I Am So Over Gardening

Here’s a photo from about a year ago showing my backyard vegetable garden:

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Here’s a photo of that garden now:

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The only things growing there now are one insane Italian parsley plant and a rogue tomato vine that is only thriving because I was was completely unaware of it until I went outside to dump something into the compost pile a couple of weeks ago. (There’s another trend I’m getting over; more on that later.)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have tried and failed to grow tomatoes. My mother, who effortlessly grew lush, eight-foot-tall tomato plants in boxes on her deck, tried to help me out by sending me the boxes she used, which were supposed to make the gardening process practically automatic. They were self-watering, and all I had to do was refill them occasionally and watch out for pests. Right. Fail, fail, fail.

I tried buying big, healthy plants. I tried starting my own seedlings. I tried inside, outside, upside down. There was apparently no way on earth a tomato would come to fruition in my care. Then, outside, in the middle of winter, there suddenly appears a healthy, fully grown tomato plant, as if to say, “Ha ha, Laurie, look at us! We are better off without you!” The plant is not staked, is surrounded by weeds, has not been watered or fertilized, and yet there it is, strong, healthy and rebelliously producing fruit. This is just the final proof that plants don’t like me.

My delusional adventures in gardening began about two years ago. I believe this can be partially attributed to identity crisis following my earlier-than-planned departure from the newspaper industry. This coincided with the major economic downturn that had many people looking toward getting back to basics, and so I jumped onto a national bandwagon of growing organic food at home, and planned to also hop on the home-canning trend, too. We would be stocked up with healthy, flavorful organic vegetables year-round!

Despite a lifelong history of having plants generally ignore my friend requests, I planted squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and peppers, with marigolds in between that were supposed to repel insects. The squash, as you can see in the top photo above, sprouted up beautifully. Then, just as quickly, it developed an incurable disease and rotted. The cucumbers spread wildly but never grew much past cocktail gherkin size. Two rows of corn provided a nice snack for the squirrels, and you know how it went with the tomatoes. The only success I had was with peppers, but this brings me to a major problem I learned about gardening, which is, if you do grow anything, you end up with too much of that thing, so you end up eating salsa with everything for weeks and still have to go to the store to get onions and all the other things you don’t grow.

I know a lot of successful gardeners, and they’re probably shaking their heads right now, wondering what’s wrong with me. Maybe some will side with the plants and unfriend me. However, I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way. Last spring I interviewed a local landscaper for a story on upcoming home and garden trends, and he told me that he was getting fewer requests to put in vegetable garden beds. In fact, the major upcoming trend seemed to lean toward paving over the backyard altogether and maybe putting in some artifical turf. (This is in Florida. If you’ve ever cared for a yard here in the summer, you will understand this.)

The other thing I may abandon is composting. I never did that right, anyway. You’re supposed to invest in, or build, a nice compost bin and use official composting techniques such as layering with leaves or newspapers and flipping it all around occasionally. I never did any of that. I just piled some bricks in a corner and dumped my kitchen scraps out there. Sometimes I put leaves on it. It worked fine for a while, though it pretty much disappeared under weeds before I actually got to apply it to the garden. Now I suspect that it’s behind our recent fruit fly invasion. It has also occurred to me that I am taking away valuable organic material from the landfill. Wouldn’t it help the landfill to put good things in it, too?

I’m still dumping things in the yard as I ponder this, and in my defense I will say that I do recycle everything. Oh, and I haven’t killed the herbs, so I plan to keep them going. The tomatoes and I will remain civil but will probably never really be friends.

Are you a great gardener? Or are you ready to give up?

Gardening Disaster: I Am an Army of One

Earlier this month I posed the question, “Gardening Disaster: Am I the Only One?” Because it seemed to me that everyone in America suddenly had the natural ability to effortlessly grow bushels of organic fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, I planted two 1×4-foot container gardens and was immediately battling worms, fungus and some unknown kind of squash cancer. Is it really that easy for everyone else, I wondered, or were there other gardening failures out there, shamefully tending backyard brown patches of doom?

