The ruins of the garden

My garden is in ruins.  The soil here is poorer than I expected.  Next year it’ll be truckloads of manure and wood chips, trying to get a little less sandy of a texture in the soil, better water retention and better quality.  Right now everything is dying, between the heat and how quickly the soil dries.  Not that the garden ever produced as much as I’d hoped, anyway.  We only got a few pounds of tomatoes off of most of the plants, It was a serious disappointment.  Part of me is bitter.  I put in all of that work for what?  Some spaghetti squash and green beans (the only things that seemed to produce with any kind of fervency.)  I feel cheated.  Cheated!

I look at the ruins of the garden, my little kingdom, dying off bit by bit like the Roman Empire.

I grumble and curse.

Then I remember that I have learned so much.  I’ve learned about gardening in the Steppe, which is so very different from gardening in the Midwest.  I’ve learned about what kinds of things I can expect to flourish here (beans, squash, corn, hardy tomatoes) and what I can expect to wither and die at the first sign of summer heat (peas and lettuce will never do well here, spinach has a short but boisterous growing season).  I have learned to water in the early hours of the morning.  I’ve learned to bury my compost to keep the neighbor dogs out of it.  I’ve learned that the stakes and tomato cages that worked in the Midwest WILL warp and give way here.  I’ve learned that I can start my seeds indoors even earlier than I expected, and that when I plant I need to cover EVERYTHING EXCESSIVELY will bird netting.  EXCESSIVELY.  My melons produced nada, nothing, zip.  But it is because the birds stole the shoots and I had to replant 12 weeks after the original seeds had germinated- those 12 weeks stole my chance at fruit.  Next year I will not let that happen.  I’ll keep my tomatoes indoor longer and force germinate them to start out with, and I will stake those puppies in hand knotted hammocks nailed to two-by-fours.  They will NOT have half their fruit rotting from being on the hot soil.  I’ll plant a lot more eggplant so I see a better chance at getting some fruit off them.  I’ll fall in love with more varieties of beans.

The garden next year will be bigger.  Bigger.  A better chance of enough of it surviving my learning curve, a better chance at produce.

Yesterday I was talking to a classmate who confessed to feeling like she’d started out this school year behind.  “I’m failing at everything!” She was gritting her teeth in exasperation.

“You need to give yourself permission to fail,” I said, commiserating.  “Accept where you are now so you can move on from it.  Accept, and keep fighting.  Don’t despise yourself and give up.”  Our teacher, eavesdropping rather obviously, had a knowing smile.

Ah, yes.  Yes.  I realized just seconds later that I was speaking to myself, too.

I need to accept where my garden is right now, accept the lessons it has taught me, and move on.  I need to plan for success and accept the failures and just keep going.

Because that is life.  Bitterness that life has cheated us is just thinly disguised rejection of the true gifts it has to offer.

Having God say, “Hells to the No,” is an answer to prayer, too.

And brown, withering corn produces the wisdom to plant it lower in the ground next year, where the water will pool better around the roots.

Scrawny, underproductive melon vines produce the knowledge to plant them where they have room to spread.

It all matters, even the failures.

Sometimes, especially the failures.

Sometimes the biggest learning comes in the ruins.

Meffing Goatsheads: or, all I need to know about sin I learned from my garden.

Goatshead thistles, or puncture vine, is the most obnoxious weed in the world (according to myself) and one I never had the acquaintance of until I moved into our current home.



That’s a picture of a bucket of the stuff.  I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out how to get rid of it. I suggested burning all of the stuff growing in the driveway and was met with laughter.  Why?  The seeds are so waxy that burning them only helps them germinate faster.  You can spray the vine with weed killer but if it has already seeded, the weed killer won’t affect the seeds.  You can pull it up as it grows but you’ll be doing that for years, and years, and years.  The seeds can live for ten years or more in the ground, and it’s only a matter of weeks from germination to seed.

So what do you do?  There’s one thing that most of the gardening blogs seem to agree on:  Goatsheads thrive in acidic or base soils but don’t do well in soils that are well balanced.  They do poorly in competition with other plants, so planting another kind of groundcover and fertilizing the hell out of it will quickly crowd the weeds out and prevent them from seeding.


