Making lifelong progress as a gardener
(From the current issue of Colorado Gardener magazine)
When I was a kid, we had a horse for a while. Chico, a handsome palomino, was really my sister’s love, but I was signed up for lessons. We practiced looping around barrels, weaving through slalom poles, and other maneuvers that neither of us understood the point of. Chico was so unconvinced of the need for these activities that once, instead of going in the direction I was tugging the reins, he just casually walked back into the barn, scraping me off the saddle as he passed under the low doorway. I also lacked passion and confidence, so I never developed good riding skills.
Recently, I read about some historical figure – I think it was Winston Churchill, or possibly Johnny Depp – who attributed much of his success in life to the discipline and confidence gained from becoming an expert equestrian in his youth. This made me wish I had put in more effort at learning to steer Chico so I could stick the flag in the bucket faster. I should have listened to my grandmother, who predicted with eerie prescience way back then that if I didn’t work hard, I wouldn’t amount to a row of pins.
Since I wasn’t progressing much in horsemanship, they kept putting me in the beginner class again each summer. Eventually, from sheer experience I got to the point where I won most of the ribbons in the end-of-season tournament at the county fairgrounds. In retrospect, it was unfair for me, with several years of albeit uninspired riding under my big silver belt buckle, to compete with novices. But Chico and I were young and didn’t realize this at the time, so we basked in our glory.
That was almost 50 years ago now. I haven’t been on horseback much since, but I still spend many hours every summer in a field, lazily striving for success. I worry I’ve been gardening the same way I rode the horse: taking the easy way, not putting in enough time with the stirrup then and the stirrup hoe now, never pushing myself to improve.
The easy success of beginner-level gardening can lead to complacency. Growing huge crops of zucchini, peas, and especially leafy greens takes no great skill. With nicknames like dinosaur kale, they have Jurassic toughness. Nothing short of an asteroid can kill them. Nevertheless, I stride into the kitchen brandishing giant chard leaves with the same unearned pride I got from those horse show ribbons.
I always grow some intermediate plants too, like tomatoes and peppers. But I’ve become accustomed to mediocre yields, just a few fruits on each plant to show for months of watering and weeding. Surely I could reap much bigger harvests if I worked harder to learn their needs and desires. Instead of haphazardly scattering compost, I could test the soil and precisely amend it with their favorite flavors of micronutrients. I could spend winter evenings designing optimal crop rotation schemes rather than carrying my seedlings out to the beds each spring and trying to remember what I planted where last season. At just the right times throughout the summer, I could prune the suckers, side dress with eggshells and fish goop, and sing to the veggies as Prince Charles recommends. (He even asked Katy Perry to serenade his plants during a garden tour!) I lack the discipline to do these things consistently, and I don’t know any pop stars, but it’s good to have theoretical goals to shoot for.
Beyond this level are the advanced vegetables that I’ve been too intimidated even to try. I don’t have the confidence to think I can successfully shepherd artichokes or Brussels sprouts through their long growing season without being annihilated by aphids long before maturity. But through hard work I could probably learn to do that, and to tie up cauliflower leaves and trench celery. Maybe someday I’ll even tend trays of Belgian endive in my dark basement! I’m determined to do better. I feel I have something to prove. To the Belgians, mainly, with their tricky sprouts and endives, but also to myself.
It's never too late for self-improvement. To move up from beginner level in anything, you must be open to new ideas and question the old ways. Standard sources of information can be dangerously inaccurate. In one seed catalog I received this spring, a big banner at the top of a page blares “Enjoy the Flavor and Nutrition!”, but right under it is the ad for castor beans. That makes the headline seem less like a persuasive sales pitch and more like something Walter White would sneer as he slipped ricin into your tea.
Good garden tips await us in quite unexpected places. Speaking of horses, another thing that happened 50 years ago was the release of The Godfather. This classic film is beloved for its insights about power, family, loyalty, and, most importantly, gardening. I rewatched it last year and was thunderstruck when Vito Corleone, the retired mafia don played by Marlon Brando, suffered a (spoiler alert!) fatal heart attack while playing with his grandson in the garden. It wasn’t the plot twist that shocked me. I barely noticed that, because I was transfixed by the beautiful 8-foot tomato vines climbing poles just a couple feet apart in a dense grid.
I had always used the small round tomato cages, which work okay for bush varieties like Roma. But I prefer the big slicers, whose long indeterminate vines overwhelm those flimsy supports. Last season I switched to the Godfather’s garden system, minus the armed goons at the gate, with excellent results. Plus, now I can proudly describe my tomatoes as “cage free”!
With this steady improvement in my gardening knowledge, I expect to finally graduate out of the beginner category and enjoy increasing yields for years to come, while remaining mindful that with greater rewards come greater risks. Remember, after a long career as a ruthless mob boss, surviving all manner of intrigues and assassination attempts, what finally whacked Don Corleone? The garden!
I hear that even Instragram is now just for old people. So if you are old like me (or old at heart, I guess?), please join me for more garden humor on Instagram at johnmhershey.”