Cherry tomatoes by Laurie Sterbens

These fell off into my hand as I was tying up my cherry tomato plants, so they were either ripe or suicidal.

Nope. Apparently I am the only one. I posted on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and the overwhelming response was: … (crickets).

So, a gardening-impaired army of one, I keep fighting. I’m seeing signs that I might eventually beat this crop-failure thing, but I am also puzzled by new bits of agricultural weirdness. And I continue to find pests sneaking around under the leaves.

The other morning I went out to find a small black worm on a tomato plant and promptly flicked him into outer space. I then found a big green caterpillar trying to hide under a leaf. It didn’t look like a giant, evil hornworm; it was more of a cuddly cartoon caterpillar, and my son immediately fell in love with it. It also had much grabbier feet than the black worms, so instead of being flicked into outer space, it was humanely delivered to one of the shrubs in the front yard that I wish something would eat.

Miniature Bell Pepper Plant by Laurie Sterbens

Life is a party for this miniature bell pepper plant, which has sprouted a new round of tiny blossoms. Now check out the leafless, emaciated stick just north of it. This was the pepper plant's identical twin, treated exactly the same way. Crazy plants.

My two cherry tomato plants lost most of their lower leaves to fungus, but the top halves are doing quite well and in fact seemed to grow a foot overnight. I never thought they’d get big enough to have to tie to stakes, but they were beginning to flop over, so I recruited an ornamental trellis from another part of the yard (that I hadn’t gotten around to putting an actual plant on) and tied the plants to it. While I was doing this, four ripe tomatoes fell off into my hands, so I took that to mean they were ripe though they might have just been suicidal. They weren’t quite as red as the storebought cherry tomatoes I had in the kitchen, but they were red enough. In a taste test, they weren’t as sweet as the professional tomatoes, but they tasted fresh and homegrown. I’m going to count this as a success. So far I’ve harvested two miniature bell peppers and four cherry tomatoes, bringing my vegetable cost per unit down to $10!

There was another miniature bell pepper that made it to a beautiful bright orange — and then the plant died. Meanwhile, its identical twin, purchased at the same time from the same store and treated exactly the same way, is growing beautifully and has sprouted a new round of blossoms. Go figure.

The most success I’ve had with anything has been with the marigolds that I planted too many of in hopes of repelling insects, along with one my son grew from a seed in kindergarten. With one failed pepper plant and an ailing squash plant, I began to wonder if the marigolds were crowding out my vegetables. So I moved them into separate containers and stationed them near the other plants so they can still stand guard.

I then moved the squash plant into a squash intensive care unit, which may end up being a squash hospice. It’s been three days and it seems slightly happier, but that could be my overly optimistic imagination.

Speaking of overly optimistic, I’ve just approached my builder neighbor about putting together a couple of raised beds. I may be an army of one, but if I fail I’m going to go out in a blaze of … um, dirt.

Gardening Disaster: Am I the Only One?

A few months back I decided to finally let go of my fears, set past failures aside and join the millions of Americans now tending backyard gardens. I figured everyone seems to be doing this. Surely it can’t be as impossible and mysterious as it has always seemed.

People all over America seem to be throwing seeds into the ground and before you know it, boom, they’re harvesting bushels of tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. Michelle Obama stuck a shovel in the dirt one day, next thing you know, “Iron Chef” contenders are running through what appears to be a lush tropical rain forest of vegetables. People are starting gardens on urban plots and restaurant rooftops. Friends, family, co-workers — suddenly everyone is able to grow their own food.

Then there’s me.

I started a small with a container garden; a couple of tomato plants, a couple of miniature bell pepper plants, one squash plant, some herbs. This would hopefully provide some homegrown, organic salad ingredients as well as boost my confidence after an epic tomato-growing failure a few years back.

Cherry tomatoes by Laurie Sterbens

I'm getting a few cherry tomatoes now, but I'm battling worms and fungus. And the squirrels are out there, waiting.

