By Kay Howell – I don’t do flowers. As a child, my mom cordoned off a portion of her extensive flower garden so that I could grow my very own roses. She probably imagined that this would be a beautiful mother-daughter bonding experience, and the start of a gardening tradition that would continue for years. Within three weeks, the roses were mostly dead, crawling with aphids, and smelling strongly of resentment. For the next fifteen years, the only flowers I interacted with were the ones given to me by well-meaning dates, not realizing my complete inability to keep them alive (the flowers, not the dates).
Last summer, I discovered that I am not actually the killer of all green things. My boyfriend and I decided to try our hand at growing our own vegetables. Since we are both apartment-dwellers, we reserved a plot at the Urban Ecology Center’s Three Bridges Park in the Menomonee Valley. For the first month, most of our conversations went a little like this:
Him: Wow, look at all these seeds we’re planting!
Me: They’re all going to die.
Him: We’ll have fresh lettuce and tomatoes and peppers all summer long.
Me: They’re going to die, and every store-bought salad will taste like failure.
Him: Maybe we should get another plot for all the plants!
Me: Yeah, a cemetery plot!
But around June, something magical happened: the lettuce did not die. More than that, the tomatoes thrived, the peppers blossomed, and the cabbage…well, the cabbage mostly sat there and very slowly got bigger. But it did not die! By the end of the summer, we had annexed two additional plots, and had more alive plants than we knew what to do with.
Our little plants were far more resilient than I expected. Aside from the obvious lesson about trying things I’m afraid of, caring for them all summer long taught me a few other truths I can use even without a watering can in my hand:
- Don’t be afraid to trim off the dead bits.
At first, we treated our plants like delicate flowers. Even though the tomatoes were unruly, we were afraid of hurting them by trimming off their scraggly stalks and yellow leaves. So the tomatoes grew taller, and we grew more and more impatient. I was terrified of harming any of the plants, but they weren’t producing well and were growing out of control. Finally, one fateful afternoon, I grabbed the shears, told myself it was just like getting a haircut, and began lopping off all the scrawny, dead branches. Within a few days, the plants looked healthy, fully of buds, and frankly much happier. It should have been intuitive: of course the plants would do better when they weren’t pulled down by excess dead weight! I’d like to say that this inspired me to clean out my closet and rid myself of all unnecessary worldly items, but that’s taking it a bit far. However, my plants did remind me that getting rid of the unhealthy or unnecessary things in my life is scary at first, but actually good in the long run.
- Let it be.
My boyfriend loves squash. Our yellow squash plant was prolific, spreading gleefully across half a plot and ruthlessly shading the poor little cucumber seedlings in an obvious land grab. One weekend, we left the plants alone to go camping. To clarify, these were full-grown, mature plants. One would expect that they could take care of themselves for three whole days. But when we got back to check on them, the squash was deflated. Not wilted or dry, but looking like something had sucked the very life out of it. We finally discovered that our plot had been invaded by squash beetles. Despite giving the squash all my lovin’, the beetles killed it. So we admitted defeat, eventually uprooting the whole plant and sadly laying it to rest in the garden waste bin. While it was frustrating to watch our squash be taken over by the beetles, it was a good reminder for me that sometimes situations arise over which I have no control, and as in the case of the beetles, I just have to let it be.
- Blanch, freeze, repeat.
With the exception of the squash, our garden was very successful. The Chinese broccoli, Russian kale, a bok choy were especially productive, yielding more food than we could possibly hope to eat in just one short summer. Despite July and August being the hottest and most humid months of the year, I spent several afternoons in my kitchen, blanching pot after pot of fresh greens. The summer sweat paid off: now I have a freezer stocked full of delicious homegrown veggies. Caring for my garden reminded me that it’s important to save up when you have plenty, because seasons change. Even in the dead of winter, it’s been wonderful to have my summer veggies for dinner whenever I want.
I’m definitely not a master gardener, although I am looking forward to having another vegetable plot next summer. And I also learned a few truths about compost and fertilizer…ask me if you’re curious (and have a strong stomach)!