Over the course of the last 25 years, I have gardened both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, and I have compiled a Gardener’s List of Untruths, for those of us who have followed, to the letter, the advice of the “Master Gardeners“, come up with nothing to serve our families but dust and weevils, and had our neighbors turn us in for suspected toxic waste storage (HEY, that’s my garden!). Keep in mind that I have personally tested every Untruth, and while I will never claim to be a Good Gardener, I am comfortable in my role as Black Thumb, Defender of Inept Gardeners, Protector of Those Who Keep Trying.
Untruth #1: Rent the Rototiller and simply push it along, smiling and humming a settlers’ tune as it turns your land into premium, glorious, farmland.
Truth: Pay someone with a real tractor to till up your garden plot. If you want to experience the effects of Rototilling on your body, have someone work you over with a sack of wet sand, then jump off of your garage roof. Naked. Into brambles.
Untruth #2: Your veggies will look just like the picture in the catalog.
Truth: Actually, they WILL look just like the pictures, they just don’t tell you that the pictures are life-size.
Untruth #3: Newspaper makes excellent mulch.
Truth: Newspaper looks like litter in your garden, because it IS litter in your garden. The best mulch I ever used was stall innards from the goat pen, wheel-barrowed directly from pen to garden and dumped between rows. If you have no goats (I can help you with that), the thick black plastic the garden store sells is a good alternative that keeps out weeds and doesn’t look awful, although some folks, like my publisher, are opposed to putting anything in the garden that won’t break down rapidly. Last year’s hay works well too, the flakes are about the right size to fit between rows.
Untruth #4: Fish heads make excellent fertilizer.
Truth: Although legend has it that the Native Americans planted a fish head with every kernel of corn, the reality is that this is a myth perpetuated by generations of skunks looking for an easy meal.
Untruth #5: Natural pest control works just as well as chemical pest control.
Truth: There’s nothing like a good dose of poison to kill bugs. Since my children had a habit of eating straight from the garden, I always go chemical-free, and assume the “one for me, two for nature” attitude. However, using beer for slugs does work—taken internally by the gardener in a large enough dose to obliterate any thought of slugs.
Untruth #6: Mothballs/aluminum pie tins/sweaty shirts/Tabasco sauce/gunshots will deter mammalian pests.
Truth: The instant your sweet corn is ready to pick, some sort of silent Corn Alarm sounds, and nothing will keep the raccoons away. I witnessed the mid-day destruction of my sweet corn from 20 feet away, yelling, waving my arms, jumping up and down and lobbing every lift-able object at the masked darlings. They totally ignored the Crazy Woman at the edge of the garden (you would think rabies would’ve been a concern, I was certainly foaming at the mouth), bent a stalk, opened an ear, took 3 or 4 bites, then moved onto the next one, effectively ruining the entire crop and breaking my heart simultaneously. There is nothing on earth as delicious as homegrown sweet corn, harvested and cooked within minutes, slathered with real butter. If I ever have the courage to plant sweet corn again, I will fence that area and turn a big doggie loose in it two weeks before harvest.
Untruth #7: Throwing netting over your fruit trees will keep the birds from eating your ripening fruit.
Truth: The birds actually love this one, as they hop up into your branches and can eat all day long without worrying about getting eaten themselves by a hawk.
Untruth #8: The catalogs are full of thousands of different veggies, so you must plant all of them.
Truth: Plant only what you will eat. Also, learn what you can plant together. I learned that if you plant cucumbers and gourds next to each other, you get mutants that are neither edible nor decorative, just disturbing.
Untruth #9: If your children help in the garden, they will be proud to eat the Fruits of Their Labor.
Truth: Kids are kids and kids hate veggies. This can also work against you when they name each tomato, and you are not allowed to eat them either.
Untruth #9 1/2: Working together in the garden will enhance the sibling bond.
Truth: One year my daughter gave her little brother a radish, claiming it was a strawberry just to see the look on his face at the first bite. He fell for it every time. Yes. Every time. She is now in law school, and for years he harbored a grave suspicion of all food products.
Untruth #10: You will save a bundle on your grocery bill by growing your own produce.
Truth: After the tilling, purchasing and planting, mulching, fertilizing, pest deterring, watering, harvesting and putting up, you will be munching $10 carrots. My daughter did make a tidy sum one year growing and selling pumpkins. We planted them among the rows of corn and they did well. This was in Wisconsin, where the Yankee raccoons are more civil than these Southern Rebel raccoons and I could actually eat my own sweet corn and have enough left to freeze (sigh).
To New Gardeners planning a first garden, these veggies are easy to grow, and most likely to be eaten: green beans (get the bush type unless you want to build poles), tomatoes (get cages), squashes, cucumbers, corn (needs lots of room, and a razor wire fence for protection).
Beware of zucchini. If you must grow it, buy a packet of seeds, plant one, and throw the rest away, better yet, burn them. You will still be slipping surplus zucchinis into strangers’ purses just to get rid of the damn things.
This year we will again plant a garden, for Hope springs eternal; there is no finer workout than an hour or two in the garden. Country life just doesn’t seem complete without those precious gems from your own garden: the one tomato that doesn’t have rust, the one strawberry that doesn’t have a resident slug, squash yellow as sunshine, corn sweet as candy.
Hand me that seed catalog, would you? I hear the call of the land. (Sounds suspiciously like giggling raccoons…)