I purchased good organic soil and read everything I possibly could before starting. My containers were self-watering! Foolproof! I inspected my plants every day. This isn’t so hard, I began to think. Maybe I can be a gardener like everyone else.

The fungus that seemed to develop overnight on the cherry tomato plants was the first indicator that things were about to go the usual way they do between plants and me. It was at this point that I gave up on the delusions of organic perfection and blasted the plants with anti-fungal spray.

Then I noticed all of my squash blossoms had disappeared and the plant seemed to be shrinking and turning yellow. Meanwhile, a friend growing squash in a container in a similar climate reported that she’d had to transplant hers because it got so big.

Sunday morning, after a couple of days of rain kept me from checking my plants, I went out to find that little black worms had reduced much of the tomato plants to fishnet.

I blasted the plants with another dose of spray and flicked the worms, which were now hopefully poisoned, as far as I could flick them. I have to confess, the blasting and flicking were kind of fun. But still, I never hear about anybody else waging such a nonstop, all-out battle against crop failure. Can I be the only one? Or are there others like me out there who just aren’t talking? Is there a vast vegetable conspiracy? A silent majority of fruit-growing failures?

I do now have two miniature bell peppers that appear to be ripe. At about an inch and a half long each, they seem miniature even for miniatures. If that ends up being the extent of my harvest, they will have cost $30 each and aren’t even organic.

Miniature bell peppers by Laurie Sterbens

These look like chili peppers but are actually miniature bell peppers -- very miniature. If they end up being the only thing I harvest, they'll have cost $30 apiece and aren't even organic.

I also have quite a few little green cherry tomatoes popping up, but we’ll have to see who wins the war between the worms and me. And the squirrels haven’t even weighed in yet. I live in fear that someday soon I’m going to have to find out how far I can flick a squirrel.

Newbie Gardener in Non-Organic Panic

Being new to the world of vegetable gardening, I’m a little obsessed with it right now. I usually wander out into the backyard to check on my plants first thing in the morning, then I might even check on them again later in the day. With such intense monitoring, you would think nothing could go drastically wrong.

But it did. When I checked my garden Wednesday morning, many of the lower leaves on the tomato plants had turned yellow and spotty. This must have happened almost overnight! Had I already killed my tomatoes? This would be a record even for me.

Cherry tomato plant with fungus by Laurie Sterbens

This disease appeared to develop almost overnight on my cherry tomato plants.

Fortunately my dad was visiting this week. My mother was the master tomato grower in the family, but Dad was around enough to see what was going on, and he told me when that happened to my mother’s plants, she had a spray she would use. This was a revelation. My mother’s tomato plants were occasionally weak or flawed? Maybe mine could be saved.

Dad didn’t know the name of the spray Mom used but said it killed fungus, so I hopped in my car and sped off like a plant ambulance in search of an emergency dose of fungus killer. When I got to the home improvement store,  I headed for a section of bottles with pictures of spotty yellow leaves on them.

Now, my plan with this vegetable garden was for it to be completely organic. This is clearly the healthiest, most ecologically sound option and is also madly trendy. I bought organic soil that was organically fertilized and had so far only used cayenne around the plants to keep the squirrels out. But in state of full tomato panic, facing a shelf full of toxic and nontoxic options, my idealism flew out the window. I wanted something that worked, and fast. I looked at the organic label, but it seemed kind of wishy-washy. It seemed to say, “I will probably kill some kinds of fungus. Maybe. Why don’t you take me home and see?” I didn’t have time for that. I needed a product that grabbed me by the collar and shouted, “I KILL FUNGUS! NOW!” Also, the organic product cost a lot more. I went with the old-fashioned stuff. That’s what my mother, the master tomato grower, would have done.

Baby cherry tomatoes by Laurie Sterbens

Though the lower leaves are looking sickly, baby cherry tomatoes have begun to appear up top.

