My empire of dirt

The trials and errors of a late-blooming gardener.
A daytime photos shows a verdant, growing garden with tomato plants, various squash, corn, beans, and sunflowers.
Photo by Christina Lieffring.

The trials and errors of a late-blooming gardener.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

Why was I, a grown adult woman, chasing a toad around my community garden plot? 

I have been in a weeks-long battle to save my potato plants from potato beetles and was hoping to get a symbiotic relationship going with the little guy. A fellow gardener had left out some old potatoes for anyone to use, so I split them up with a trowel and planted them. Surprisingly, they ALL sprouted. I was trying to figure out how I was going to a) harvest about a dozen potato plants and b) what my two-person household was going to do with all those potatoes when the bugs started to appear. 

I had never heard of potato beetles until my biology/agriculture friend stopped by the plot and said, “You need to get rid of those.” 

I had done another round of flicking, shaking and spraying (with water) to get all the beetles off before dusting the plants in diatomaceous earth (another thing I had never heard of until a few weeks ago). I spotted the toad on the wood chip path by my plot and after clumsily herding him (read: gently scaring the crap out of him), I hope he’s enjoying a nice potato-beetle buffet. 

To say that I’m winging it when it comes to gardening is generous. In theory I should know a thing or two. I’m from Kansas, for god’s sake. But my grandma who grew up on a farm decided after moving to the suburbs that she would stick with potted plants, flowers, herbs, and tomatoes. (She always said grocery-store tomatoes taste like cardboard. She’s not wrong). Calling my parents’ overgrown yard gardening is a stretch, but I’ve got to give them credit for being the only non-hippie Kansans who composted in the ‘90s.

For whatever reason, I had zero to little interest or skill with keeping plants alive, inside or outside, until my 30s. My grandma gave me an aloe vera plant when I went to college that I killed almost immediately. I had a sad little plant in my late 20s that became a thriving plant when my gardening roommate re-potted it. (Pro tip: you’re not supposed to keep plants in the plastic pots they’re sold in for, literally, years.)

Learning to do something you’re completely incompetent at in your 30s is humbling. The first few weeks of planting, I looked at my plot and heard Johnny Cash’s voice warble “my empire of dirt.” Didn’t help that I’m using brown paper bags to reduce weeds in between the mounds. For a long time, my plot looked neither pretty nor promising. 

I’ve powered through by thinking of it all as one big experiment. As anyone who played any of the video games in the Harvest Moon franchise knows, the radishes sprouted first. In my first community garden plot years ago, I planted an entire packet of radish seeds at the same time. That’s how I learned that radishes grow very easily and very quickly and found myself Googling quick-pickling recipes. This time I staggered planting, which is working out reasonably well. (But if you have any good, uncomplicated pickling recipes, send them my way.)

It was when the sunflowers poked up out of the ground, making my Kansas heart flutter, that I thought maybe this is working. For now.

There are the losses you could have prevented, but possibly even more frustrating are the losses you have no control over. I remember excitedly biking to my first garden plot because the time before my cabbage and sweet peppers had been almost ready, and I was sure I’d get to harvest them this time. They were, but something had gotten there before I did, took some big old bites out of each and every cabbage and pepper, and left the rest. 

This year, my big experiment is having a section for the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. I’m already concerned that I didn’t get the timing right and should have sprouted the corn at home before the ground warmed up. My beans have climbed up the corn stalks and are waving out in the empty space, waiting for the corn to catch up. I’ve got one row I think will make “knee high by the 4th of July,” but the others? We’ll see. 

There’s always the risk that Wisconsin will snap back into winter before everything’s fully ripe and harvested. I moved to Wisconsin from Nebraska in August 2017 and left a potted plant out on the porch too late into the fall. The temperature dropped, and my beloved tradescantia zebrina turned into fibrous sludge.

Despite the potential loss of a few potato plants the beetles ravaged, there’s signs of hope. We have eaten so many radishes so far and I have at least a dozen more in the fridge. My sunflowers are monstrous and fearlessly taking up space. Several ping-pong ball-sized tomatoes have formed. My various squash, cucumber, and zucchini plants are flowering, as well as something that I think is a pepper plant, but I’m not 100% sure. I think I have some spinach growing, but it could be a leafy weed; time will tell. And judging by how aggressively my bean vines are growing and expanding, I could easily end up with a freezer full of beans by the end of the season. 

All I can do is do all I can. Whatever happens, I’ll take notes, try new things, and make new mistakes. There’s always next year.

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