The incompleat gardener . . .

JOHN F. KELLY

April 22, 1992|By John F. Kelly

AROUND this time every year, I start to think about spring planting. What triggers my thoughts is the arrival in the mail of the first seed catalogs. Reading the thick, colorful guides and looking at the pictures of vegetables ripening on the vine always makes me feel ould soddish, and for weeks after the catalogs arrive I clump around the house in my oversized rubber boots and bib overalls and talk about farmy things -- rows of this, stands of that.

The ironic thing is I have never had much luck with gardens. As a matter of fact, I'm probably one of the few people on Earth who can't grow decent tomatoes. For whatever reason, my tomatoes always seem to end up an anemic-looking pinkish-red, with about the same size and consistency as golf balls.

It's the same with peas, considered by most gardeners to be about as hard to grow as ragweed. No matter how well they start out, somewhere between the promise and the harvest something terrible always seems to happen to my peas. Three years ago, for example, I put in some sugar snap peas, the same sugar snap peas that people with nothing but gravel for soil extol in letters to seed catalog editors.

("Dear Sir: I have tried growing green peas for several years now but have had no luck at all until this year when I planted a 2-oz. pkg. of your sugar snap peas and now I have got peas enough for a year's worth of eating thanks to your wonderful product. J.H., Kelseyville, N.D.")

The peas I ordered from the same company as J.H. of Kelseyville, N.D., came up right on schedule and started developing fantastic little baby pods. And for awhile I thought I had finally licked The Curse of the Green Pea. Foolish me. I now know that the appearance of those small pods was some kind of secret signal for the vines to die.

I once wrote a seed company and asked how come everyone else could grow peas, but I couldn't. They sent me a form letter inviting me to order a $15 book on how to plant a successful garden. I ordered it and read it, and the very next year I sent away for five packages of green peas. When nothing came up, I took a hoe and hacked the book to pieces and buried it in the dead pea patch.

Still, I keep trying. Someone once told me about Jerusalem artichokes, which are a little like potatoes except they grow fairly tall and spread like the bubonic plague. It is something I did not understand very well until the following year when a new crop sprung up right in the middle of my garden and killed every single one of my tomato plants.

Another year I ordered a whole bunch of snake gourds. They're called snake gourds because they look like snakes. They grow long and skinny and lie there all coiled up like snakes and scare the life out of cats and dogs who wander into the garden.

They're supposed to do the same thing to birds and rabbits, but that is a myth. At least, none of the birds and rabbits who inhabited my garden were fooled. They ate the gourds. (They might as well have; there was nothing left to eat.)

But hope, as they say, springs eternal (especially in spring), and I spend my evenings poring over the seed catalogs and dreaming about everything from a tidy little kitchen garden of exotic herbs to bumper crops of rutabagas and radishes.

This year, I think I'll start my plants inside. Then I think I'll invest in a soil test. I may even forgo chemical fertilizers and take a drive in the country to buy some cow manure. Then I'll mother those little babies to death.

Of course, when they die I'll hop on down to the supermarket for my summer veggies.

John F. Kelly writes from Baltimore.

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