The best way to get rid of them, to put it simply, is to make sure that your yard is a healthy place for other things to grow.

Which is tidily the best analogy I’ve ever heard for how to deal with sin.  Want to get rid of anger?  Focusing on your anger will never work.  Focusing on your anger will only amplify it. The only way to get rid of your anger is to make your heart the right condition to cultivate gentleness.  Want to get rid of judgmental attitudes?  Trust me on this, focusing on sin will only lead to more judgment and deep hypocrisy.  You weed it out by planting other things there: understanding, love, trust.  This is true of so many other things.  Greed can be treated with giving, addiction can be treated with self-control or self-knowledge, jealousy can be treated with self-care, and bitterness can be treated with grace.

If I had an empty plot in my yard and I thought I had to get rid of all the goatsheads before I started my garden, I’d spend the rest of my life cultivating nothing but mud.

It’s gotten easier to keep them at bay the more the garden has grown in, and for the most part now they are only growing at the edges where they are easily pulled.

And I think about the times I’ve spent in dark depression spiritually, growing nothing but figurative mud as I dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole I thought I’d never grow out of.

And the whole time, God was throwing me situation after situation full of the seeds that I needed to hold onto and cultivate for myself.  Constantly I threw the seeds back and then petulantly asked God why he wasn’t helping me.

I imagine God was much like I can be when I serve my kids a great healthy meal they just don’t want to eat.  An hour later, their plate is still sitting on the table full of food and they are whining, “what can I eat?  Mom I’m hungry!”

And I’m trying very hard not to roll my eyes and very patiently saying, “you can eat the meal I have made for you.”

God must shaking his head and trying not to tap his foot and saying, “you can grow the things I want for you.  Seriously, kid, stop worrying about that sh**.”

So you can spend your life giving yourself splinters and sores pulling up a weed that can multiply faster than you can kill it, throwing acid and poison on it and killing everything good and beautiful while it burns and doesn’t even care,

or you can think about what kind of garden you want to grow.

Like I said, it’s all I feel I ever need to know about sin.  Because, like with my yard, it’s not the bad things that you should be focused on anyway.  It’s the good fruit that you can grow there anyway that really matters.

It’s all that matters.

Don’t tell me about what needs to be killed.

What needs to be cultivated?

Being Weeded

So yesterday I weeded the entire garden.  There are four different beds, the largest of which is fifteen by twenty five feet, so it can be time consuming.  When weeding, I’ve discovered that there are few ways to keep myself from going insane.  One is offering my kids a few dollars to do it for me, although that is tricky because they’ll pull up EVERYTHING.  Another is singing show tunes to pass the time, but the fact that the neighbors are often in their yard working on cars and playing the soundtrack to 8 Mile on instant repeat (alternating with insanely loud Mariachi) is a bit of a damper to that.  The third, and the one it seems that I am most likely to use, is going into a semi-meditative state and asking Very Important Questions and Listening To The Universe.

Lately I’ve been in a bit of a valley and questioning if my faith is productive and if I am becoming the kind of person I want to become.

(Disclaimer:  I’ve been in a bit of a valley and wondering if my faith is productive for the past 15 years, so this isn’t anything new.)

So, anyway, I’m pulling up weeds by the bucketful and hauling them across the yard to dump in Ye Olde Stinky Pile of Yard Waste (which was, at one point, higher than the fence) and pausing to eat a nearly perfectly ripe apricot (which makes the haul across the yard more bearable) and going into this very quiet place in my head where everything is rhythmic and all the scary stuff is tuned out.  I’m thinking about myself, and how I’ve been lately, and feeling pissed off and disappointed that I haven’t been better.  I’ve been stressed and overwhelmed and angry and everything feels like it is too hard of work.  This is a harmonious parallel to the weeding itself, which when all told took most of my day yesterday and left me absolutely whooped.  It was one of those times when I knew that as soon as hit the bed my entire body would cry out, and I wouldn’t want to be getting up in the morning.  There was a part of me that was angry and wondering if the garden was worth it and wondering why I hadn’t kept up with the weeds better, earlier.

