June was approaching and with it, my 70th birthday. They wanted to give me a party, the grown children. I was horrified. At 3 score and 10, who needs a big party full of one’s progressively enfeebled contemporaries raising their glasses to propose sloppy toasts?
Well, what do you want, they said rather crossly.
What I really wanted—I had known this for several increasingly arthritic years—was a new garden.
That was two Junes ago. The garden they gave me is simply the old garden remade, a 32-foot-square plot below the pond on the only land we have on this hillside farm that is flat enough to cultivate. It has been heavily manured, composted and ardently tended for two decades. A talented young man who works in landscaping during the flowering season was readily for hire at the end of March. Traditionally, this is mud season in New Hampshire. The snow is still melting and refreezing. Many dirt roads are impassable. Ours was moderately difficult to navigate.
He came, with four-wheel drive, to look the situation over. He whistled and hummed and said he liked working alone as he laboriously dug out and re-fenced the old garden with 5-foot-high new chicken wire buried a foot deep all round. The wire was then attached to split cedar posts and stabilized with a top board to which the wire was stapled.
I say “split cedar posts” blithely. He bought them as round 6-footers, shaved their ends into sharp tips, split each post symmetrically with an ax, then pounded them 2 feet deep into obdurate ground with a sledge.
By then it was mid-April; there were still ice crystals in my old lumpish and misshapen raised beds. These he turned—an artist also with the pitchfork—and amended with even more rotted horse manure and then enclosed in 12-inch raw pine boards.
In the days before the Enlightenment, people formed their raised beds out of old creosoted telephone poles or railroad ties or even new pressure-treated boards for sale at every lumber yard to satisfy the craze for decks. Carcinogens from the chemicals leached out of the wood into the surrounding soil and inched their way into whatever was planted there.
Raw pine will indeed rot in seven or eight years, but perhaps by then my mania for raising organic vegetables will have waned. In the meantime, I have seven safe beds, 32 feet long and 3 feet wide, a rigorously orderly space in which to grow every conceivable leaf and root, stem and blossom. The edges can be sat on, bringing everything within arm’s reach. Narrow walkways enclose these beds. Because no foot is ever set on the aerated earth they contain, no tool beyond the human hand is necessary to scoop out a hole or hill up a mound.
It is my practice to start seeds indoors in plant cells, individual yogurt containers, discarded Styrofoam coffee cups from the local market and/or tin candy boxes accumulated over the years. By the end of March, I have overfilled all three of my starter spaces: a shelf under the fluorescent light over the stove, a similar shelf over the kitchen sink, a third installed over a southeast-facing living room window.
Onions, leeks and mustard greens, happy little warriors, are the first to sprout. Bibb lettuce next. Then, always too soon, I coax Sweet Million or Tiny Tim or some new no-name cherry tomato seeds into being. Long before it is feasible to move them out to the porch and from there to the terrace to harden off, they will grow leggy and dispirited under the lamps. Sometimes they develop whitefly, almost always fatal. Still, every year I aim to achieve ripe tomatoes by mid-July; despite all my cossetings, I have never quite made this deadline. Hubris is my sin.
Slow germinator celeriac (celery root) finally emerges. A new cultivar of red peppers takes three weeks to edge up out of the potting soil; Oregon Spring tomatoes, zinnias, cosmos, nasturtiums, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage sprout much faster. Traditionally, I’ve used the top of the refrigerator as a warming area for newly planted seeds. This year I have a cardboard box complete with trouble light warming the soil, and this gives me even more leeway to be fanciful.
In the past, I’ve played with jícama, a Central American sweet root that needs four months to mature. The ones I’ve grown are only as big as my thumbnail. This year, I decided to take on something simpler and less equatorial, the lima bean. I started 24 lima seeds in yogurt containers. You’d be surprised how many individual yogurts two consumers accumulate in a year or two; I have hundreds stored in the cellar. The procedure is to cut off the bottoms, replace the tops, stab them once or twice with a sharp implement for drainage, and upend them to be filled with potting soil. When the sproutling has attained its proper size, it’s no trick to flick off the top (now the bottom) and tuck the plant into the soil. Cutworms awaiting tender stems to devour are foiled. Some of these stalwart yogurt cups have seen three or four seasons’ use.
