It’s nearly spring, so it’s time for my wife and I to be humiliated by vegetables again. Other people might call it gardening, but that wouldn’t really capture the flavor of what my wife and I accomplish. You see, between the two of us, we haven’t got enough green to make even a single tiny thumb. Trying is a tradition though; it keeps us humble, if not fed.
It started the year we moved into our house. We were young and excitable, so we wanted to do all of the things we hadn’t been able to do in our old apartment. When we saw our yard, my wife thought it would be fun and economical to grow some of our own food. It turned out to be neither, but it was certainly memorable.
Our first problem was what I’ll call “broad spectrum ignorance.” Neither of us had really tried to garden before, if you ignore the sorts of childhood efforts that our parents secretly tended. Moreover, we’re not originally from the region where we live, so we didn’t know anything about what might grow here. I’m from a place where people grow sand and despair; my wife is from a place where people grow investments. Vegetables were new. I’m sure it didn’t help that we chose seeds at random.
Then we had to buy dirt, which is one of the more surreal things I’ve ever had to do. Usually, when it comes to dirt, I’m trying to get rid of it. Suddenly I felt like a hypocrite, like I had been rude to all this dirt but now had to be nice to it again. Not surprisingly, before returning to my dubious hospitality, it wanted money.
Dirt’s forgiveness does not come cheap, for the record. Also, dirt comes in too many varieties for someone like me. I like things to be straightforward, but we saw half a dozen different brands, and each company emblazoned its dirt with impressive sounding qualities that might as well have been fantasy superpowers. I understood that it came in fifty pound bags; I can deal with weight. As for the rest, I didn’t even know what “homeopathic earth” was, much less whether I wanted it, and I’m pretty sure that some of the words were imaginary. Did I want to buy the dirt with “bioeffusive carboxyl-nitrates” or did I want to report it to the Center for Disease Control? There was no way to know.
For the record, the helpful people at the store told me to buy “the green bag.” I’m not joking. Apparently all the words were a ruse; I was just supposed to choose the one that best matched the color I was hoping to produce. I should have chosen the gold bag, now that I think of it. I could have been rich.
Unfortunately, the alternative to buying high-tech dirt was to use what we already had in our yard. I wasn’t an expert and there were no fancy labels, but I knew that our yard’s variety only qualified as dirt in the loosest sense. It would have been better called “brick” for two reasons. First, it was red and hard, which wasn’t helpful but also wasn’t particularly strange, I suppose. Second though, it was filled with actual bricks.
Apparently whoever built our house wanted to see if buildings could be grown like trees, so they planted bricks like seeds. They buried them everywhere, perhaps in the hopes of starting an entire neighborhood. Our house was fifteen years old when we bought it however, and none had sprouted yet. Maybe if I hadn’t dug them all up, in a few decades we’d have had a garage, or at least birdbath.
I did dig them up though, and diligently planted an array of vegetables instead. What followed was a tragedy in three acts.
Act 1: Attack of the Cucumbers
Somehow we overlooked the fact that cucumbers grow on vines. It’s possible that we thought they would grow in nicely organized grocery store displays. Sure, when our garden was first sprouting, we saw that they were vibrant and floppy, but we had just had a baby so “vibrant and floppy” didn’t seem unusual. We just figured that they would learn to stand eventually, like our daughter would. (In retrospect I realize that this analogy is horrifying. What if they had learned to crawl?)
Then they started growing faster than everything else, and not exclusively the things in our garden. They started growing faster than everything in the entire history of humanity. At times I thought I heard them laugh maniacally.
They took over the garden. They claimed the surrounding yard. They even started advancing down the hill toward the cows, clearly less intimidated than I was by the mysterious fence. I think they even managed to express longing, as though they were craving meat. We’d managed to produce the world’s first carnivorous cucumbers. It was pretty scary.
They also outnumbered us. Each vine produced enough cucumbers for us to harvest fresh ones every day, and we had three vines. They started to pile up, and we couldn’t give them away fast enough. People would come to visit, and we would ask, “Can I get you something to drink? Would you like a cucumber?” I think we got a certain unflattering reputation, but we were too overwhelmed to care.
Act 2: The Pathetic Carrot Miracle
Not surprisingly, we thought that the cucumber menace had smothered the rest of our garden. We were delighted when we discovered carrots. To understand the quiet lunacy of our carrot situation however, you need to know something a little embarrassing about my wife: she thought that carrots grew in bunches, like grapes. We had planted three cucumber vines, not realizing that each would turn into a monster. We had only planted four carrots, not realizing that each one would stay a single carrot.
Still, it was exciting to find them beneath the carpet of cucumbers, and we interceded to protect them as best we could. It’s difficult to explain how desperate we were for them to grow. For a while I think I nurtured them at least as well as I nurtured my daughter. In fact, I might have started watering my daughter too, as an act of solidarity. We had a carrot anthem and everything. (I might be slightly exaggerating, but probably not as much as you think.)
I’m not sure what our hope was; even four of the best carrots won’t go very far, and ours were pretty clearly never the best. In fact, it’s embarrassing to call them carrots at all. When the time came to pick them–or uproot them, or whatever one does to carrots–we discovered that they were basically a sham. (I suspect that the cucumbers might have created them to mock us.) The biggest of them was about three inches long and gnarled like an angry tree stump. One of them had no carrot at all; it was just a leafy top on some vaguely orange thread.
Act 3: The Wealth of Rotten Tomatoes
Then our cucumbers died. Rather like Martian invaders, their weakness was disease. They caught some nefarious cucumber fungus. At first it didn’t even slow them down, just made them hideous, but it killed them eventually. (The rest of the yard threw a little party, like the Ewoks at the end of Return of the Jedi.)
That was when we discovered the tomato plants. Perhaps as a way of surviving the cucumber hegemony’s oppression, they had blended in. As soon as the cucumbers were overthrown, they started to thrive. It was gloriously triumphant, like we’d survived a real ordeal as opposed to having merely outlasted some vegetables.
Unfortunately, our tomato plants didn’t start to bear fruit. I guess they were shy. We certainly watched them enough to make even the most secure plant feel self-conscious. As the weeks passed, they grew taller and more luscious, but fruitlessly. Summer passed; fall started; we exhausted our cucumber supply. Still we had no tomatoes.
Everything changed in an instant. Little flowers turned to bulging green orbs and my wife and I could have thrown a party. At least, we could have thrown a party had we not discovered that our weakness was also disease. Just as our tomatoes were finally coming in, my wife and I both got severe bronchitis.
It wiped us out for about a month and a half. Maybe we were part of the problem too though, because during that time, they caught a bit of the cucumber’s zeal. They produced so many tomatoes that their branches sagged down to the ground and covered it with gorgeous fruit.
My wife and I never got to see that though; we were too sick. Instead we got to see the sunken shriveled husks of a hundred rotten tomatoes in a pile where our garden used to be.
So our first garden was pretty much a disaster all around, except for the three months when no one we knew needed to buy cucumbers. I can’t say that we’ve necessarily learned a lot since then.
Still, we’re all set to start afresh in a couple of days. We’ve bought more dirt, selected our seeds with the help of some informative local gardening resources, and I have an axe in the event that anything gets out of hand. If my posts suddenly stop mid-summer though…. Well, tell my family that I love them and find a vegan to lead the search party.