Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Creating chaos from order

Bill Meredith

My wife and I both come from families with a tradition of gardening, so it is not surprising that we plant a garden each year. I’m not sure, however, whether our marriage has been strengthened by this fact, or has survived in spite of it. It actually started the year before we got married. We made a garden on my parents’ farm and planted everything we could think of, and soon we were faced with the problem of disposing of the harvest. Both of our families were supplied, yet the produce kept coming. We offered some to the neighbors, but it was a good year and they themselves were trying to give things away. In the end, my wife-to-be canned enough beans, tomatoes and peppers to feed a family of ten, as well as several other things that were less appetizing but made the shelves look colorful. Thus began a pattern that continues to the present day.

The canned vegetables did come in handy; during the years in graduate school our grocery bills were lower than those of our friends. I noticed, though, that every time we moved, a lot of the jars I had to pack looked suspiciously familiar. The one that survived longest was a pint of carrots from our original pre-nuptial garden; it made the trip to Emmitsburg with us in 1957, occupied the shelves in five different houses we lived in before we bought our own place, and finally was thrown away when the lid rusted through sometime in the early seventies.

Years passed and the kids gradually got married and moved away, but the garden remained the same size. When each new season came, I would point out that the basement shelves were still full, and my wife would agree that this year we would cut back. It didn’t happen, though, until a few years ago when we built our new house where the old garden had been. Most of the former garden became lawn, but the primeval urge remained in our blood and we agreed to keep gardening in one comer for the summer table and "just for the pleasure of seeing things grow." Unfortunately, though, things never turn out to be as simple as we expect; problems arose immediately.

In the old garden I had always made the rows far enough apart to run the cultivator between them, keeping the soil aerated and the weeds under control; and within the rows I set the plants far enough apart to minimize root competition. These practices were founded upon a basic understanding of plant physiology as well as practical experience; I knew plants require a certain minimum of space in order to achieve their best growth. I assumed the new garden would follow the same layout. But my wife, unencumbered by such ideology, viewed things simply as a matter of scaling: if the over-all dimensions of the garden had to be smaller, the distance between rows and individual plants should be reduced correspondingly and we should then be able to have as many plants as we had before. Time proved me right in principle; the crowding reduced the growth and vigor of individual plants, but our total production still exceeded our needs. So it has come to pass that every fall still finds 70 or 80 quarts each of green beans, tomatoes, and assorted pickles and peppers overflowing the shelves and filling boxes on the basement floor.

While my wife was able to reduce the space between plants in the new garden, she couldn’t shrink the cultivator; it would no longer fit between the rows, and the weeds responded gleefully. I counterattacked the next year by spreading a thick layer of straw mulch between rows, which solved the weed problem, at least for a while, and also helped preserve soil moisture in dry years. But the straw, as I should have foreseen, contained seeds of the Canada Thistle, and we now produce a robust crop of that venimous interloper each summer.

You’d think eventually you would have seen it all, but each year seems to produce new surprises. A garden is part of the local ecosystem, and in ecosystems everything is connected. It used to be that we rarely saw rabbits in our yard or garden; a family of gray foxes in the adjacent field kept them in check. But the foxes were killed or chased off by dogs a year or so ago, and this spring the rabbit population exploded. When our green beans were about six inches high the rabbits found them and ate the tops off. I told my wife they would grow back, but she didn’t want to wait for them; she said the rabbits would just eat them again, and besides, she couldn’t bear to see the space standing empty. So she set out pepper plants and onions in the bean rows.

Then, in a burst of enthusiasm, she planted a variety of small seeds- radishes, carrots, beets, okra, parsley, etc.— in the next row, forgetting that she had planted other things there the week before.

The rains of spring were followed by the rains of summer, and through the month of July it was too wet to work in the garden, so the weeds flourished. Because the weeds were so dense and full of thistles, the rabbits didn’t find the green beans; they grew back, competing with the onions and peppers as well as the weeds, and infected with mold from being crowded together.

Eventually, around the first of August, we got a few dry days and I was able to get the weeds pulled out. Among the moldy green beans and rotted onions were pepper plants that had grown too long and spindly to stand up, several radishes the size and texture of small oranges, a scattering of lettuce that had gone to seed, and a single beet plant.

Despite the chaos in the middle rows, the rest of the garden has done pretty well. The basil is the best we’ve ever had; next to it is a very healthy row what my wife thinks is probably cilantro. though she’s forgotten exactly what she planted there. The tomatoes vines are full, and the cucumber vines are three layers thick in places.

Boxes containing quarts of newly canned pickles are accumulating around the foot of the basement stairs, some of them resting on boxes of stuff the shelves couldn’t hold last year. Nothing can be allowed to go to waste. If anyone has a recipe for something that requires a single beet, let us know

Read other articles by Bill Meredith