The last week in May, I apply this same method to corn seeds. When the plants are about 4 inches high in early June, I set them out, secure from the depredations of crows, who annually lie in wait for humans to press lovely new corn kernels into soft earth for them to scavenge. I plant my corn seedlings 14 inches apart, in a triangular pattern in the lower half of three of my beds. There, they form a goodly block in the sunniest possible part of the garden. Corn needs company to pollinate and ear up.
By the Fourth of July, when it should be knee-high, my corn reaches to my waist. By Aug. 1, most of the stalks are 8 feet tall. The patch makes a rustly jungle. I creep cautiously down the walkways between rows, amazed once again at what a handful of kernels has wrought. Here, in full shade, hidden from any peering eye, I admire a large spotted toad on bug alert and wonder if this is the same toad guardian as last year and the year before. He is truly a prodigious size, fattened, no doubt, on grasshoppers.
May is the busiest month in my garden. It is soothing to sit on the edge of one bed and pluck weeds—jewelweed, chickweed, volunteer dill, wild poppy and assorted exotic unknowns—from the rows of peas, carrots, beets, onions and bush beans. It’s a tedium I welcome. My best thinking takes place while I’m perched there, overhearing the territorial cries of a vast medley of birds, the lap-lap of water overflowing from the pond, and the companionable rustle of small critters in the underbrush.
Gradually, as the season progresses, I paper my way down the long rows of tomatoes, squashes, cukes, Provider green beans and, last of all, the limas and corn. All year I save the proper newsprint, sans color photos, to layer around these plants, then cover the evidence with spoiled hay. It’s slow work but pays dividends later on, for once the garden is wholly papered and mulched, no further weeding is required.
Colored newspaper is my bane. I save these sheets to use on the walkways where, theoretically, nothing is permitted to grow. Cardboard serves well here, as do the heavy paper grain bags horse feed comes in. The walkways also are mulched, often with pine needles raked from the little sandy beach by our pond. I am dismayed that the staid old New York Times Book Review has started using color illustrations; I save these all year, as they are the perfect width, opened out, for placing between corn seedlings. Even The Washington Post Weekly has fallen from grace and taken up color. Barron’s Weekly, a thick compendium of stock quotations in black and white, would be a last resort if one had any use for stock quotations rendered every seven days.
How does this June compare with last June? Both months have been kinder to my shoulders and back. Raised beds are a definite asset in the bending and kneeling department. This June’s corn shot well ahead of last year’s. The squashes were slower to blossom, but a heavier rainfall this year has enhanced their growth. Once, again, I am committing infanticide among the yellow squash and zucchini, in order to defend against glut.
Modesty forbids me to report how many quarts of Provider green beans, Oregon snow peas and Lincoln shelling-out peas I’ve frozen for next winter. I could use the word peck, but how many of us these days know that word as a dry measurement?
This year’s peppers and eggplants are thriving, but they’re not up here in the garden. I’ve planted them instead in whiskey barrels on the brick terrace, where reflected sunlight from the house clapboards and stored heat from the bricks are proving beneficial. In truth, I’ve rarely had any really full-grown red peppers; perhaps the millennium is at hand. Several have already turned yellow on their way to red ripeness.
My new experiment, cantaloupe, seems to be proving itself. These, too, I started in the house, transplanted them twice, the second time into gallon containers on the glass-enclosed porch, and finally set them out next to the corn, the only available option. Even without full sun they appear content. I’ve slipped aluminum pie plates under the two fattest fruits that are resting on the ground. Now the vines are climbing the fence. Can new emerging fruits hang on?
And what will it be next year? I’m thinking of watermelon, salsify, a larger planting of parsnips. Definitely cilantro, and more parsley I will pay closer attention to sunflowers; most of mine died soon after they sprouted. Higher trellises for the cucumbers. More stakes for the tomatoes. Fewer potatoes! They are so prolific that half a row would have sufficed. Right now I am awash in dill and basil, but by next June who knows? In case a decree is handed down banning them as dangerous substances, I need to have a good supply on hand.
Next June’s garden is but a figment; still, it will warm me over the coming winter.