Gardening Benefits Plentiful Despite Challenges

With the coming of summer, lots of North Country folks’ minds turn to gardening. Well, actually, many of those minds turned to gardening as early as January, when the seed catalogs started arriving in the mail and the planning began, on sheets of paper spread across kitchen tables on cold, dark evenings. Hard-core gardeners, it’s said, even began dreaming the moment they finished putting last year’s garden to bed for the winter, pulled the last carrot or dug the last potato through frost-crusted earth and wondered why this crop or that hadn’t come in. “We’ll try again next year….”

    For most of us, gardening may be about the independence of raising our own trustworthy food, the satisfaction of coaxing something edible from the Earth, the pleasure of getting our hands dirty, our latent desire to do something good for a beleaguered planet, or our determination to make the most of the north country’s all-too-short summers: “The growing season is only a few weeks long, and I am GOING to enjoy it, even if it exhausts me!” But for everybody, what’s even more important is that gardening is a super source of family stories.

    For us, these revolve around the expansion and contraction of our gardens as we’ve passed through life’s stages. Growing up in the north country, I got it into my head that everybody had a big garden. A great-aunt, for example, maintained a massive layout, full of flowers and vegetables and plum trees, on hundreds of square feet of river bottom, which she tended religiously into her 90s. A proper lady, she wore pants only when gardening; upon completing her weeding, clipping, hoeing and harvesting for the day, she would repair immediately to her room and emerge in a dress. I naturally assumed that when I grew up I would become a gardener too.

    That proved easier said than done, because for the first few years after college I lived in urban environments, surrounded by asphalt, and then in a boarding school where I taught. We did manage a small (I mean about six-foot by six-foot) plot there, but the grounds superintendent wasn’t thrilled that we wanted to dig up a tiny square of his campus.

    When we moved to the Canton area and bought an old farmhouse with an acre of land, though, it was time for the gardens to take off. We had some fine ones for a few years, and even succeeded in being nearly self-sufficient in veggies one winter. One year we cajoled corn stalks up to a few inches greater than my almost-six-foot height, and we even harvested a couple of palatable (if you define the term liberally) cantaloupes, which our neighbors said couldn’t be raised in the north country – too short a season. Those neighbors were from Birdsfoot Farm, one of the few communal organic operations that survived the idealism of the Back to the Earth fad of the 1970s (and continues to thrive to this day), so we were pretty smug about that. Or maybe just lucky.

    We survived late frosts; one we christened the Great Anniversary Freeze, because it fell on our wedding anniversary, June 29, and devastated not only our garden but also dozens throughout the region. We also endured a cow invasion: one spring day we looked out the window and spotted a dozen Holsteins trampling around in what after a rainy spell was abnormally spongy soil. They’d escaped from another neighbor’s farm, and were having a delightful time trashing our newly-planted spread. A quick call brought the farmer running, issuing heartfelt apologies even before he was within hearing range, and the cows were soon rounded up and headed home, though not before leaving deep holes all over our poor garden; I had not appreciated until then how much a dairy cow weighs, and thus how far into saturated soil it can sink its legs. They also left some fertilizer, though, for which we thanked the chagrined farmer.

    Which reminds me of the prolific rhubarb we cut each spring. We couldn’t imagine how it could get so big and delicious with no work on our part. Then a previous owner of the place told us it had until not many years earlier been a working farm, and the rhubarb had sprouted happily in the former manure pile. Ah, the wonders of nature.

    But the main thing we survived was zucchini. Why we kept planting so darn much of it I could never imagine, except that we knew it would grow no matter what, so there was that smug satisfaction thing again. The problem was that we always went away on vacation in August, and it never had the courtesy to stop growing while we were gone. We’d come home to zucchinis the size of Goodyear blimps. The vines would lose all sense of propriety, insinuating themselves among the bean stalks, climbing the pepper plants for a better view, hauling themselves up the tomato cages and cutting off the tomatoes’ sunlight with fronds as big as truck tires. We prayed for a hard frost.

    Eventually, we moved into town, and the gardens got smaller and smaller as our backs got older and we realized we could patronize the Farmers Market, featuring growers who actually knew what they were doing, for a little cash and a lot less sweat, mosquito repellent, muscle rub and dirt under our fingernails. We’re now down to a fall-bearing raspberry patch, some rhubarb transplanted from that old manure-pile stock, and sporadic asparagus – perennials that require minimal human effort.

    Meanwhile, gardening has evolved a new ethos as a beneficial aspect of the larger environment, partly in response to concerns about global climate change and natural habitat loss. Trees (carbon captors), bees (pollinators), water conservation practices and native species (as opposed to invasives) are the “in” things today.  We’re all for it; we’ll just let the younger generations do the labor while we rock on the deck until the raspberries are ready to pick, sometime in October.