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Wow. That early super hot summer did a number on my hericot green beans. Still, the harvest is coming in. Tomatoes, squash, my first zucchini ready to pick any day (I plant them late, after I pull out the spring peas), and several giant pumpkins growing steadily for fall harvest.

August has been very wet, following a disastrously dry July. It feels like fall, sunny and cool, but the days still stretch out, giving my crops plenty of rays to bring them to maturation.


I tried a number of new peas and beans this year, including something called Crowder Peas. It turns out that is just another name for what my family calls black-eyed peas. And they’ve been a delight. We’ve not yet eaten a one, although we’ve started picking the dried pods and shelling them for storage. But every visitor notices them right off because of their unusual appearance. So I’ve got to recommend them, as otherwise, how would you know what black-eyed peas look like before they reach the supermarket.

Today is Pete Seeger’s 91st birthday, and while he did not write the Garden Song, I think of him every time I hear it.

Celebrate his music and plant a row today.

Before I started my garden last year — my first year as a vegetable gardener — I didn’t realize there were an abundance of veggies that could be moved out to the garden early in the season, once the soil can be worked. Instead, I thought I had to wait until after the last frost date here in northern Indiana — May 15 — before my garden could start to take shape. As a result, my garden got a late start. This year, I moved in the opposite direction and have tried to push the envelope, so to speak, to see how early I could get away with planting my salad greens. I began putting out Swiss chard and spinach seedlings in early April, which have taken advantage of the frequent spring rains. (Of course, I had plenty of back-up seedlings in case my experiment failed.) I expect to begin eating from these earliest plantings within a couple of weeks.

I also planted lettuce seedlings two weeks ago. These were not quite as successful. It looks like I lost about half of my plants, although I’ve been left with plenty for a first planting, and of course I’ll be adding more soon. I’ve decided that my lettuces should be the first seedlings I start each winter, so that they will be plenty big with good root growth to survive the April temperatures. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to begin planting lettuce seedlings in late January.

While we’re on the subject of starting seedlings, I’ve decided that I really like using peat pellets for lettuce seedlings, as well as seedlings of other delicate salad greens. They are exactly the right size for these particular vegetable seedlings, and the pellets are much easier and faster to plant once the greens are put out into the garden. I have about twice as many seed failures using pellets instead of traditional potting soil and peat pots, but the unsuccessful pellets can be replanted a second time when the seeds don’t sprout, so they aren’t wasted.

I discovered last year that lettuce and other salad greens do very well in high shade. I have mine in the section of the garden that is shaded mid-day by several old maple trees. They don’t need as much root space as other vegetables — about four inches is plenty — so the roots of the tall trees nearby don’t interfere their productivity. And the soil beneath the trees is rich and loaded with decades of organic material that has fallen from the trees. Yet there is plenty of light in the morning to keep these plants happy and growing. Additionally, this particular section of my garden lies along the south side of my garage and benefits from the protection this structure offers during frosty nights.

The only difficulty of growing near the trees is that I suspect they are a source of aphids. As I did last year, I cover my lettuce seedlings and the young seedlings of other salad greens with cloches made from two-liter bottles that I have been saving since last summer. This protects them from the cold, rabbits (I haven’t yet made needed repairs to last year’s fence), and insects. I’m also going to try covering the paths between the rows with plastic (last year I used dried leaves and pine needles) to see if this inhibits insects from spreading to my greens once the temperatures have warmed and I’m forced to remove the cloches. Additionally, I plant my greens in double rows, and I surround them with plantings of known aphid repellants — right now, those are onions and garlic, as these members of the allium family also are tolerant of cool temperatures. Later I will add cilantro, basil and anise.

Now that my greens and my peas are in, and I still have one week remaining in April, my goal next week is to move my sturdy and thriving brassica seedlings outside. This year I should have half my garden planted before we ever get to mid-May.

Today I harvested my first handful of shelled peas. Because of murderous cutworms and possibly rampaging rabbits (see this, this and this for the full story), my pea crop this spring is on the pathetic side. But, having heard seasoned gardeners sing the praises of fresh peas, I’m very grateful for what I have.

So this is what I was able to pick today:

My first handful of shelling peas.