Side note:  if you garden, you know that there are several stages of weeding.  The first is just turning everything with a hoe when the weeds are itty bitty and hacking them apart.  It’s tough on your shoulders and it can be a bit of a drag, but if you pretend you are a ninja or a giant terrorizing a teensy tiny village it’s not too bad.  If you go at it hard enough, you can FLY through the garden. The second is pulling up little weeds by the handful once they’ve gotten enough purchase to be hard to hoe.  If you do this well, it takes a lot of time but it isn’t hell on your body.  The third, which can be avoided by doing the other two, is having to use both hands to pull up weeds nearly as large as your plants, and believe me when I say it uses every muscle in your body and will make you rue the day you are born, and if weeds like that are all over all four of your fairly sizable beds that take up the majority of the side yard (ahem, like mine were) they will make you curse your mother and your grandmother and everyone who ever raised you to believe that things like Sustainable and Homemade were the great ideals, before hipsters made them fashionable.

I realized that it was all a tidy metaphor for my spiritual life.  See, our sins or foibles or what have you are like weeds.  If they aren’t deeply ingrown we can fly through them, merrily hacking to bits, and only feel it a little later on.  We realize that we are doing important work in our hearts and we feel good about it afterwards, but it only makes us cry a little.  We can see the benefits right away and our good fruit is growing faster than the weeds.  But if we put off working on ourselves a day, two days, a week…  that landscape changes, and it changes drastically.  Soon we are having to crawl through our hearts pulling up weeds by the fistful, and before we can get it under control our whole selves are involved in the effort and it feels like it will never end, and we lay down at night with our heart and soul crying out and feeling like we are dying.  And all the good fruit?  It’s failing, and we’re not seeing it as productive as it could be.

It’s easy to curse God, or nature, or life.  It is, but the truth is that what we produce in our lives is a result of our own effort, just like awesome bucketfuls of food don’t come out of gardens that haven’t made anyone break a sweat.

The truth is, some of my emotional distress in the past few weeks was entirely avoidable, if I’d dealt with my own shit while it was small.  It’s MY fault for letting it grow bigger than the good stuff.  It’s MY fault for not heeding the call to go out in the trenches when I should have.  It’s MY fault for thinking “I’ll deal with that later” and looking the other way until it was completely out of control.

I need to learn that when I’m going through this mega dark weeks that make me want to spit at God, I have to ask myself if I’ve been living in my faith every day the way I need to, or if I’ve just been wanting the fruit without the sweat and attention.  My grandmother walked her garden every morning, and while she did it she talked to God.  She didn’t only go out there when she wanted something.  She lived in it.

Faith is like that.  If we only go after it when we need something, we’re always going to find what we need choked by weeds.

Gardening the boxed way

There are a lot of good reasons to garden:

  1. You always know the quality of your veggies.
  2. It takes ZERO gasoline to transport them to your table
  3. Cost to product ratio for gardening: $1.67 for a packet of cucumber seeds = more cucumbers than I will be able to eat, all summer long. As opposed to seventy-five cents a week for cucumbers whose skin is so thick it hurts my teeth, and they are WAXED. (eewww…) You do need to add in the cost of things you’ll need- but don’t go thinking about expensive tillers and topsoil… just wait!
  4. You always know the quality of your veggies.
  5. It takes ZERO gasoline to get them to your table.
  6. Watering, weeding, planting, and picking all count towards your weekly exercise goals! 😀
  7. No pesticides to worry about.

For me it’s impractical to put out a full garden, especially since I’m renting and can’t turn up the yard. Although, if I were to plant a garden I wouldn’t buy a tiller- I’d go old fashioned with a hoe and shovel and work my butt off. Sure, it’s time consuming, but hard physical labor reminds us of how far we’ve come and a little sweat never hurt anyone.But- no full garden. So, instead I had to only pick plants with a high seed to yield, so no corn (only a couple of husks per plant, not worth it. I’d never get enough to keep me in corn all summer anyway) no melons (only a few melons per plant, I’ll still end up buying) and no novelty items like pumpkins or gourds- even though I’d only want one plant, they take several square feet for only one or two fruits per plant. Not in my plans- I’ll just buy them if I want them, but I’ll buy from the farmers market so I know they are fresh (and didn’t take 6 tanks of diesel to reach me).

