In The Garden: Overdoing Persistence & Practicing Patience


Over the holiday weekend, we put in as many hours as we could manage weeding, starting early and working until we couldn’t take the heat any more. I was determined to be more persistent than the weeds, to pull until they were gone. But there was one big thistle that wouldn’t budge. Instead of getting some help from my husband or getting a tool that might make the work easier, I swore and tugged harder. My persistence crossed over into stubbornness. I strained and pulled and the thistle didn’t budge. In the end, I left the root in the ground and broke off the stem and leaves.

After we came in for the day, my back started complaining. I know it was my battle with that thistle that strained my back. I’ve been dealing with muscle spasms and pain ever since. As a result, today’s quote seems particularly apt to me.

Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence. -Hal Borland

Over time, trees grow from twigs to giants, but the process is slow. Grass will take root in cracks, spring back after it’s been walked on, and green up again when the rain returns. These plants understand patience and persistence.

I, however, have some learning to do. I persisted a little too long in my fight with that thistle, and am paying for my mistake. Now I get to practice patience while I wait for my body to heal.

When have you struggled with patience or persistence?

Despite the Odds, My Mother Keeps Planting Trees

Not the trees lost in the ice storm. These are a few of the trees and shrubs my mother planted, only about 10+ years later.
Not the trees lost in the ice storm. These are a few of the trees and shrubs my mother planted, only about 10+ years later.

Thanks to a horrific ice storm in 2014, my parents lost some of the most important trees in their yard. So this spring, they decided to have some new trees planted. After telling me about the three fruit trees and eight bushes the landscapers were putting in, Mom sighed. “I know it’s kind of crazy since I won’t be around to see them when they’re mature.”

I pointed out that there was no way to know that for sure. After I got off the phone, I realized that I should have reminded her of the trees she planted when I was a little girl. I’ve mentioned her “sticks” before, but I didn’t include some important details.

One of the few pictures I have that shows a bit of the yard. My sister Cleo painting in 1987. Notice all the TREES.
One of the few pictures I have that shows a bit of the yard. My sister Cleo painting in 1987. Notice all the TREES.

First, that ranch house was in desperate need of landscaping. It was on a hillside so steep that the builders had to bulldoze a flat place to put the house on. In the process, they scraped away the topsoil and left the yard bare. It was straw-covered dirt when we moved in, depressing and in danger of washing away in the next rain. So Mom got busy and started planting things, including trees and shrubs.

The astonishing thing about her planting those bare-root baby trees was that this house was one of many we’d lived in. Dad’s work as a civil engineer for the Public Health Service took us all over the country. It was the fifth dwelling and fourth state I’d lived in during my life, and I was only in second grade. If you do the math, it means we moved nearly every year.

Mom knew the odds, but she still dug holes in the rocky soil and planted trees. She’s told me more than once that she never expected to see them grow up because she was sure we would be moving again soon. But instead of relocating again in 24 months, they lived in that house for 24 years. We all got to see the trees grow up. Our dust-bowl yard turned into a green and enticing paradise.

A photo from my mother's college graduation in 1989; fortunately, I stood so far back, I caught the edges of a few of her trees.
A photo from my mother’s college graduation in 1989; fortunately, I stood so far back, I caught the edges of a few of her trees.

Which brings us back to my first thought: you just never know. My Mom did what she felt was the right thing, even though she was sure she wouldn’t benefit from the effort. And she provides a great example even today, planting trees and shrubs to improve the neighborhood, even though she thinks the plants will outlive her. But you never know. Maybe she’ll outlive them.

The World’s Laziest Gardener Manages Homemade Pickles

We are having the Year of the Vine at our house. As I’ve mentioned before, plants consider me the Angel of Death, but Kurt loves gardening and is always eager to fill the raised beds with edible plants. I treat everything as an experiment, with little hope that anything will actually grow. Every year, something takes off, and every year, I’m stunned.

This year, it’s the pumpkin and cucumber vines. We’ve been drowning in cucumbers for the last month.

