have thought that the frozen corn from the grocery store was even the same species as the corn we'd get from the uncles' farms. Who is there in the world that can't tell the difference?

So last year I rented two garden plots for my Dad and two for myself at the old county farm. My patch was 50 x 50 feet, cost $70 a year, which included unlimited water. I intentionally chose a patch that hadn't been gardened for several years because I was going to try to go at the project organically.

Everybody tried to talk me out of that. To them, "organic" was just an alternate spelling for "ignorant." I'd meet some veteran gardener. He'd ask which plots I'd rented. I'd tell him. He'd make a face. The same face you make if you use your tongue to check to see if a filling is loose. Then he'd start telling me about Roundup. I heard so much about Roundup in the first month that I thought the garden center must be a shill for Monsanto.

Organic it was, though, and I decided to remove the weeds physically.

The Axis of Evil is not Iran, Iraq and Korea. It's Nut Grass, Johnson Grass and Bermuda Grass. You can't get rid of any of that stuff by tilling or plowing. Bermuda grass root systems are thickly meshed in the dirt sometimes eight inches deep. The roots act like rebar does in concrete, and new grass can sprout from any piece of any root. Johnson grass rhizome is an orange and white jointed root about as big around as your little finger and usually six inches to a foot long. It looks like a long boiled shrimp, any half-inch of which, once separated from the mother plant, will generate a new johnson grass plant. If you don't get it all, you didn't get any of it. The rhizome lurks along the boundary between the topsoil and the subsoil underneath the protective mesh of the bermuda grass.

Nut grass (technically a sedge) is the most insidious of the three. The roots form widely spaced strands of charcoal-black nutlike bulbs which are held in metastasis by the presence of the parent plant. If you succumb to the temptation to pull up the grass, the fragile connecting root breaks and the next nut sprouts. The nuts are interwoven in the bermuda roots, and the interconnecting nut grass roots are so thin that uprooting an entire plant is nearly impossible. You'll dig up all the nut grass, and three days later your garden will look exactly as it did before you started. So powerfully alive is this stuff that gardeners have a standard line, "Stand there long enough and the nut grass will grow right through your foot."

I decided to sift my dirt. This decision helped to confirm my position in the community as an eccentric, as if an organic approach wasn't enough. Nobody at the garden center had ever sifted their dirt or seen any gardner sift dirt. They'd see me out in the middle of an open field ("out-standing in my field," you might say) putting dirt through a screen and they thought I was just some simpleminded fool looking for gold. A number of visits from older gardners made me think that's exactly what they thought.

The sifting went slowly, especially early on when I was manually pushing dirt through a screen stretched across a wooden frame. It took me a week to sift a patch the size of my bathroom. The pace provided the time and the motivation to come up with a faster way of doing things. I cut the sides out of a big plastic trash can and lined it with hardware cloth. Then I built a set of tilted rollers on a frame so I could spin the barrel like a cement mixer. This was a big improvement. The sifter shook the dirt loose. The half-inch mesh trapped the johnson and bermuda, and the nut grass tended to stay tangled in the bermuda.

Welcome company and my animal familiar was a bluebird whom I named Junior. He was the one tenant who never gave me any bad advice. I don't mean to imply that Junior was a benevolent spirit who came to sing and relieve my monotony. He was in it for the grubs that my sifter turned up, and I was under no other misapprehension. Likely in his bluebird-centric universe he thought I was working for him. "Can you believe it? He's throwing out the grubs. Perfectly good grubs! Truly we must be God's chosen birds!"

Junior and his mate built a nest in a bluebird house about fifty yards from my garden. They apparently had several nests built in the area, because I'd see them fly from this spot to that spot, spending about ten to twenty minutes at a post and then moving maybe a hundred yards to another post. While they were away, I'd be turning up grubs, tossing them onto a hard bare spot in a neighbor's garden so there'd be a little pile of juicy white grubs waiting when Junior and the Mis'res came by on their rounds.

If both birds showed up together, or if Junior arrived first, Junior would fly down to the bare spot, eat two or three grubs himself and then begin ferrying grubs one by one to the female, perched maybe twenty feet away. If the female arrived first, she would fly right down to that little pile of grubs and start making noise. I watched her sit by a pile of grubs for about three minutes one day, just calling and calling until Junior showed up to pick them up and put them in her mouth. I saw her pick up grubs for herself, but it was very uncommon. She just about always waited for Junior to feed her.

I sifted dirt from March 1 to May 1 whenever the weather allowed and ended up planting 30 by 50 feet. The day I finished sifting, I got an anonymous e-mail containing a link to a website that sold worm harvesters. A worm harvester is almost identical to the rig I had invented except it's bigger, it's motorized, and had I rented one for a week I could have done all 2500 square feet.

