The end of May gave me pneumonia. The end of June gave me raspberries, stuff growing from the ground we could actually eat, ducklings, and a broody hen. Everything that happened in between? Let’s just put it behind us and move on.
After the “coldest, wettest spring ever”, May brought the sun and the heat and squeezed all the wetness out. Where we had only ever known mud, dry ground and grass filled in the girls’ well worn paths.
“Mother’s Day,” everyone told me from day one, “Mother’s Day is when you plant the garden.” I had impatiently waited 6 whole months, my longest non-planting stretch in 10 years without a newborn as an excuse, poking at the ground, squeezing hopeful, premature mud-balls, drawing charts and graphs, doing all the things around the garden, waiting for the day I could grow anything. I played with soil testing kits, I dutifully checked the temperature of the dirt.
(Now, if you’re from the north, and you’re a good gardener, you’re reading this going, “Well of course you did. This is what gardening is. Why is she whining?” But if you’re like me, and from the south, you’re like, “She checked the temperature of the what? How does a person even do that?” I know. It’s weird. They make a thing.)
Everyone was right. Mother’s Day arrived and conditions to grow things in the garden were perfect.
Conditions to grow things were right everywhere.
The earth, bombarded by 14+ hours of sunlight, goes a little insane. As a gardener and amateur naturalist, of course I had been paying some attention to life beyond the borders of my vegetable patch. Of course I’d made my kids sketch the drooping maple blossoms and the ferns as they uncurled. We watched in feigned horror as the blackberry shoots pressed up into the yard, and cheered heartily when Dado ran them over with the mower. I googled new things every morning, trying to decide if something was a weed or just another kind of geranium (it was often both, but once it was a calla lily).
Turns out that everything that’s so lovely and interesting to watch grow in March and April will swallow you whole in May.
By the time I figured out what everything was, it was clear that May was about six weeks too late for figuring to be very helpful. Weeds that were two inches high in April were two feet high in May. Grass that had just barely begun to wake up in March needed to be mowed three times a week in May (yes, you could sit on the porch and watch it grow).
From sun-up (4 something) to sundown (10 something), I fussed with the farm, stopping only to visit the chiropractor 3 times a week. We crammed school into a couple hours midmorning, then did the rest outside. When my body had to stop, I was in my notebooks, farming on paper. Whether with the pitchfork or the pen, I was digging, mowing, pulling, hauling just to keep up. It was the first time I had the thought, “My goals might be a little aggressive.”
But toward the of May, despite the shocking heat wave that helped us discover yet another way we could become millionaires in the PNW (after the breakfast taco stand), ceiling fan stand, I was feeling genuinely optimistic. I’d cleared and hand tilled three of the five beds, weeded the raspberries, blueberries (where I’d found rogue asparagus!), and grapes, skimmed two ponds, hauled 22 loads of compost, and planted the first round of summer crops. I was going to make it after all!
And then I got pneumonia.
Now the photos:
The garden in early May. Note how it looks like I’ve done absolutely nothing. This is a lie. The results of my mulch experiments are pretty obvious (never -don’t- mulch, maple leaves were best):
The garden on Mother’s Day. All the dry, workable soil ready for planting. Everything unworked is still very wet. Soil temps under cover just barely at 55 degrees:
Lest you think I do it all alone:
A morning hunt. The population reduced radically once the soil was worked and cleared:
Sweet Duck on the job. By the end of the month she was sitting on a nest. Look for updates on that soon:
It was all going so well:
Zeal without knowledge is not good — how much more will hasty feet miss the way! Proverbs 19:2
I spent my childhood spring breaks and summers on my grandmother’s farm in Arkansas, snapping beans and canning tomatoes, locking chickens under the house to spare them from the axe. Her place was a lot like the one I have now — a house in the middle of a few acres, a big garden, red barn, ponds, even a creek with a little bridge, all surrounded by evergreen. Only difference was the color of the dirt.
The year we got married, Bryan bought me dirt of my own, two 1×3 foot plastic flower boxes for the fire escape on our apartment on S.Mathilda in Pittsburgh. Drawing upon my lifetime of gardening experience, I grew three very small inedible carrots.
Baffled by my failure, I did what the Browns always do next: built a library. I cleared out all the Half-Price Books in Western PA and by the time I’d read every book on gardening in the northeast, we moved back to Texas.
Drunk on my theoretical expertise, my Texas garden was slightly more ambitious, four 4×4 and two 4×8 foot raised beds in the front yard of our house in Smithville. By this time I was home with my first baby, and I parked her in a playpen on the shady front porch while I slaved over my perfectly mixed soil, picked off every last stinkbug, patched up squash stems after carving out vine borers, and trapped slugs with beer. She almost choked to death more than once on Japanese beetles who are mysteriously drawn to babies in cages. I, along with the majority of my brassicas, battled heat stroke as I figured out that “full sun” means something very different in Central Texas than in any of my pretty gardening books.