Part of our bounteous harvest
A small part of our bounteous harvest

As soon as we brought our first dozen cukes into the house, I got out my favorite marinated cucumber salad recipe. It used three cucumbers and took us over a week to eat. Meanwhile, the pile continued to grow. It’s hard to keep up when you’re averaging 6 huge cukes a day. How many salads can two adults eat?

One of the reasons I’m not the best gardener is because I am lazy. When someone suggested making pickles, I wilted. I wanted a quick and easy storage idea, not something that required lots of equipment and standing over a hot stove in August.

For the Year of the Tomato, I froze everything. While I haven’t been all that happy with the results, I liked how fast it was to get them into storage. Unfortunately, freezing cucumbers sounded like a really bad idea.

In desperation, we went through my cookbooks. One in particular was a big help: The Kitchen Garden Book* by Stringfellow Barr and Stella Standard (and no, I am not making this up; that’s really their names).

We found a recipe for Cucumber Oil Pickles and I got excited. While this 1956 cookbook is all about making your garden’s output interesting to eat, it doesn’t include traditional canning methods in it. It does have a few pickle recipe that go in jars with the simple instruction to “seal” when done. Ancient winemakers used to store their wine in jars with open tops by putting a layer of olive oil on the top of the wine to keep the air out. They would draw the wine out of the jar from the bottom. So maybe full-on canning techniques wouldn’t be needed for pickles with oil in the marinade.

Afraid that this recipe would generate poisoned pickles and kill me, my family, and my friends, I looked online for similar recipes. I found one by James Beard. While it wasn’t exactly like the one I had, it was close enough to give me more confidence that this style of pickle could work.

The best part of making pickles was using my food processor to slice all those cucumbers. It was FAST (and fun)!

We combined the two recipes, using Beard’s suggestion of including a grape leaf in place of alum to keep the pickles crisp, and heating up the vinegar so our sterilized jars would seal. And it worked. I wound up with a dozen quarts of homemade pickles. If the rest of the jars are like the first one, they are tasty and non-lethal.

Almost too pretty to eat.
Almost too pretty to eat.

The cucumbers keep coming. Every time I go out to pick them, I eye the ripening pumpkins on our monster pumpkin vine and wonder what the heck I’m doing to do when they are ready to eat.

How about you? Do you have any bumper crops this year? What do you do when you can’t keep up with your fresh produce?

*The Kitchen Garden Book, originally published in 1956 and published again in 1977 is long out of print. I found my copy at a Friends of the Library used book sale.

Our Pumpkin Vine Is A Super Villain

We’re having a strange year in the garden. It’s a boom and bust year, all rolled into one. I’m particularly puzzled because we’ve had plenty of warm sunny weather, coupled with lots of rain. The weeds and the lawn seem to think we have prime growing conditions, but not all the plants are happy.

In particular, the tomatoes and peppers are looking pathetic. Shriveled and cranky, they look they other way when I come by to water them, sneering at my attempts to get them to grow. Despite all the water, they look desiccated all the time. We will be lucky to get a handful of tomatoes this year, which is a big change after last year’s tomato extravaganza.

On the other hand, the zucchini, summer squash, and cucumbers are cranking out the veggies faster than we can eat them. It won’t be long before I’ll be approaching complete strangers and begging them to take my zucchini — please!

Zukes and cukes and squash! Oh my!
Zukes and cukes and squash! Oh my!

The most frightening thing of all is the pumpkin plant. We started with a cute little baby plant, innocent and sweet, an adorable set of leaves we cooed over with anticipation.

Our baby pumpkin plant only looks innocent...
Our baby pumpkin plant only looks innocent…

The tag with the variety and care instructions on it failed to mention that this particular strain belongs to the group of vines known as “Super Villains”, aka “World Dominators”. Our pumpkin is turning into a land-grabbing monster and taking over the backyard.

...but it has plans. BIG plans!
…but it has plans. BIG plans!

It’s not the only vine going wild on us. The cucumbers and grape vines are its henchmen, imitating their power-hungry leader by growing right over any plants that get in their way.



