About a week ago, I finally finished planting my garden. I ran late (as usual) setting out some seedlings and all three attempts to start my typical heirloom tomato lineup from seed ran afoul of greens-craving kittens and rough winds. So I bought hothouse starts, which as of this date are doing well, except for two Romas suffering attacks from tomato hornworms. Last year, European paper wasps kept my tomatoes hornworm-free, but the harsh, snowbound winter appears to have killed off a lot of the fertilized queens. I’m very sorry to say we haven’t anywhere near the European paper wasp population that we had last year. The garden will no doubt suffer on account of this deficiency of wasps.
Anyway, finding starts of the heirloom tomato varieties I like €”green zebra, striped German, Cherokee purple, Kellogg’s early breakfast €”proved fruitless, except for Brandywines, which a local nursery operator grows to oblige a patron’s special yen. I had to settle for hybrid lemon boys for yellow tomatoes, and I picked up the Romas just because, and some Moscows, because they’re always good to have around, when you can get them. At a Walmart in Cortez, Colorado, I was pleased and surprised to discover some hearty German Johnsons for sale. I used to grow this variety from seed years ago but haven’t been able to find a source. If all goes well, I’ll be able to build my heirloom garden from these plants. I also picked up some Mr. Stripeys at Walmart €”another large-fruited heirloom tomato variety, similar in appearance to the robust-looking, sweet-to-the-tongue, delight-to-the-eye Striped Germans I like to grow.
I sprouted some of my Italian parsley from generic seed this year, ending up with more plants than I need. My basil seedlings came up all right, but they suffer stress every spring from hammering winds that stunt the growth of their earliest emerging leaves. I try to bring them inside when the winds start but am not always home to rescue them. Because of teeming populations of grasshoppers in the yard €”most of them in size well ahead of the similarly teeming population of praying mantises €”I sequester the basil in pots up on the second story porch, higher than hoppers can hop. Also I grow some of my parsley up there where it’s easy to reach when I’m cooking. At a nursery in Colorado, I found a lovely lemon grass plant. I’m keeping that as a potted porch plant, too.
My herb bed came back strong this year, with my culinary sage producing many sagelings in the shadows beneath its leaves. Chamomile, lemon thyme, lemon balm, spearmint (a lackluster variety €”where’s the garden €œdelete € button?), oregano, chives, tri-color sage, volunteer parsley and dill, tarragon, rosemary, and escaped flowers are working on filling this bed to its brim. One of our Woodhouse’s toads has also shaped a cozy home for itself in the herb bed, but my daughter is writing about that fun discovery, so I won’t spoil her punch line.
After many unsuccessful years of trying to start my own peppers from seed €”sweet peppers, jalapenos, and Anaheims €”I achieved good germination this time around by keeping the seed flats on top of the clothes dryer, which provided the bottom-heating that peppers in my care seem to require to get a decent start. When I put the seedlings in the garden, I had to protect them from the winds, just like the basil. So I asked my daughter to cut midsections from her dad’s empty liter soda bottles and I used them to gird up the seedlings’ loins. I did the same with the broccoli starts, to good effect. If they hadn’t had their pop bottle blast shields, the wind would have snapped off vital parts, perhaps to the point of destroying whole plants. In the broccoli bed, I’ve put in a couple of golden zucchini plants €”an heirloom variety from Seed Savers. I intend to collect seed from those this year. Yellow crookneck in another bed €”my squash of choice. Moon and stars watermelons that I don’t know if I planted soon enough for them to come to anything. I’ve also got Straight 8 cucumbers growing €”sort of €”and a variety of potato a neighbor gave us. Don’t know what it is €”it’s a flavorful, grainy, white variety. We like these mystery potatoes very much and have planted the strain for three years now from mini-spuds that we reserve as seed. Volunteer potatoes sprouted in the bush Blue Lake green bean bed €”more than I expected. Guess I didn’t sift the dirt carefully enough.
An especially nippy spring pinched every single blossom off our two, barely more than sapling Elberta peach trees. So no peaches this year. But the trees are taking advantage of their untaxed condition, pushing out emerald clouds of creased, crescent-shaped leaves on thickets of new shoots. You can’t tell by looking at the trees that I pruned them in the spring, they’ve already become so shaggy. No peaches? Well, the trees look great. I’m happy for them.
