Toiling in the soil, again

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, March 15, 2014

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A neighbor who has been an interior designer her whole working life recently decided to retire from that profession – at which she is very, very good.

She’s going to be a farmer.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

We drove by the other day and her husband, son-in-law and a couple of grandkids were laying out raised beds, stringing wire for trellises, putting in drip irrigation. They’re going to grow organic vegetables. They’ve got an electric fence around the perimeter to keep the deer out. A greenhouse is in the works.

I’m intensely jealous.

As good as she is at design, she’s probably going to be a terrific farmer.

I’m what’s known as a “wannabe” gardener.

Basically, that means I am a wonderful gardener – but only in my fertile imagination.

When we moved to our current location I drew up a master plan for a garden surrounding our well house – pathways, raised beds, vegetable areas, flowers, ornamentals, trees. A paradise. It was only a matter of time until Southern Living came to do a feature.

But the first time I cranked up a tiller in that area, it nearly ripped my arms off. Turns out, the previous landowner had a road that went right up to the well house, so there was about a foot of road-base beneath that thin layer of topsoil.

I might as well have tried to start a garden in the road. Asphalt is more fertile.

I moved over into slightly better dirt and kept trying. I built beds, put in a sprinkler system. We planted tomatoes, carrots, spinach, onions and other stuff there for several years.

Every spring we’d start, so full of hope, in the cool weather and the rain. Then came the bugs. The stickers. The fire ants. The heat. The rain stopped. The kids, and eventually my wife, were afraid to go out there.

By July, we’d leave on vacation, and when we came back, the garden would look like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, without the castle – or the beauty. Just thorns, fire ants feasting on dead grasshoppers, and I’m pretty sure a wicked witch, holed up in the well house.

I’d wait until winter, then fight my way in to retrieve the tomato cages, vowing to do better next year.

It got so bad, tomato plants at the garden center would smoke cigarettes and stay up late, trying hard to look wilted and unhealthy just so I wouldn’t buy them. They’d heard about my gardening skills through the grapevine, I guess.

Finally, I gave up. I ripped out all the structures and flattened the beds so I could at least mow that area to keep the weeds down. The sprinker system has been unplugged for years, the valve turned off, the sprinkler heads buried.

This year, instead of trying to roto-till through road-base, I built a raised bed with cinder blocks for a very small garden out near the driveway. It’s easily accessible from the house, and there’s water handy.

Not only will we not have to fight our way through malevolent thorns and critters to reach this garden – we’ll see it, every time we drive up, and so will everyone who comes to see us.

That alone should shame us into taking better care of it.

I bought $10 worth of topsoil from my friend Jerry and dumped a couple of barrels of my homemade compost in with it. I’m pretty sure it will grow anything, proving you really can garden anywhere if you bring your own dirt.

We’re going to start with spinach, carrots, onions and maybe some kale. Later on I’d like some peas, and of course, tomatoes once we’re sure the threat of freeze is over. If it works, I may build another one and stick some squash, watermelons and cantaloupes in there.

It won’t rival my neighbor’s farm, I’m sure. But it would be nice to bring a sack full of tomatoes to the office now and then because I just have so many.

And I would love it if the tomato plants would stop cringing as I walk past.

Bob Buckel is editorial director for the Messenger.

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