You’ve no doubt heard cliché quips about the stress-relieving blessings of having your own garden. I want to know, compared to what? A day at the beach or in the mountains? Kicking back with a brew on a deck overlooking the river? Listening to music or dancing? Sunbathing on your own deck? Reading a book?
Maybe you’re one of the newbies who decided the year of Covid, with its upsets to the food chain, would be a good time to lay in your first home produce. Welcome, and good luck. Now, for the learning curve.
Veteran gardeners to some degree enjoy what they do, the way any obsessive does, and the activity does provide a common topic for conversation with an in-crowd, or one that’s “in” at the moment. Otherwise, it’s usually old folks looking for some diversion.
Either way, don’t consider relaxation to be among the benefits.
Here are ten reasons gardening is going to raise your blood pressure instead.
- Weeds. You can never stay ahead of them, especially if you’re growing organically, which is your ethical alternative. I could do a long list of these nasty invaders alone. Weeding usually comes down to triage, depending on your available time and anger.
- Weather. It’s either too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry, and not just for the plants. For you, too, when you’re out there. And watering, in our city, costs a fortune.
- Woodchucks. They can mow down your beds overnight. Squirrels, as a subcategory, can also take quite a toll. Even our beloved birds can wipe out most of our berries.
- Garden slugs. We have clay soil, and the slimy (expletives) proliferate, taking bites out of everything in their path. You should see what they do to strawberries, for starters, as well as the tomatoes.
- Heartbreak. Something you’re really anticipating instead croaks prematurely. There’s always at least one sacrificially crop each year. Sometimes it’s a perennial that died off over the winter. Sometimes, something entirely new.
- Heavy harvests. Crops that survive usually roll in like a flood. How much zucchini can you eat at once? Do you really have time to home can or freeze the rest? How much can you actually give away? You bring it inside and watch it start rotting on a kitchen counter, which points back to Heartbreak.
- Skeeters, sunburn, and bleeding scratches. Remember, those raspberry and currant bushes have stickers, as do the roses … especially the wild roses that pop up as stubborn weeds. They’re not alone, either.
- Your knees and back. You’re not doing sets of hatha yoga asanas while you’re out there, often in cramped spaces where you’re trying hard not to crush the plants around you. Plus, you’re getting older. Let’s not overlook all those muscles you didn’t know you have, or the ones you wish you still did.
- Long lines and crowds at the nursery. Even if you order your seeds from your favorite catalogs at the beginning of January, something’s going to be out of stock. Besides, you’ll need something, maybe six-packs of a plant that died under your grow lamps or a bag of vermiculite, which means heading to the greenhouse same time everyone else is. Circling around the parking lot just trying to find a spot is a huge aggravation.
- Expenses. Even without factoring in the cost of your own time (I argue it’s not free), you’ll find that your produce and flowers can be pretty costly. Yeah, you’re already paying property tax, but don’t overlook that when you’re being realistic … that’s part of the reason you bought or rent a place with some ground, right? Good tools aren’t cheap, either (now where did you last see that trowel you need now or the nozzle to the hose?), and cheap tools break pretty fast. Cheap? Neither are those bags of everything from potting soil and starter mix to fertilizer and peat moss. Oh, yes, you may need to replace that hose and, while you’re at it, pick up another soaker hose to try to save on that water bill. And you’ll want rolls of plastic or bales of mulch hay or bags of bark to keep those weeds down, and skeeter spray and band-aids and more gasoline for the weed-whacker and …
All that said, before adding guilt or shame to our list, let’s return to the amazing taste of asparagus or strawberries or real tomatoes sped straight from the garden to the plate. There’s no other way to get this. We’ve really earned it.
Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) is an intriguing character in New England history. An important figure in New England poetry, she was also a pioneering hotelier, flower gardener, and catalyst in the fine arts.
While turning her family’s hotel on Appledore Island in the Atlantic into what was probably the leading summer resort in the Northeast, she also created a famed artists’ colony with salon events featuring a who’s who of America’s leading artists, poets, novelists, and painters. There were likely more, including actors and dancers.
With its 95 acres, Appledore is the largest of the nine islands that comprise the Isles of Shoals about nine miles off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. It was known as Hog Island until Celia’s family decided to build the hotel and turned to an earlier name for the shoals, one drawn from the Old English word for apple tree. How romantic.
The shoals also include tidal ledges.
Celia’s flower garden in front of her cottage became legendary, celebrated in her lovely book An Island Garden, with glorious illustrations by Impressionist master Childe Hassam. I treasure my reproduction copy. She’s the one who convinced Hassam to use his middle name rather than Frederick as an artist.
The hotel itself burned in 1914, and today the island is privately owned, much of it by the Shoals Marine Laboratory run by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University. Visits are strictly controlled.
Last summer, my wife and elder daughter and I indulged in a tour of the island. Among its highlights was walking through the grounds of the long-gone hotel and a replication of Celia’s garden, which is much smaller than we’d expected and less carefully tended. The fact that it needed such constant care is a lesson in humility for those of us who expect similar results on much larger tracts.
And, for those of you who have read the garden book, I’m told that garden slugs are no longer a problem.
Nearby is her grave.
In this time of social distancing and shelter-in-place, many of us would go stir crazy if we couldn’t get out for long walks. Seeing so many other people also out strolling – with or without their dogs – has been a bright side of our lives lately.
Where we live, a highlight of those treks has often come in checking out others’ gardens, landscaping, and flowerbeds. I don’t know about you who live in apartment complexes or high-rise developments, but I’m curious. Maybe something out on the deck, if you have one?
These days, I’m seeing a lot of raised garden beds going in. Fresh wood, reminding me of the time we were just getting started here. (Some of my earliest posts told of the reasons for raised beds when dealing with northern New England’s clay soils.) You’ve no doubt heard the stories of folks who have recently decided to grow their own food in the face of Covid-19. Maybe you’re even one of them. Part of it, of course, is a concern about breakdowns in our food-supply system or even long lines just to enter the supermarket. Another might even be boredom, as in give me something new to do. From questions we’ve been getting from neighbors and passers-by, they’re really green and in for a lot of surprises, some of them harsh disappointment but a few real treats, too.
We could see this coming when some of our favorite seed catalogs announced they were running out of supplies and would not be selling to new customers; they felt it crucial to serve their longstanding commercial growers first and foremost, followed by their devoted regulars. Fair enough, that’s long-term loyalty. At least, seasoned as we are, we had our orders well in hand by mid-February.
As you know, gardening is a staple of the merry-go-round here at the Barn, but my posts aren’t the detailed advice kind for beginners – more just a taste of the experience, no pun intended. I’m hoping many of the neophytes will discover those of you who post expertly on growing and harvesting. You’re such an encouragement, truly.
Maybe we’ll get them in for the long haul, too, when it comes to things like composting (remember, those two cute bunnies you’ve been seeing featured here are big helps on that front … plus they prompt me to weed daily, just to keep them supplied in greens, which they then convert into their little composter pellets).
And, I should note, we just installed a new colony in our beehive and are anxiously waiting to see it the queen takes hold. If all goes well, our honeybees will be tending pollen in gardens in a radius of up to five miles.
Should we warn people what a few tomato plants can lead to?
A local beekeeper group reports that 47 percent of its members’ hives died off over the winter, something largely blamed on a virus I’m dubbing Cobeed-18.
Alas, ours was one of the ones that didn’t make.
Uncertainties over the human Covid-19 outbreak, meanwhile, puts repopulating the hives in question. New colonies are trucked north from the Deep South, and who knows how long before things in that regard are back to normal.
Everything’s up in the air, except that some things aren’t.