Gardeners and golfers keep the economy going. There's always some useless new gizmo and peculiar new mutant cucumber to buy. Now that I was going to have all the space in the world, I went to the seed catalogs and really overdid it. I bought twenty varieties of hot peppers and twenty varieties of tomatoes, three varieties of squash (which I don't even like) and some exotic watermelon seeds. I eat maybe two watermelons a year. What made me decide to grow a couple dozen in my hard-won garden is something I can't quite explain.

It probably an oedipal thing. My old dad is about the world's foremost expert on watermelon, and he was growing watermelon, so I was going to compete with him even if it wasn't really practical for me to do so. I made a lot of bad decisions about what to plant in my garden last year; but here it is in the middle of winter, the seed catalogs have been appearing in the mailboxes, and I've already bought enough seed to plant ten times the space I've got. A turn of the celestial crank has made me not measurably wiser.

Junior's nest was taken over by a chickadee. I watched him run the chickadee off time and again throughout March and April; but bluebirds are shy and when the garden got busy with roaring tillers and pickup trucks long about the first of May, Junior and the Missus probably decided to lay their eggs at a site with less traffic, so the chickadee got the nest.

Jean keeps five gardens near mine. She's twice my age so she has twice the energy. She got it into her head that putting a mirror on top of the bluebird box would chase away the chickadee. No birds showed up while she was there because the box is right in the middle of her garden, but while I was sifting dirt I heard a persistent "tonk -- tonk -- tonk." I'd look up and there was Junior's mate flapping like a maniac and banging her head against that mirror. I talked Jean into taking the mirror down. It wasn't doing what she thought.

A gardener's first year is all about making mistakes and I started right in by setting my cauliflower too close together. They looked great right up until the cabbage worms got them, but they never formed heads. In order to keep from admitting to my neighbors that I had made a mistake I planted everything else too close together as well. I see that tendency played out time and again in the larger world. We shoot ourselves in the foot and then say, "I meant to do that. And just to prove it... kerpow!" The most absurd example, as usual, is the Middle East. No matter how many times a policy fails, they'll be doing it again tomorrow.

Around planting time there emerged an informal conspiracy of older gardeners. I'm not sure what effect they were trying to have, but they all came by and told me the same story. The first story was that at harvest time, people would come around and steal produce. For about a week, the older farmers filed by and told me tales about showing up one morning and their day's crop of squash would be gone. My dad even dropped by and told me this story, apparently forgetting that this was his first year as well and last year he had no crop to steal.

So after they all took their turn telling me the squash story, they came up with a watermelon story (raccoons eat half the crop, they said) and they took turns telling me that one. Amazingly consistent, these stories, and there were more of them in their turns. Either the same thing happened to everybody, or the event happened only once and with frequent retelling the older gardeners put themselves center stage. I've also known it to happen that a storyteller will relate a third person story in the first person to make his point seem more credible, immediate, important or urgent. If everybody does this with the same story, though, it just creates a surreal feeling.

On the other hand, maybe there's some use to this foolishness. From repitition I know the stories now as well as the old guys who ground me down with them. If I'm making chit chat with somebody at the garden center, and he doesn't answer my stock comment with one of the stock comments of his own, I'll know he's not one of us and maybe he doesn't belong here. He might be the guy who took the squash.

For the record I lost not one melon or squash to varmints four legged or two, unless you count my dad, who had permission.

You've got to be careful about advice the older gardeners give you, especially your first year. They think there's nothing more fun than getting you to ruin your own crop. I'm going to let you in on one of them.

The old gardener tells you that you can get an early start with your tomatoes if you'll plant them in a nest of grass clippings. The grass clippings will compost and warm the roots, allowing for faster growth in cool early spring weather. Sounds logical doesn't it? The fact is that tomato roots won't grow through that layer of clippings and you'll end up with stunted little bonsai tomato plants about a foot high.

It seems to be against the rules to let your victim starve, so the guy who tricks you will come around at harvest time to offer you all the tomatoes you could possibly need. Accepting these tomatoes is a gesture acknowledging that there are no hard feelings and it is after all only a game. On the other hand, this gift has a bitter edge to it, as it starkly juxtaposes your failure with the success of the guy who screwed you. By accepting those tomatoes you are really eating crow, symbolically stating your dependency on the guy who tricked you.

I fell for some tricks and I did not fall for others. I wonder about the end of the game, though. I'd like to know how to make it stop, because losing outright would be less annoying than continuing. Sometimes I think that once I fall (or pretend to fall) for the whole trick menu, maybe they'll move on. On the other hand, that might just encourage them. Right now I'm betting that they'll give up when some new gardener comes along who is greener than I am.

As with most social games, this one is explained away as an instructive dramatic ritual. The tricksters will tell you the lesson learned is that the gardner should keep his own counsel and take advice sparingly from those who have no interest in your success. This lesson was lost on me. What I learned is that your friends are more damaging to you than your enemies. Don't trust them and don't believe them. I'm a little simpleminded so I formulated a conclusion that incorporated only the data.

(More to come. I'll be adding to and editing this piece throughout the month of January, 2003, in case anybody likes watching the process and evolution of a written thang.)

RTJ--1/7/2003

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