experimental gardening

My garden is once again in that precarious position between abundance and disintegration. Texas weather shifts so fast and dramatically from spring to summer that the lettuce turns bitter overnight. Very few things can survive the summer sun here, so it feels as if most of my plants are preparing for their last rites. This is a difficult time for me; I can only look at my garden in early morning when the plants have had the night to recover from the previous day’s battle.

I am watering a neighbor’s plants while my neighbors are away, which is always an uncomfortable proposition. My way of gardening is more experimental, or, depending upon your perspective, neglectful. So, it should come as no surprise that her chard is the worse for my care after a week. My chard, on the other hand, is obnoxiously abundant.

But how can this be so? They are the same plant, are they not? They are exposed to the same climactic conditions, similar soil, precisely the same amount of rainfall. So then why does my chard bolster while her chard balks when the sun reaches its zenith?

The secret lies in growing from seed, and starting as you mean to continue. That is to say, all of my mature plants have already made it through a sort of climactic selection process: those who could’t survive my adoring though neglectful manner either never germinated or never made it to so far as to produce their first true leaves.

This is a bit how I parent too. I don’t mean to, I just care very much when I’m thinking about it, and at times get so absorbed in something else that it appears that I do not care about anything else. Knowing myself and that I have the best of intentions, I will defend myself with the fact that I appreciate the essence of a thing (or person) and believe fully in the individual’s ability to overcome adversity–the triumph of the spirit, and all that. I believe that a thing (or person) needs respect to reveal its own individuating rhythm, which also means that applying some formulaic system of care based on an understanding of parts (how much nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorous a plant needs, for example) reveals a deeply flawed understanding of a life and my role as facilitator or steward.

So, with plants as well as children, there is no right way to encourage growth and development. They all adapt to their environment and, if given enough space to become themselves (with occasional frantic fertilizing), will flourish and become strong individuals, capable of managing and overcoming their own suffering.

Everything is an experiment: gardening, parenting, living. It is all a matter of being and doing the best we can with what we have available to us.

An afterthought…

My chard is now entering its second summer and is bright and strong as only a world-wizened being could be. My garden is in the front yard, so I have had many conversations with passersby about gardening, and in the process I have discovered that most chard does not do particularly well here. I had assumed that mine was like all the others and that chard was simply one of the three vegetables that can survive a Texas summer. But it seems that it is only “neglected” chard that has such survival instincts. Which of course leads me to question whether it isn’t precisely my faith in my chard’s ability to survive (and my minimal input to ensure its survival) that has resulted in its resilience. Indeed, I feel as if I should question whether it is MY chard at all, or simply another glorious individual in this crazy karmic enterprise.

Morning harvest

Last year we moved the garden beds to the front yard, where the sun is strongest on our property. There were two things working against me: bad soil and exposure to the neighbors. Both of these factors meant I used more fertilizer than I had ever done before—I was desperately afraid of failing, and so publicly.

My plants struggled. Few tomatoes; no summer or winter squash; climbing beans with no flowers. Only the okra, chard, and sweet potatoes forgave my ineptitude.

This year I returned to my horticultural roots, focusing on improving the soil rather than fertilizing the plant.

Earthworm castings (so, worm shit) rather than expensive organic fertilizers have made all the difference. The plants have been quietly but steadily growing all spring, and are now flowering and fruiting as if they were specimens for a textbook.

I am not completely embracing my budding sense of glory—the summer sun has yet to reach its full force, and that will no doubt exhaust the majority of the plants in my garden. But I do think there is a lovely lesson here. Something along the lines of less is more. It would be cliche if it weren’t true.