My first handful of shelling peas.

Okay. So that looks pretty good, right? Well, after I took away this:

I was left with this:

Pretty sad, to say the least, don’t you think? So did I share these peas with my kids? Not a chance. I did the work, after all, and if this garden kills me before the season’s end (and it may), at least I’ll go to my grave having tasted actual fresh shelled peas.

So what’s the verdict? All those gardeners were right. Sweet and delicious. Frozen peas are a distant cousin, and canned peas — well, not even close.

The end result of my new pea experience is the motivation to go for a fall harvest. I’m planning to plant in early August in my back corner plot, where the lettuce and spinach are now:

My greens garden, last week.

My greens garden, last week.

This will give me an area of 10 by 12 feet, enough for several rows. We should have better luck this fall. By August, the cutworms will be gone. And my fence is in place and ready to ward off all attacks. By late September, more peas!

And all you pests out there: you may try me, but you’ll never take me down!

It was about nine o’clock in the morning, mid April with the sun barely showing from behind the clouds. There was a look of soft rain in the gray sky hanging low on the horizon across the horse pasture that loomed off in the distance behind my dilapidated white-washed garage. I was wearing my black-and-white zebra stripe flannel pajama pants, my floppy old pink Isotoner slippers, and the black velour hoodie that I had bought a month ago on clearance at Target. I was clean, but without makeup, and my hair was damp from my morning bath, and I didn’t care who saw it. I was everything the novice gardener ought to be. I was going outside to check on my early planting of peas.

My garden sits across my crushed rock-covered drive about a dozen feet from my bottom porch step, still damp from an early morning shower. I briefly glanced at the spinach and lettuce seedlings nestled comfortably in their flats, having been left outside on the porch in the cool night air to prepare them for transplanting later in the week, when the ground was less wet. As I moved down the slick wooden steps, I took care not to fall, holding on to the rail, until my slippers crunched on the surface before me. I stopped and stared over the field beyond the road, where a weathered farm stand still rises from the landscape, a relic of another time when gardens were royalty and their attendants, ladies in waiting. In the distant haze lay the apartments constructed not so many years ago and beyond them my beloved Target and Menards and Kinkos, reminders of the times in which we now live.

My attention was drawn back to my garden before me when I heard the distant shout of a golfer in the course a hundred yards from the rail fence that separates my land from my neighbor’s. I heard also the crack of the iron against the ball, although my view of the play was shielded by the towering pines behind my neighbor’s small sturdy barn. I moved thoughtfully across the drive to my garden plot that follows one car length between the drive and the neighbor’s rail fence and then continues along the full length of my old garage until it nearly reaches the ancient maple that separates the front plot from the smaller garden bed in the back corner of my lot. And then I saw it, and my heart sank and my soul despaired.

My peas. My lovely precious glorious peas. Murdered. Slaughtered. A full botanical bloodbath had occurred while I peacefully slept in innocence inside. Who had done this retched thing? Who had bitten off the tops of nearly half of my exquisite slumbering seedlings? Homicidal rodents, that’s who. Vicious rampaging rabbits. Or gluttonous groundhogs. Perhaps maniacal savage squirrels. How often I had heard their challenging chatter in the overhanging branches of my yard’s many towering oaks. They were not content with the plentiful bounty of acorns that roll beneath my feet with my every step. They had been biding their time, plotting, hatching a plan, waiting for their chance when they could strike and make off with my growing greenery.

And then they struck. They had been watching, those treacherous, sneaky assassins. They had seen me remove those hundreds of protective makeshift cloches that I had so lovingly constructed out of discarded one- and two-liter soda bottles. They had seen me rotate them over to my shorter lettuce and spinach seedlings in the back garden bed, leaving naked and vulnerable my beautiful, trusting and pure-hearted peas now liberated and reaching their faces up into the sky above. And then they struck. When my back was turned.

Sensing their one lucky break — a late afternoon and evening downpour that prevented fickle me from standing out in the cold and wet April air and hammering two dozen fenceposts into the soggy soil and then wrapping my garden behind protective chicken wire fencing to foil their sociopathic visions of pea-seedling slaughter — these crafty criminals struck in the dead of night. And me, having left the night before with my little peas looking like this:

(This photo was taken at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, April 28, 2009.)

