VERNON COUNTY - When my landlord, Dave, commented on how good my potatoes looked, pride swelled in me and my chest puffed out a notch.
“This is my first garden,” I boasted.
I had recently traded suburban life for country life. I knew a lot about animals because my parents had been tolerant of every creature, furry or feathered, that I’d found injured or had bought at the annual Saint Martin’s fair. I also knew a lot about nature. Throughout my childhood, trees and wildflowers were my friends from spending time in the ‘New World,’ my name for a wild space up the road from the manicured lawns of my family’s neighborhood. The ‘New World’ became my sanctuary. There were fields, paths for hiking, and a hidden lake. I’d always been at home in the outdoors, but when it came to gardening, I was a complete novice.
My grandparents on both sides of the family had luscious, healthy gardens where, as children, my siblings and I had plenty of foods to pick. I enjoyed munching on crisp green beans straight from the vine at Grandpa Jake and Grandma Cora’s backyard garden. At Grandpa Mike and Grandma Stevie’s, I went straight from the car to the raspberry bushes, picking and eating as fast as I could. They also had apple and pear trees that I adored for their juicy fruit that was usually within my little arms’ reach or could be had with a few solid shakes.
Having been an apartment dweller for all of my adult city life, moving to the cabin on Pa’s Road finally gave me a spot in which to plant my very own garden. But I was clueless how to do this, since I’d only picked and eaten vegetables and fruit from my grandparents’ gardens and had never planted anything myself. However, I was determined to become a gardener.
I set about digging up a patch of dirt about the size of a Volkswagen bug—not too big, not too small. I created my little garden spot up against the protection of the cabin, below the full windows where the afternoon sun was warmest. I stomped my booted foot onto the shovel, forcing the rusty blade into the ground. I turned the sod over, throwing it off to the side, sweating as I transformed the earth into chunk-free plantable soil.
I planted what I liked to eat: potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The sense of accomplishment, anticipation, and wonder grew with each new development. I rejoiced when I saw sprouts of green poke through the brown. I welcomed the rain when it came, and on bright days I was thankful I had chosen a spot in the sun. Every morning, if it hadn’t rained the day before, I’d dip an old bucket into the rain barrel and pour it over the garden. Coming home from work in the late afternoons I was rewarded by seeing green vines, leaves, and stalks. My little garden flourished, with all the plants cozying up together. The thrill of spying small green tomatoes that would someday grow up and become large red ones is still sharp in my memory. I couldn't see any potatoes yet, but the plants were growing quickly and looked healthy.
In the break room at the veterinarian office where I worked, I heard the gals talk about all the weeding they were doing. This was confusing because I never saw any weeds in my garden. I faithfully raked the best I could between rows and plants to keep the soil loose. I had to use a tiny hand rake because there wasn’t much earth showing as my garden grew like wildfire!
It took the whole summer to realize I had planted everything too close together. There simply wasn’t any room for weeds, raking or tilling. Except for a few pieces of twine I used on the tomatoes, the plants in my garden were miraculously surviving by hanging on to each other and holding each other up!
The cucumbers were bumpy and sharp at first, which I didn’t understand. I was thrilled at their presence, but they eventually overtook the row of carrots, covering them with vines and leaves. The potatoes kept getting taller each week, but the carrots didn’t seem to have enough room to breathe.
As summer continued, so did the conversations about our gardens during breaks at work. Co-workers were bringing in tomatoes to share. I was eating mine from the vines, relishing the juice dribbling down my chin. My cucumbers took on a smoother skin and were delicious. The carrots never did prosper, but the potato plants kept on flourishing.
It was about that time that Dave stopped by the cabin and remarked on my healthy potato plants. They were a sight to behold, tall, full and bright green. But where were the potatoes, I wondered.
To the amusement of not just the gals I worked with but every client who came in with their dog or cat, I learned that potatoes don’t grow on the vine. I had to dig to find them!