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Adventures In The Vegetable Garden

This is an entry in this month’s contest “What Inspired You To Start Growing Your Own Food?”.  Be sure to rate this article!

I was not raised to be a gardener. It’s not that I didn’t like plants; I went to sleep on warm summer nights surrounded by the fragrance of the honeysuckle under my bedroom window and helped my mom water the pots of ivy that filled our home. Next door, my grandmother had beautiful beds full of rose bushes and irises. Elephant ears grew in the backyard and the shade of the pecan trees made the patio a heavenly place often filled with the laughter of children. Grandma kept a small kitchen garden behind the fenced yard and we grew up eating fresh vegetables that sometimes we helped pick. But me, a gardener? No way! I was going to be a singer or raise race horses. I couldn’t be bothered with grubbing around in the dirt pulling weeds …

Even after I got married, I wasn’t interested in gardening. We bought a house with a bed full of “can’t-kill-it-if-you-try” Purple Jew by the front door and sometimes I actually remembered to water it. And sometimes I didn’t. It grew anyway and most of the time I ignored it.

Then I had kids and got on a do-it-yourself kick. I made my own baby food, bought a meat grinder so I could turn marked-down roasts into lean ground meat and had dozens of books on cooking, canning and, of course, raising your own vegetables.

That’s the year I decided I wanted a vegetable garden. I searched seed catalogs for months finding and ordering the perfect seeds – tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach and watermelon. The seeds began arriving toward the end of March, but the kids were sick and it wasn’t until the last week of April that I actually got around to picking a spot in the backyard for the garden.

“This is perfect,” I told my husband. “The dirt’s got to be great – I mean, look at it. You haven’t mown in a couple of weeks and the weeds are six feet tall.”

“Uh, yeah. Whatever you say, babe.” My husband, raised on a dairy farm in Ohio, smiled indulgently and spent the weekend building a fence to keep inquisitive toddlers and bouncing dogs from the soon-to-be bountiful garden.

On Monday he went back to work. Having just started his own business, it was a couple of weeks before he had a chance to help me again. It was mid-May before he had a chance to rent a tiller.

I watched him churn the hot, hard Texas soil into what I just knew was going to be a fabulous home for the seeds that had earlier arrived in the mail. He made another trip around the bed with the tiller and then another, grinding in some goat manure that I had located and hauled home in plastic trash bags. When he was done, he looked at the dirt and scratched his head.

“I don’t know, honey. I don’t garden, but this soil looks like it might need some more work and the weather’s going to be getting real hot soon – you might should have started this garden a bit earlier.”

“Oh, Matt, it’ll be fine. If it gets too hot, I’ll just have to give the plants a little extra water and TLC. How hard can it be? I remember watching Grandma – gardening’s easy.”

So began my first vegetable garden. I read the directions on the seed packets, carefully measuring the depth and how far apart the seeds needed to be placed. I kept the soil moist, no easy feat in the early summer in Texas and watched eagerly for the first sign of leaves to poke through the soil.

A few days later I excitedly greeted Matt as he walked in the door from work, “Honey, quick! Come look, you’ve got to see this …”

The plants were growing! Overnight, it seemed, I had a hundreds of tiny plants and I was soon planning menus around the not-yet-harvested vegetables. What I had failed to realize was how hard it can be for an inexperienced gardener to raise a successful crop of vegetables in the cruel heat of a Texas summer.

Purely by luck, I had planted part of the garden where it was shaded from the hot afternoon sun, so early on we actually got some lettuce and spinach. It tasted great. The okra was growing nice and tall. The tomato plants actually had small, marble-sized tomatoes on them. The watermelon vines were spreading themselves happily through and around the rest of the plants and I let them go, just stepping over them to water and weed.

And then it got hot … really, really hot. I tried to compensate for the heat by watering, in the heat of the day of course, to help cool off the plants. The spinach and the lettuce were the first casualties of the brutal Texas sun. And with the blistering heat even the shade couldn’t help. The spinach just wilted and died. The lettuce seemed to spring up three feet overnight, before it turned tough as rubber. It, too, soon died. The tomatoes lasted a little longer – I think we got about 2 dozen tomatoes out of the garden before the sun baked the poor, now-bedraggled looking plants.

I did manage to grow a lot of okra. There was only one problem – I was the only one in the family who liked it. By this time I had lost my enthusiasm for the garden anyway and I let most of the okra go to seed.

So much for me having a garden … until we moved to Ohio.

****************

“The weather’s cooler up here and this is really good dirt – just look at this soil, honey.” Matt glanced my way somewhat sheepishly. “And besides, my parents EXPECT us to have a garden.”

I narrowed my eyes and frowned at him.

“And that’s MY problem? They’re YOUR parents. Nothing I do is going to make them happy anyway. And I’m just not good with plants – they don’t LIKE me; remember the last time I tried to grow a vegetable garden?”

