Gardens, like lives, need growth plans

Garden: When children grow up and leave, the garden that once fed them and taught them will change- but how?

In The Garden

February 17, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On an unseasonably warm winter day, I walk around the garden, trying to imagine what it will look like in July. It's a kind of planning perambulation before sitting down with the seed catalogs. As I gaze across the space that until last year held 30-odd tomato plants annually - enough for 60 quarts of homemade spaghetti sauce, 50 of canned tomatoes with bushels to spare - I suddenly feel as though somewhere along the line, I've lost the vision thing. I can't quite imagine what next summer's garden is supposed to look like.

The fact that I never completely finished clearing up from last year doesn't help. In one raised bed, a couple of desiccated bean vines reach for the north fence. The south blotch - once full of strawberries and winter squash - is still a stand of elephantine weeds. I ignored it last summer to preserve my sanity (and my back) during a difficult time, but now it stands unkempt like a botanical reproach. And the south-facing perennial bed is half-engulfed in wire grass.

Maintenance has never been my long suit. But before the children were born, I managed to keep up. Once they came, things began to slip. By the time they started school, which further cramped an already crowded schedule, I was sunk. Unwilling to exchange the things I love for the things I felt obligated to do, I kept it all but dropped my standards.

If the hot peppers were festooned with wild Chinese lantern, that was OK so long as we had plenty of jalapenos for fajitas.

Yet as I look around, I realize that the mild angst I feel today is not just guilt over my failure to keep up. I feel as if I've lost my way.

In lieu of direction, I've fallen back on old planting habits, but it's not the same as a plan.

When I first turned over the garden, I had a clear idea of my objectives. I wanted the Earth-mother thing - organic soups, a larder stocked with homegrown produce, a life of earth- and-season-dominated bliss shared with my children. It could meander a bit along botanical byways to provide opportunities for surprise and discovery, but it had direction. Having a vision helps to set priorities, to imagine potential. It also helps to discipline choices.

With my sights set on having our own personal organic produce department, I began to plant tomatoes, sweet peppers, cymling squash (a childhood favorite), green beans and zucchini. I expanded to Cranshaw melons, beets, cabbage and broccoli, then added herbs to enliven budget-conscious recipes. I branched out into other fruits - blueberries, raspberries and huge, lethal-thorned dewberries, which made superb jams and pies that we shared with friends.

As the children (and their appetites) grew, I kept expanding, though always with an eye to enlarging the menu. It all turned out to be harder, more demanding work than I had originally envisioned, but the joys were keener than I had imagined, too. A beneficial trade. Over time, I recruited the children - sometimes willingly, sometimes kicking and screaming - more and more into the garden maintenance. But despite their squawking, they appreciated the garden's beauty and bounty. And they learned that it takes time and effort to nurture a seed - or a life - to fruition. A garden is anything but instant gratification. It's planning and planting, hope, faith and labor with no guarantee of success.

Now that my children are older - Matt's at college and Abby has her foot halfway out the door - I no longer need three big sowings of beans or a huge patch of tomatoes.

But I don't know exactly what I do need. I've spent years planning and preparing my children to one day walk off - competently and confidently - into their own lives. Yet I never once considered how it might affect the garden.

So I'm trying to recalibrate my horticultural compass, formulate a new vision. I still want earth- and season-dominated bliss, and organic produce, but however comforting the sense of abundance, mass production without need or use is wasteful.

It's time to shift priorities a bit - more food for the beleaguered wildlife, less for us. More auto-pilot, less maintenance.

Yet I still want variety, surprises. I want to try new things, to experiment without getting carried away. Having a plan helps to cull the distractions, but I still have no plan.

Despite that lack, I sit down with the catalogs a few days after my garden walkabout and compose the seed and plant orders. Before sending them off, I check for inadvertent duplications and am pleased to see that I've exercised uncharacteristic restraint, especially in the roster of vegetables. Two kinds, not four, of beans; one summer and three winter squash instead of seven; and about half the usual amount of lettuce, radish and beet. A good beginning. But I when I added everything up, I discovered that I had picked out 35 tomato plants.

More than I need. I sent the orders off anyway. Old planting habits are hard to break. And I want to leave room for serendipity.

Sometimes, things work even without a plan.

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