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Thursday, April 21, 2011 08:17 am

Confessions of a bad gardener

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An exuberant lawn ornament watches over the author’s garden while aping his erector.

It looked so easy.

After all, how hard could it be? You bury a few seeds, dump some water on them and wait, right? Apparently not. I must confess that I have failed at one of the most basic and essential tasks mankind has ever adopted: growing food. If the Titanic were a garden, I couldn’t have done worse if I’d planted iceberg lettuce.

I started the 2010 gardening season with abundant enthusiasm, excited to become part of the budding “local food” trend. What could be more local than growing the food yourself? I wanted to get a head start on the growing season, so I bought a few trays in which to start seeds, along with a 50-pound bag of topsoil and a goofy lime-green gardening trowel.

Being a male, I hadn’t read any of the pointless directions on the seed packets, so I ended up planting the seeds far too early. My seedlings were ready to go in the ground even before the winter snow had fully melted. And being a cheapskate, I thought I could also use the seeds I’d collected from the beautiful vegetables I bought at the supermarket. Take that, greedy seed industry! I didn’t realize that those vegetables are mostly sterile hybrids, so while their seeds may sprout, they won’t bear any fruit.

With my eagerness boiling over into a frothy frenzy, I naively rented two 10-foot by 10-foot garden plots at the state fairgrounds, situated in the south end of the horse racing track, with the highest confidence in the simplicity of gardening and the infallible logic that if one plot full of fresh vegetables was good, two would be great. Of course, the possibility of double rewards carries the risk of double failure, and I like to learn my life lessons the hard way.

The day the garden plots opened, I was there, proudly sporting my favorite navy blue shorts, boat shoes and a blue checkered button-up with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow and the topmost buttons left undone to show off my manly chest hair. In retrospect, it seems pretty silly to go gardening dressed like a Kennedy on one of the many yachts I imagine they must own, but at the time it seemed pretty reasonable. You never know who you’ll meet while playing in the dirt, so you need to look good.

I should have known from the start that I was in for some disappointment. The water at the garden wasn’t turned on for the first week or so, and I ended up hauling gallon jugs of tap water to the fairgrounds all the way from my apartment on the other end of town. The temperature was hotter than John McEnroe’s temper, and I would often forget to water the plants until late afternoon – after the hottest part of the day, when they most likely needed water the worst. It’s a good thing there’s no law against plant neglect, because I’d be a repeat offender.

Almost everything in my garden died. I had planted peppers, corn, tomatoes, peas, spinach, sage, basil, rutabagas (which I don’t even like), watermelon, green beans and carrots. But the only plants that survived were the basil, a ton of weeds and one tiny chili pepper about half the size of my pinky finger. I enjoyed the hell out of that basil, of course, but when I took a little nibble of the pepper, it burnt worse than being cut from the junior high basketball team.

Despite my epic gardening failure last year, I’m trying it again this summer. I’ve rented a single plot this time, bought real seeds and set a recurring alarm reminding me to water my plants each day before the mercury climbs to seven billion degrees. And I’ve learned an important life lesson through this harrowing ordeal: nobody cares what you wear to the garden.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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