“I think it was just too hot to grow vegetables in Texas – it’ll be better here, I promise. Your African Violets and the Norfolk Pine are doing great, even after moving them across the country. And besides, Dad’s already on the way over with the tractor and a truckload of manure.” He dodged the glass of ice tea I threw at him as he went out the door.

My father-in-law arrived with the tractor, his wife pulling in behind him with the promised truck load of manure. She & I stood on the deck above the backyard and watched as my husband and his dad first broke up the ground where the previous owner’s garden had been and then began plowing the manure into it. I smiled and tried to made polite chit-chat with my husband’s step-mother. She glared at me and made under-her-breath remarks about the ineptness of stupid city girls from Texas. Even after eight years of her disapproval over everything I did, it still hurt. Turning away from her hard eyes, I tried to ignore her by concentrating on the work going on below us. I watched as the tractor blades turned up huge swathes of the rich, black Ohio dirt. And soon, in spite of myself, I began to get excited by the prospect of the garden. Why you could practically smell the richness of the earth. Oh, wait, that was the cow sh… , uh, uh, manure …

So, I was to become a gardener once more.

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Matt was working forty to fifty hours a week at the steel mill, so the garden was to be all mine, whether I wanted it or not. He and his dad had plowed up and fertilized almost a quarter of an acre of soil – quite a bit of dirt for a non-gardening little girl from the suburbs. But remembering my step-mother-in-law’s disparaging remarks and scornful look, I determined that we WOULD have some vegetables to show her.

As soon as the kids got on the school bus Monday morning, I began working in the garden. As I planted the seeds I remembered the experience from my last garden and decided that I’d better plant extras, just in case. That way, even if most of it died, we’d still be able to show my in-laws fresh-from-my-garden vegetables. And it’s not like there wasn’t enough space. So I planted and I planted … And then I planted some more.

When the school bus dropped the kids off in front of the house I was sitting on the stairs that led up to the back deck. My hands were muddy, I had a smear of dirt across my nose and I smelled really, really bad. The kids laughed, sure it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Together we walked into the house – them for an after-school snack and me for a bath.

By the time Matt got home from work, I had showered, put on a sun-dress and was waiting for him on the porch swing. He put his lunch box on the ground and sat down beside me. I handed him a glass of lemonade (home-made, of course).

He took a big swallow and grinned.

“So … What did my wife do while I slaved in the mill all day?”

“Well, I worked in the garden a little,” I answered.

He pushed the swing with a lazy foot while he finished his lemonade. Then he put his glass down and nodded.

“So show me …”

We walked back to the garden.

He looked at the rows of tomato plants, broccoli, asparagus and onion starts (all bought from the nursery, instead of started from seeds) and the row after row of dark, empty dirt.

“So what’s going to be in this row?” he pointed to the seemingly-empty row closest to the front.

“That’s red leaf lettuce,” I said proudly.

“The whole row?” he asked.

“Yep.”

He nodded solemnly as he pointed to the next row. “And this one?”

“That’s butter head lettuce.”

He frowned.

“And this row is …?”

“Oh, I can’t remember which kind that row is …” I scrunched up my forehead in frustration. “It’s, uh, …”

“More lettuce?” he asked.

“Yes, but I can’t remember what kind it is.”

He looked at me with an amused and somewhat puzzled smile.

“How many rows of lettuce did you plant today, honey?” he asked, trying hard not to grin.

“Well, five, I think. And three rows of spinach – two kinds. I’ve got it written down in the house somewhere.”

“So you planted five whole rows of lettuce and three of spinach, all on the same day …”

I shrugged. “Well, some of it’s not going to come up, you know. And plants just don’t like me, so I just thought I’d better plant a little extra.”

My explanation was drowned out by his uncontrolled laughter.

He put his arm around my waist and led me back toward the house.

“It’s ok, babe. I just hope we don’t get tired of salad …”

***********************************

By the time the lettuce was ready to eat, we had a barn full of rabbits, had acquired several young goats, and three piglets. Every day for several weeks they got to enjoy whole heads of lettuce that the kids fed them by the handful.

And yes, in spite of sharing the bounty of the garden with our extended family of livestock, we all got really, really tired of eating salad.

************************************

Now, thirty years later I’m back in Texas; children grown, with a different husband, different dogs and wonderful grandchildren. I smile when I think of those earlier attempts at gardening, and though I’ve still got a lot to learn about gardening in the Texas summer’s heat and low water conditions, I’m proud to say I provided lots of peppers, squash, watermelon, okra and tomatoes for our extended family’s tables last year. This year I’m experimenting with some new veggies and new techniques, as well as having purchased a dehydrator and a pressure canner. I can’t wait to see what the garden provides this year.

The prize for the winner of this months contest is valued at $100 and includes a copy of the “Grow Your Own Groceries” video set, “Alternatives To Dentists” video set, and 3 months of free membership in the Core Community.  If you want to enter this month’s contest, write an essay on “How You Got Started Growing Food” and submit it here at this link: http://growyourowngroceries.org/contribute-here/

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