I don’t have a yard I can tear up, but I DO have a large front porch that gets a full day’s worth of sun. If you’ve got eight or nine square feet of sun exposure (a porch, a deck, a flat cement roof you have access to) you can have a garden. All you need is some lumber and some soil. You don’t even need potting soil- just go to a local greenhouse where they sell soil by the shovel full. To build a box garden all you need to do is hammer boards A and C onto boards B and D, hammer plywood on the bottom and glue some garbage bags down so that the plywood doesn’t get wet and degrade. Easy as pie! (The eating, not the making.) Fill the bottom with a clay-rich soil (you can buy this bagged) and the rest with potting soil or soil from a local greenhouse.

It really is easy, and cheap. You may spend a hundred dollars total for all of your gardening supplies- but think of the cost of tomatoes per pound and how they come to you from CALIFORNIA, and you will be willing to spend this money so that you have fresh, yummy ones on your front porch. If the thought of building a box is overwhelming, then just buy a bunch of pots. You’ll want to look at the root dimensions of your plants- the back of the seed packets should have them.

Now, you seed. I put my tomatoes in peat pots which I then put in ice cream pails. My mint and sage are in clay pots and won’t need to be re-potted, and my Italian herbs will go in a window box. Here they are:

garden rack

Italian herb garden- just add water!

peat pot in ice cream pail

Planting your seeds is easy. For herbs, you just scatter them and cover them in a very thin layer of soil. You’ll have to weed out the tinier plants that won’t survive, but it’s not too complicated. Really! You can do this! For your tomatoes and other vegetables, poke a hole about an inch deep with your finger. Plant three to five seeds. You won’t get three to five plants. One or two may come up. Watch them for a few days to see which is thriving more, and pinch the other one. I know, I know, it feels like murder! But it’s for the good of your belly. Once the plant is tall and thriving, re-pot it in your box or in a much larger pot. There you go.
This summer I’ll have:

  1. Cherry tomatoes
  2. Roma tomatoes (two plants, which will yield enough for me to make spaghetti every week and have enough left over to store sauce for the winter)
  3. Big Beef tomatoes, which I will eat with salt. Mmm…
  4. Red and green bell peppers (heirloom, NOT hybrid. So much more tasty.)
  5. Sweet peas (hard to get fresh enough, even at the farmers market. I like mine about five minutes after being on the plant.)
  6. Green beans
  7. Sugar snap peas
  8. Cucumbers.

All of this will fit on my porch. I’ve spent about twenty dollars so far, and I may spend up to eighty more depending on the price of the lumber.

It’s worth it.

Some common misconceptions about potted gardening:

  1. It takes a lot of water. No- not really. As long as your plants are getting indirect sun in the late afternoons and evenings, you can water them then. The water will be absorbed into the soil instead of evaporated, and it’s really not consequential enough to hurt your wallet that badly.  Lining your dirt box with clay or planting in clay pots will also help conserver water, as the clay will act as an insulator.  Mulching will also help prevent evaporation.
  2. People who have never gardened can’t do it. Not really. Anyone can care for a plant. Make sure it gets direct sunlight- but not too much. Don’t drown it in water. If the water starts standing, turn off the hose. It’s better to water a little daily than too much weekly. Make sure it’s in a big enough pot. Bigger is better than too small. That’s all you need to know!
  3. You have to throw out the soil with the plant, so it’s like totally expensive to buy soil every year. No, no, no, no, no. Buy soil ONCE. When the plant dies, cut it off at the stem, don’t pull up the roots. Turn the soil with a shovel and break the root apart with a hoe. The old roots will nourish the new plant next year.
  4. You don’t get enough produce off one plant for it to be worth it. Um… enjoy eating tomatoes? One roma tomato plant will be more than you need unless you want to freeze sauce. Trust me on this.

So there you go. If you like fresh food and have a porch, deck, or flat cement roof (or even floor to ceiling windows)… go for it!