Writer’s Note: It happens every year, without fail. After the doldrums of winter, the first hints of Spring stir the gardener in all of us. Enthusiasm overtakes common sense as we find ourselves haunting the garden centers in search of the “perfect” plants for our garden — before final frost.
Carol Ransom recently acquired two tomato plants — one cherry and one regular — that she had had no intention of buying. When I asked her why she had bought them, she said, “I just got caught up in the buying plants frenzy at the garden center! Did not go there for tomato plants!!! Will they grow? Tune in later.”
Someone once wrote a “recipe” for gardeners that I love: “Gardeners are one-part soil, two-parts water, three-parts wishful thinking.” Frankly, I think the “wishful thinking” part is the best part of all. After all, so long as there is hope, there is possibility — GP
Then and Now
I still remember my grandfather’s garden. When I was 9, our family moved to Kenilworth Plantation to live with Daddy Moore. He had stopped managing the place himself because of his age. He leased out the fields and watched carefully the work that was being done there.
The truth is, everyone watched as the crop cycle repeated itself year after year. Because I was new to the “country life”, I was especially fascinated by each stage of the cycle. Preparing the fields; planting, tending, and harvesting the crops; and then preparing the fields for their time of rest — I observed each one as together they marked the passage of time as surely as a beloved old clock.
The “gardener” in Daddy Moore continued stirring long after he gave up making field crops. He maintained his garden until shortly before his death with help from a man nearly as ancient as he was who wouldn’t give up on the garden, either.
John and Daddy Moore formed an unofficial partnership so that each could enjoy the pleasure of having something worthwhile to do every day. The fact that they were doing something that they both loved to do — growing vegetables — just made everything better for them both.
Every weekday morning during the gardening months, John would come to the back porch where my grandfather would be waiting in his rocking chair, smoking his first pipe of the day. There the two would talk in earnest about what needed to be done to move their “project” forward. They discussed the weather with a farmer’s reverence, and mined both the Farmer’s Almanac and their own experience to determine what should be planted when. I listened to those morning talks of temperature, rainfall, moon phases, and such. For a city girl, this was all a mystery.
Their garden was a full acre of carefully tended soil, fenced in to deter rabbits, deer, and any other thing that might decide to sample the crop. Daddy Moore and John moved the crops from place to place each year. That garden filled many tables — and was a source of both food and pride — for years.
the Only Dreamers
I wonder what Daddy Moore would think of today’s Potts garden? Although we didn’t grow vegetables (other than one year’s sad attempt at asparagus) for several decades after we married, when we acquired a lake lot the gardening instinct stirred. My brother, a gardener his entire life (and a good one), had some hope that I might succeed with the gardening venture.
He mailed me a copy of Square Foot Gardening (which he considered akin to the Bible in required reading) and offered to answer any questions. Jim — with the help of John Birdsong who located used railroad ties — created a large square foot garden plot at the lake, and the adventure began.
A small confession is in order. While I was thrilled to have the book, I did not read it carefully enough. As a result, enthusiasm overtook practical thinking and we made our garden too large. If I had read as carefully as I should have, instead of moving immediately to the chapter on how to plant a successful tomato crop, things would have been much easier.
For several years, we optimistically planted a vegetable crop. Every year we would plant tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, and crookneck squash; occasionally we would add another as an “experiment” — bush beans, pole beans, potatoes, garlic, and okra. Of these, our failures included the beans and squash, although both did produce some.
Our biggest failure was potatoes, something that I’m almost ashamed to admit since our neighbors grow them with ease. I say “almost ashamed” because I learned recently that one of our region’s truly talented gardeners, Farrar Crigler, can’t grow them either!
Although our plot was large, we never attempted corn. Vicki Boatwright shared a story about her dreams of a corn crop not long ago.
When she was a girl, Vicki adored “Indian” corn and saved some until spring to plant. She dreamed of producing her own bumper crop. She dug her row by hand (a much more tiring activity than she anticipated), and planted 3 kernels per hole (following the directions given to her class during their history lesson about Squanto and the Pilgrims).
Even though she didn’t have a dead fish to add like Squanto had, her enthusiasm didn’t waver. After digging 7 holes and filling them, Vicki was tired so she decided to put the whole ear of corn in at once, cob and all.
Later she told her grandfather what she had done, expecting him to beam with pride. Instead, he told her that she needed to put some fertilizer on each hole — and to resist setting the whole sack down in the field and hoping for the best! Incidentally, not one plant sprang up as a result of her toil.
for Container Gardens
After a decade of steadily diminishing joy from our too-large plot, last year we decided to try container gardening for our vegetables. The pandemic meant that we weren’t having visitors to wonder why there was a garden growing on our patio not would there be any witnesses if we failed.
We planted tomatoes, eggplants, and bell peppers. Immediately, we reaped tangible benefits — if not veggies. Weeding was quick, watering was easy, and reaching around each plant to tie-up branches took almost no effort at all.
Turns out we are not alone! There are container gardeners everywhere. Some limit their “crops” to herbs. Mary Katherine Berry has just planted basil and mint (in separate pots) using the “recipe” that John Birdsong gave her years ago — ¾ potting soil and ¼ Black Kow soil conditioner. Later she will add a little liquid fertilizer to promote growth.
Others, like the Bertrands and the Hansens, are “all in” using containers for everything. Dudley and Mary Bertrand plant tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, eggplant, and potatoes (!) in their containers. Dudley has a drip system for watering, so maintenance is low. Their only failure is cantaloupe — raccoons get them. Mary, a fine artist, laughs when she describes their different approaches to gardening. “I jump in with my two feet while he likes to plan things out,” she says. “The difference between an artist and an engineer!”
Steve and Pam Hansen also plant herbs in pots, but their favorite fertilizer — made from cottonseed — is no longer readily available. They grow vegetables in flower boxes and in their front yard. “Cucumbers and zucchini vines make a beautiful ground cover,” Pam explains. The couple use rebar to fashion circular cylinders to contain their tomatoes. It works especially well since they don’t have to stake their tomatoes because of the wire surround. As the tomato plants grow, they tie them up with strips of lady’s pantyhose. “Of course, people do look at Steve really funny when he goes out and buys 3 or 4 pairs of pantyhose!” Pam says.
The Garden of 2022
It is WAY too early to know if gardening efforts this spring will yield positive results. Still, each of us hopes. As Jim looks at the emerging plants, he says, “I see eggplant parmesan in there somewhere.” I’m watching a new tomato plant (an heirloom called Cherokee Purple) that was purchased by mistake early spring. I picked up a container of seedlings thinking I had all Creole Queens, but when I started to plant, I discovered that one was a Cherokee Purple.
Diane Paschell said that her best tomato crop ever was Cherokee Purple so I was encouraged. Then she added that her biggest garden failure was Cherokee Purple the next year — she only harvested three tomatoes from her two plants.
These are the times when I’m reminded of Greek philosopher Cicero (106-43 B.C.). Considered the greatest orator of the late Roman Republic, he wrote, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
If the crops fail, there’s always comfort to be found in a good book.