That year we ate arugula at every single meal, gave away 10,000 tomatoes, and never grew one single squash of any variety.
I dug my next garden on my hands and knees while pregnant with my second daughter. I ripped out a 20X4x15 foot section of Bermuda grass in the front yard of our house in Austin and built another raised bed (this one with some shade). Over the course of the next 7 years, that garden transformed over and over again, and eventually grew another two feet in either direction, and added two more 4×8 foot beds. Some years it was a spectacular scene — 15 foot tomatoes, pumpkins running halfway down the block, green beans for nine months straight, zinnias that made me weep for joy. Other years it was volunteer basil and Bermuda grass…again.
In truth, it wasn’t until maybe 4 years ago that I had any idea what I was actually doing. The bulk of my gardening career has been assuming I could assimilate hundreds of years of gardening knowledge by skimming books and websites and just going for it. The year round growing season in central Texas, my husband’s endless patience and bottomless pockets, and my tireless zeal have made me very lucky.
So when I showed up here, I thought the garden would be the least of my worries. Ten years of urban, raised bed, central Texas gardening under my belt! Of course I know how to transfer that to a rural garden in a maritime northwest climate. How hard could it be to go from year round square foot gardening to a seasonal garden planted in deep rows of soil, cultivated over 25 years, that don’t dry out till Mother’s Day? (MOTHER’S DAY!)
I spent the first month in complete denial. “Maybe the Mother’s Day thing was just because they didn’t want to garden before May? Or maybe they were too stubborn to embrace different techniques that would extend the season? Too chained to old ways. Maybe the master gardener and landscape architect we bought the property from just haven’t read the same books I’ve read.”
I put the garden to bed in the late fall, tucked in the overwintering carrots and kale, pulled the onions to dry in the barn, and felt more confident than ever that I knew exactly what I was doing.
But then the sun disappeared. And the snow fell. And when it washed away in the rain my boots sunk down six inches between the rows when I went to pull the frostbitten broccoli to feed to the chickens. I stared out over the over the rows of corn I had just learned to chop with a machete I had just learned to hold, and realized I had no idea what a person plants after corn when there’s only one season per year for crop rotation, or where one would plant that corn this year so that it doesn’t block the rest of the garden when the angle of the sun is such a factor here. Angle of the sun? Oh, Lord, where are the science books? Where are WE?
I looked down at my boots, sunk into most beautiful mud I’d ever seen, at the kale and carrots, beet tops still going strong in November. I looked up at the sky, past the trees that towered higher than the buildings in the city I’d come from.
And I began to feel very small.
Not every garden is a fall garden, planted just in time for the cool fronts and rain. Most are spring and summer, needing constant care and attention, just the right cover at the right time. Most of my gardens are over exposed.
This garden got lucky. Right place, right time. I have done almost nothing. It has required so little energy and just look at it.
It is glorious! It is the product of all those years, I guess. All that fretting from the harder seasons when there wasn’t much left to eat.
Here’s (some of) what I learn from the garden:
The best work is done passionately and quickly. Grabbing hold of the moments I most want to do the work and making the time, forcing the time wide open so that it happens right there, right in the heat of my desire.
All the worry, trial and error, and late night reading over the years is cumulative. Every season is better and easier because of the work I put in the season before, or the one before that, or the one before that.
There is room for rest.This bed saw nothing but cats and bird seed for a full year while I was busy tending other things. It’s resilience, again, fruit of the labor of seasons past.
Most of the work is just observation. Just like children, the cells multiply all on their own, according to their unique design and purpose. A gardener just makes room, minimizes pests, and does her best to enrich and protect the magic. We don’t create, we just make space.
Why my garden makes me want to write:
The only words that ever get written are the ones that have been given space. Plant all the ideas in a wide open bed and something will come up. Something will sprout. Identify the sprouts, figure out what they need, and give it to them as best you can. Most will wither in the sun or be eaten by something in the night, but a few might make it. Mostly the ones you didn’t worry so much about.
You will delight in them because they seem to grow all on their own, almost for your pleasure. They aren’t work, they are well placed accidents. And then you will take a picture and post it on the Internet because you are so proud, and every one will be so impressed with you. On the inside, you will be unsteady and embarrassed, ashamed because you didn’t really do this. You were just a witness. It just grew in the space you made.
And then one day you will eat it.
You will cut the stalk and wash off the dirt, toss it into a hot pan with bacon and it will fill your belly.