I’m a Master Gardener…In My Mind

I have this vision of myself as a master gardener, taming the wild jungle with clever permaculture methods to provide plentiful food for my family: twining our native spinach creeper and yard beans around my garden fence, covering the empty ground with sweet potato vines, taking advantage of warm weather to grow eggplants year round.

20160612_140736-001.jpgAnd to be fair to myself, I have done all of these things.

Well…to be more accurate…I’ve attempted all of these things.

My gardening season always starts off promising…and then it’s all downhill from there.

You know how all your friends post pictures of the new garden beds they dug in May? That’s totally me! I get out there and dig up a storm, I’ve usually got BIG garden plans when the rains start.

And then you know how in August your friends will post the pictures of the giant squash and shiny tomatoes and plants just loaded down with the fruits of their labor? By that time my plants have rotted back into the jungle that’s reclaimed them, and I’m drinking wine on my deck while resolutely not looking in the direction of the garden wreckage.

Design and plans and hard work setting something up? I’m totally there! Follow-through with weeding, fertilizer, pest control? You lost me.

The most baffling part is that horticultural laziness does not run in my family.

On top of being an amazing public historian, an excellent writer, and one of the genuinely kindest people I know, my mom is also kind of a domestic goddess. When she and my dad became Back-to-the-Landers and moved to the woods of north Idaho in the early seventies, my dad brought a rusty shotgun and a brand-new chainsaw, and my mom brought a handed-down recipe for baked porcupine and a shiny trowel. Together they managed to build shelter, and out of the earth my mom began to conjure food. She tells stories of early failures, but I suspect those are my mom’s thoughtful attempts to downplay her Super Powers for us poor humans. Ever since I can remember, my mom has always grown a gigantic vegetable garden as well as gorgeous flower beds, and all of it is a perennial success. In my childhood, this work yielded a pantry full of brightly colored jars of preserved goods; and in her “retirement” it now yields a freezer full of berries and greens, shelves of potatoes and squash, and an entire fridge devoted to fresh carrots to last all winter.

Given these genetics, one would think I should be able to grow food, but I fail every time.

Look! I made chutney once! From ingredients I totally did *not* grow myself

I blame my failure on Más-o- menos-ismo – the philosophy I ascribe to that says following instructions is totally unnecessary and possibly detrimental to the creative process, and that más o menos, more or less, is good enough. This has led to many culinary disasters (what difference can 2 tsp or 2 Tb really make?), abysmal grades in chemistry class, and general havoc when my mom tried to teach me to sew my own clothes (like I said, domestic goddess). While I could envision the frock I would make – I certainly don’t lack imagination, or even general design principles – my mom could never get me understand on a visceral level the importance of sewing even and straight seams. I preferred to keep a 1 inch margin and sew as fast as I my little legs could carry me (like all good Back-to-the-Landers we had a treadle machine). If the sewing began to waver, I’d close my eyes to pretend I didn’t see it and race onward. This practice rarely improved the sewing, but did save me having to stop and correct course before finishing the seam. Let’s just say that at this stage, I’m well acquainted with a seam ripper.

So when it comes to gardening, I not only love the idea of gardening, I even relish the donkey work of gardening (this weekend despite the residual effects of the latest tropical mosquito-born affliction, chikungunya, giving me joint pain of an 85-year-old arthritic, I dug up a big “flower” bed by the house and planted it with lemon grass and a hearty oregano). But I am beginning to suspect that I shouldn’t be the one in charge. Because rather than actually learning anything about soil composition, I just mix in a couple handfuls of the dirt I get from somewhere in the vicinity of my compost pile (and by compost pile I don’t mean any scientific mixture of the right components, I mean the part of the yard where we throw our rotten fruit and leave it. Period).

Then because I don’t actually know anything, I just kind of close my eyes and will the plants to magically grow.

Mostly they don’t. They wither and die, or grow promisingly at first and then suddenly rot, or never bear fruit, or do bear that fruit but it gets eaten by something else before we can get to it.

Luckily, my eternal optimism allows me to ignore experience, and by the time this year’s garden is in shambles, I’ll be enjoying a glass of wine on my deck, and already planning next year’s garden.



  1. Oh my goodness. I found myself nodding the whole way through this post. Your mom definitely has super powers. I feel the same way about my parents, mostly dad, when it comes to growing things (he went into the wrong profession; should’ve stuck with greenhouse and plant-y work). I don’t remember the last time you were at their house, but maybe you remember the big gardens and orchard.

    Currently, I have an unplanted, partially hoed and shoveled rectangle of dirt in my backyard that I’ve been saying I will plant for, um, two months now. It still hasn’t happened. I don’t really get it, time just seems to slip away so fast. I actually like digging in the dirt and the idea is so, well, pleasant. In reality, I think I might be a little to too lazy to see a garden to perfect fruition. I’m doing well if I end the season with one zucchini and one tomato that have taken over the entire plot. 😉


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