My garden definitely has a wild edge to it, to the point of having in some places no edges at all. The borders have become overgrown, for the most part, with flowers that decided to grow outside the box. The flax I planted in the flowerbed has spread north and west into the yard. Flax plants two and three years old and standing around 24 € tall grow in fringes around the vegetable beds. They’re a bit much to wade through, but I like the fountain-like look to their stalks and sprays, and when they open their sky-blue flowers in the morning, they spangle glory left and right. Red hot pokers €”also known as Mexican Hats €”have likewise escaped the bed and are growing in tall clusters around the other beds, studding the spreading green with their ruffled, dark-red-velvet skirts. At the corner of the bed where I’m growing my Big Bertha and red bell peppers as well as the three Mr. Stripeys, a wild, silver sage has taken root. I’m not sure what to do about it since it’s laid claim to soil beneath the rock wall surrounding the bed. I can’t dig it out and replant it without dismantling the wall. And I must say that the piquant fragrance it releases each time I brush by during my watering duties is enough to justify tolerating its presence for another year or two, before it grows big enough, slurping up garden water, to take down the rock border itself, not knowing its own strength.
The dianthus €” €œSweet Williams € €”and the Shasta daisies, the black-eyed Susans and the baby’s breath all came back but are struggling against my neighbor’s alfalfa, which has invaded the flowerbed’s northernmost corner. I’m unhappy with the alfalfa’s obnoxious tenacity but unsure what to do, especially since the bees, hoverflies, and a variety of tiny wasps harvest from the blossoms. The black-eyed Susans are showing impatience with the alfalfa oppression and appear to be migrating to open areas outside the bed. Echinacea (purple coneflower €”in this case, I think Echinacea angustifolia) has come back strongly, putting out just under a dozen, thin-rayed, cone-eyed stars. This is a wonderful plant and I have every intention of seeing to its continued comfort. Other flowers whose names I’ve forgotten put out yellow blossoms, or saffron-colored blossoms with dark, reddish-brown centers. Few if any bachelor’s buttons that started out in the flowerbed grow there anymore. Confirmed drifters, they’ve taken to yard space beyond their point of origin, with a pink cluster showing up as far away as thirty feet northeast of their first residence up at the edge of the raised bed where I’m growing the Brandywines.
There are weeds €”goat’s beard, wild lettuce, green amaranth, bindweed, others €”whose presence I need to address. Alfalfa-like plants I see growing wild in the canyon that like dampness discovered the garden water and now spread their own green fire, one I’ll have to address. But right now they have yellow blossoms that the pollen-gatherers like, so I’m waiting to cut them down when the blossoms have mostly withered. A lot of work to do. But we all know and accept that about gardens €”that they need attention, balance, and a bit of intelligent design to complement vegetables’ and flowers’ natural proclivities.
But every year, there are unimagined surprises. Here’s an example. Two days ago I went out to do touch-up watering with my el-cheapo two-gallon can. I run the sprinkler (I know, I know €”drip irrigation is the future goal) by setting it up on a board I place across the wheelbarrow to raise the nozzle high enough to cover as much garden as possible per watering. The wheelbarrow acts as a catch basin for water leaking or running backward from the sprinkler, and it’s into this well I dip my watering can. As I drew water, I noticed movement in the swimming depths of the barrow. A black aquatic beetle, about a half or three-quarters of an inch long, had taken up residence in the artificial pool and was rowing about madly, perturbed over my activities. Feeling dismayed because I intended to dump the remainder of the water into the potato bed, I tried to encourage the insect to leave. It could only have gotten into the wheelbarrow by flying, so I supposed that if I made life uncomfortable the creature would simply choose to fly elsewhere. I dipped and dipped, but the beetle stubbornly stood its ground €”or rather, kept to its depths, even as seas turned turbulent and waves sloshed and rolled from the dipping. Finally, all garden watering done, I faced the prospect of dumping the rest of the water onto the potatoes, beetle and all. Rolling the wheelbarrow over to the bed in question, I tipped it up to let the remaining water pour out. I expected the beetle to go with it, and, faced with such a compelling argument, to recover its dignity and fly off to plumb more promising depths. But no. It clung tenaciously to the wheelbarrow’s side, and when I settled my one-wheeled wonder onto its rests, the beetle headed for the thin skin of water slipping back into the bottom and settled into the dregs.
So I relented. I pushed the wheelbarrow over to where I intended to do the evening’s watering and where it would once more gather depth from the sprinkler. I took the watering can upstairs and filled it about two-thirds full. I carried that water back downstairs to the garden and added it to the remains in the wheelbarrow to provide the beetle a more satisfying habitat until I watered when the sun went down and the sprinkler once more filled the well. If the beetle wanted the wheelbarrow and could handle the stress of my own use of it, then it was welcome to stay. As the water poured in it skittered madly then once the turbulence stopped settled against the bottom of the wheelbarrow. I set the board over it to protect it from the sun and went back upstairs and into the house. The next day, I checked the wheelbarrow for the beetle before beginning my touch-up watering. It had moved on.