I’ve read a lot of gardening books and blogs. I sometimes even look at plant porn (coffee table books). The images that are included usually suggest perfect harmony with nature and abundant food production. I tend to doubt that even the superstar small farmers manage to escape the occasional crop failure or attack by insects. I’ll bet even Eliot Coleman has planted a line of lettuce that wasn’t perfectly straight and didn’t stay weed free.
Giving advice is dangerous business, so I try to avoid it. I keep this column experiential: I talk about my garden and what I understand of biology. Some things work for me, and some things don’t. Maybe even most things don’t. I am a tinkerer, so I’m always experimenting, but when I try a new plant or fertilizer I don’t use randomized block design with strict controls. Gardening is a joy for me not a job.
Two cautionary tales come to mind. Five years ago a friend in Brooklyn asked me whether a fig tree would survive in her front yard. Her “yard” was mostly driveway and sidewalk enclosing two tiny strips of earth perhaps a few feet wide and a dozen feet long. Urban soil is not the most fertile and often is loaded down with all manner of vileness. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I was pretty discouraging. I know that people grow figs in the north, but they sometimes take heroic measures to protect them against the elements. My friend is not a gardener and didn’t want to take heroic measures. So she didn’t, she just planted the tree and let it go. This summer I ate this tree’s figs to bursting. Apparently it was the fifth harvest this year.
Perhaps ten years ago a former coworker who works on simian viruses and is an overconfident braggart asked if watermelon does well in the northeast. I said that it might do OK, but that it needs a lot of sunshine and he was getting started late. It probably wouldn’t work. I think they harvested a dozen watermelons. Consistent with his character he not only didn’t ask for more advice, he mocked me for underestimating his gardening prowess. Now he lives in Sweden. I hope he hates the dark.
It was a tough year for the melon and squash family for me. I grew both watermelon and pumpkins for the first time. The pumpkin plants exploded all over the yard and attracted squash bugs from throughout western Massachusetts: the plants and the fruit were covered in tens of thousands of stinky squash bugs. I got not a single pumpkin that lasted; most turned orange early then rotted. Worse, the pumpkin plants smothered the watermelon and cantaloupe.
I planted a second batch of watermelon after the pumpkin had failed. I covered it in agricultural cloth and babied it along. I didn’t think it would work, but it did. I harvested two lovely watermelons. It turns out the youngest boarder loves watermelon. He ate half of one the other evening and seemed to enjoy it. Next year I’m growing more watermelon, I’m going to start it a little late to miss the first flush of squash bugs. I’ll use agricultural cloth and I’ll keep it away from interfering pumpkins.