(This photo was taken at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, April 28, 2009.)

. . . Returned the next, following damp morning to see this:

(This photo was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

(This photo was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

. . . And this:

(This photo also was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

(This photo also was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

Is there justice in this world? Is there vengeance to be found? It is a harsh world out there. Evil lurks around every corner. We must be bold and face them down. We must triumph and fight for good. That is why my garden now looks like this:

(Photo taken 9 a.m Thursday, April 30, 2009.)

(Photo taken 9 a.m Thursday, April 30, 2009.)

Be brave, little seedlings. I am armed with hoe and rake and shovel and spade, and I will make sure the deaths of your brothers and sisters will never leave my memory. Because I am valiant, and I will battle onward for truth and justice, making certain those hellion horrors, those devious devils never ever have a chance to sink their treacherous teeth into your vitamin-rich, chlorophyllous, photosynthetic flesh again.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

The snow has melted here in Indiana, and I am making plans for my very first vegetable garden of my own.  I am living in my fourth house, and this is the first one where planting a garden makes any sense at all.  The land is flat, unlike the lot that my last home sat upon.  I’ll have to work around the ten large trees on the property, but there is enough space along the southern side of the garage and extending west along the drive for a medium sized vegetable garden.

I’m not exactly a stranger to gardens.  When we lived in my second house, from 1985 to 1995, I kept an herb garden and a strawberry patch going the whole time we were there.  Oh, and we had volunteer cherry tomatoes that returned every year, a remnant from the previous owners.  But the house was right in town, with very little yard and less full sun.  There wasn’t much to work with, and having two children who needed a little grass and a sandbox, I didn’t fight to expand.

My first house, on the other hand, had ideal space for a backyard garden. But we lived there so briefly that I never had the chance to dig in and get dirty.  We moved in in the late fall and by the next spring, we were making plans to move out.  The move was right, but leaving that big yard behind has been a regret ever since.

So here we are now.  My children are grown or nearly grown, and I find myself in a little farmhouse on the edge of town with plenty of space, fertile ground, and one very sunny strip along the south side of the property.  This is where we’ll put the garden.

The act of digging up the sod and preparing the soil is perhaps the most daunting.  I’m energetic in spirit, but sometimes my body doesn’t live up to my mind’s expectations.  Thankfully, I have two adult sons who live nearby and who have offered to help.

My oldest son Zac, who works in nearby Elkhart County (which is currently experiencing an 18 percent unemployment rate), is worried about the economic climate.  With a small family of his own to support, he too thinks the garden is a good idea.  And my daughter-in-law Jenni is perhaps this garden’s greatest advocate.  We spent some time together yesterday alternately looking through seed packets at Walmart’s garden center and chasing down Jaxon, my grandson, who is nearly two.

This garden exists largely in my mind right now.  But I have sown two small flats of 50 cells: one with Roma tomato seeds and the other with a lettuce mix (Summerlong Gourmet Mix, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.).  My modest little farmhouse has an enclosed front sunporch with a shelf along the windows on all three sides, the perfect place for my trays to bask in the sunshine and soak up the rays.  Unfortunately, the weather has turned cold here today (now down to 25 degrees F as I write this just before noon), so I’m bringing the trays inside to my kitchen counters until it warms above freezing, a small sacrifice if it’s a difference between sprouting and not sprouting.

Here’s a photo of my flats, taken right before I brought them inside from the sun porch.



Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow.
All it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground.
Inch by inch, row by row, someone bless these seeds I sow.
Someone warm them from below
‘Til the rain comes tumbling down.

Pullin’ weeds and pickin’ stones,
We are made of dreams and bones.
I feel the need to grow my own ’cause the time is close at hand.
Grain for grain, sun and rain, I’ll find my way in nature’s chain.
Tune my body and my brain to the music of the land.

Plant your rows straight and long,
Temper them with prayer and song
And mother earth will keep you strong if you give her love and care.
An old crow watchin’ hungrily from his perch in yonder tree,
In my garden I’m as free as that feathered thief up there.

(songwriter: David B. Mallett. Copyright: Cherry Lane Music Pubg. Co. Inc.)

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