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Gardening ideas abound in spring, but they don't always lead to a fruitful harvest.
Gardening ideas abound in spring, but they don't always lead to a fruitful harvest.

My Gardening Year

May 16, 2017

Some years we get about a week of spring in South Dakota. Of course, there are also years when it doesn’t go on nearly that long.

Most years, summer is just all of a sudden here. Forget spring. One day you’re scraping frost off your windshield and the next you’re scraping a melted candy bar off the seat.

But there are those around who don’t go by calendars, and they aren’t fooled by freak snowstorms. They know that spring begins when garden work begins. These folks, who look just like you and me, are really members of another species: Gardenus Maximus.

Gardening is a serious business to them. They’ve been wandering outdoors every day since Christmas saying to themselves, “I wonder if it’s too early to try a few ….”

Gardenus Maximus spend their winter months reading and rereading seed catalogs. You or I might look at two different packages of carrot seed, for instance, and see … two different packages of carrot seed. But a Gardenus Maximus sees one carrot that’s straight, one that tapers; one matures in 68 days and one in 73 days; one keeps well, while the other is very sweet.

Gardenus Maximus have names for all their earthworms. They produce more food than some countries and more flowers than the Tournament of Roses. They know their soil’s ph. Their rows are as straight as string and they own as much hose as the fire department.

Each fall, Gardenus Maximus generously share fruits of the harvest with friends and neighbors. Except for those times when they can be seen chasing someone down the street with a wheelbarrow full of zucchini, this trait is widely appreciated in their neighborhoods.

Through a process that scientists don’t really understand, Gardenus Maximus spend months digging and weeding and watering and picking without ever understanding how much work they’re doing. Black dirt may release some kind of mind-altering chemical that makes them forget, but nobody really knows.

About this time every year, a temporary madness comes over me and I believe that I too am a Gardenus Maximus. But it is somewhat like my wanting to be a rock and roll star without ever making it past two guitar lessons. It would be nice to enjoy the harvest — but I’m basically just too lazy.

Sorry, Mom and Dad. You did your best, but some things just didn’t stick. I look at a garden and see drudgery, blisters and lots of kneeling in the dirt. And for what? To insure myself an adequate supply of beets? Yum Yum. Can I have another helping of those fried beets, ma’am? Deep in my heart of hearts I know it’s just not to be. But some nice warm day, fueled by visions of plenty and several beers, I’ll go out and rent a tiller anyway.

After tilling at least seven times as much area as I could ever possibly plant, the remainder of the day is spent planting and planning. Huge red tomatoes will be springing up over here — sweet ears of corn over there — peas will climb along that fence. It looks just like the cover of Organic Gardening.

After that initial burst, my madness subsides and I don’t go out there for a couple weeks. By then, that wonderfully black, crumbly seedbed has solidified into something resembling a runway. Nothing has sprouted and my sets have mysteriously disappeared.

This discourages me, and I try not to think about gardening again until August. By then, a dense carpet of creeping jenny is everywhere. Gigantic pigweeds, with stems turning woody, tower over everything.

That’s my gardening year. As I look over summer’s sorry remnants each spring, I resolve to do better. But I can’t even fool myself anymore.

I did get something to grow once. As any gardener will tell you, growing tomatoes is only slightly more difficult than growing weeds. Anybody can grow tomatoes. But I always considered that harvest a genuine miracle.

Against all odds, my garden had produced actual fruit: Six tomatoes, to be exact. There may have been more than that. But with so many weeds around I didn’t realize they were even out there until it was almost too late.

They really jacked up my average yield: It went from zero to one and a half tomatoes per year. They were a real tough act to follow, and needless to say, I wasn’t up to it. But they did accomplish one thing.

You see, while I was busy setting ever-higher standards for incompetence in gardening, on the other side of the ranch (so to speak) my wife was causing all kinds of things to grow. Hedges, beds of perennials and trees were all flourishing on her half.

I told her different soils were responsible, but when she saw those tomatoes that myth was exploded. She is now in charge of the garden and I have been reduced to the status of a draft animal. Part of the reason for her success is her take-no-prisoners attitude toward weeds. Never mind all that organic stuff. She relies on 2,4-D in a base of used motor oil, topped off with a shot of nerve gas to take care of them. Weed conventions everywhere now open with a curse invoking her name.

She is also a big believer in mulching. Though this is a fine technique, it dies require massive amounts of grass clippings or leaves or something to use as mulch.

When we bought a lawnmower I was too cheap to buy a bagging attachment, as well as too lazy to empty bags. So during summer, I can often be seen cruising around town, searching out places where people bag up their grass clippings.

I’ve had many conversations like this:

“Do you mind if I take your grass clippings?”

Blank look. “Our … grass clippings?”

“Yeah, we use them as mulch.”

Same blank look. “You want … our grass clippings?”

Eventually I get around to loading them, but not before the homeowner has alerted all his neighbors. Misunderstanding what is going on, they offer bags of trash, busted chairs, old lamps, etc.

Perhaps our new domestic gardening arrangement will spare me this year’s attack of Gardenus Maximus disease. That will leave me one whole day that I used to spend on gardening to do something else.

Where’s that guitar, anyway?

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the May/June 1992 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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