I raced home and sprayed the tomato plants and am hoping for a recovery. They still looked fungus-y this morning and there was something wrong with the squash, so I sprayed that, too. On the bright side, baby cherry tomatoes are starting to appear and the peppers are still with me. The marigolds are fantastic. Too bad they’re not something we want to eat.

In other garden news this week, I received a Topsy Turvy strawberry planter as a birthday present. Now I can kill something from a whole new angle.

Pest Paranoia Means Garden Mostly Marigolds

Container garden 6/2010 Laurie Sterbens

My container gardens are growing cherry tomatoes, mini bell peppers, herbs, squash and a whole lot of marigolds.

A couple of months ago I was inspired to plant a small vegetable garden. Besides being a major national trend, I had heard that if my child was involved in growing vegetables, he might actually consider eating them. I have my doubts about this since he has so far proven to be a pretty unshakeable pastavore, but it worked on my neighbor’s kid, so I am hopeful.

Also, my son had grown a plant from a seed in kindergarten and it was starting to look a little depressed in its plastic cup. I thought Trevor would enjoy replanting his seedling and watching it grow.

I only have one squash plant, but it has lots of blossoms.

The only problem with this was not a small one. For my entire life I have been so incompetent with plant life that I seriously wondered if I should be allowed to have children.

My last attempt at growing vegetables was a complete disaster. My mother sent me two Earth Box gardening containers so I could try to grow tomatoes. She had four of these boxes on her deck and from them every year grew an 8-foot-high wall of plants that produced a bountiful crop of beautiful tomatoes all summer. These boxes were self-watering. She was probably thinking that surely I couldn’t mess this up.

Squirrels don't appear to have discovered the mini bell peppers yet, but if they have, they were repelled by a healthy dose of cayenne.

But I did. Instead of an 8-foot wall of lush, productive tomato and pepper plants, I ended up with two boxes of emaciated green sticks and one tomato, which was removed and destroyed by a squirrel. Then one day I found the plants completely covered in little black worms. Eeek! I emptied the boxes, stored them in the garage and was too traumatized to attempt even a small container garden for years.

Though I had seen some appealing plans for small, raised-bed gardens in such magazines as Better Homes and Gardens that were as simple as buying three planks, sawing one in half and attaching them, I never seemed to be able to get this done. Plus, with my history of crop failure, it didn’t seem sensible to devote even a 4 x 8 plot to what might end up being a tomato graveyard. The two boxes in the garage would be just the thing. Baby steps.

I selected a sunny spot near a water spigot and on the opposite side of the house from the squirrel-infested orange tree. Then Trevor and I were off to the home improvement store to select our plants. Keeping with my theme of “baby steps,” I chose two cherry tomato plants and two miniature bell pepper plants. I also added one squash plant because everyone seems to do well with squash. I added a couple of herbs — rosemary and tarragon because we eat a lot of fish, and oregano because it’s very versatile. I would like to have put in some thyme, too, for the same reason, but I had to make room for marigolds.

Last year I wrote a story about a group of friends in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., who were trying to drum up interest in community gardening. One thing that stuck with me from that interview is that the rows of vegetables in their organic garden were dotted with the occasional marigold plant to repel insects.

After my experience with tomato-plant-devouring worm invasion, I was all about repelling insects. The more marigolds the better. Plus, Trevor’s little seedling was a marigold so it would have company. Lots of company.

I bought some organic dirt, too. It was probably more expensive and I’m not sure what made it better than plain dirt, but organic was the theme and I was sticking with it. Well, to a point. With our trunk full of organic gardening supplies, we stopped off at a McDonald’s drive-thru on the way home for a happy meal. Like I said, baby steps.

So, as you can see by the photos, so far, so good. Amazingly, I haven’t killed anything yet. I could end up being one of the state’s leading marigold producers. Trevor enjoys going out to check the garden with me every day, and his little marigold seedling now has two tiny buds on it. Maybe we will build that 4 x 8 bed after all.