We keep trying to shift the pumpkin vines so that they are growing over bare ground, but it’s spreading in every direction. I don’t know if our sweet potatoes or watermelons are going to survive the Attack of the Pumpkin Vine. It’s growing right over them and may swallow up the mound we thought it would share. Apparently it doesn’t care who it has to take out in order to achieve its dreams.

You have to be brutal if you’re going to rule the world.

The Sneakiness of Zucchini and Other Gardening Lessons

I’ve confessed I am a reluctant gardener, with a very laid-back approach to everything to do with the yard. Despite the fact that “negligent” is the best description of me as a gardener, I actually have promised myself I will do better this year. (Trust me, I am even more surprised than you are.)

My gardening resolutions:

  1. I will keep up with the weeding.
  2. We will eat more of the strawberries than the birds do.
  3. I will harvest the various fruits our many shrubs produce, instead of just leaving them on the plants.
  4. I will pick the zucchini and summer squash when they are small, tender, and tasty. No more U-boat zucchini!

I wish I could say I’m totally living up to my plans, but my success has been rather limited.

I weed whenever I have a spare moment, but spare time is a complete myth — all the time is taken and there isn’t any to spare, so really I weed maybe once a week. It doesn’t matter how often I do it, it’s crazy to think I can keep up. It’s one of those chores that’s never done. Thanks to all the rain we’ve been having, I can hear the weeds popping out of the ground behind me even as I bend over to pull the one I’ve just found.

Our strawberry plants didn’t grow any strawberries to speak of this year, which is a puzzle, because they are well-established and seem like they should be making fruit. Sadly, the robins only needed to eat one berry to beat our intake.

The good news is that I am doing better with the other berries: I picked red currants, gooseberries, and raspberries over the weekend. The bad news is that I’ve remembered why I didn’t pick them in the past. I don’t know what to do with them! We will eat them fresh of course, but after that, I’m at a bit of a loss. Thanks to my dietary restrictions, I can’t bake with them, add them to ice cream, or put them on cereal. I will probably try adding them to everything I make for a while and see what happens.

These currants are so pretty I want to make jewelry out of them.
These currants are so pretty I want to make jewelry out of them.
Gooseberries, in case you don't know what they look like.
Gooseberries, in case you don’t know what they look like.

The most embarrassing resolution of all is the one about the zucchini. I have been checking the plants constantly, which means whenever I think of it. (Fortunately, this is more often than when I have a spare moment.) For a week, there were three finger-like squash on the plant and I swear they did not change size a bit. Every time I went into the yard thinking, “I’ll need to pick them today”, I was wrong. I was waiting for them to get just a little bigger, but they were the same tiny size. Until the morning when I found two cudgels and a baseball bat where the baby zucchini had been growing.

My super-sized sneaky zucchini
My super-sized sneaky zucchini

How does the zucchini do that? I’m thinking cloaking technology, probably learned from the Romulans*. When the squash is still small, the plant turns on its cloaking device and hides the zuke until it’s big enough to feed a family of twelve. Then the cloaking device is turned off and the poor gardener (that’s me) discovers this giant squash that wasn’t even there the day before.

This makes much more sense to me than the alternative, that I just didn’t see that honking big zucchini while it was growing.

What have I learned?

  1. Resolutions are dicey things. I’m not in control over most of the stuff that goes on in my garden (especially the zucchini), so I need to focus on the process and not worry too much about the results. Enjoy the planting, pruning and weeding. Enjoy the harvesting, if there’s something to harvest. Try not to worry so much about who is going to get to eat the fruit.
  2. Gardening doesn’t stop in the yard. When the stuff comes in the house, there is more work to do. Try to enjoy that part as well (without worrying so much about getting everything eaten before it goes bad).
  3. The fact that the Technologically Advanced Zucchini theory is the best explanation I can come up with for the Sudden Appearance of the Baseball Bat Squash says something about me. I don’t know what exactly. Probably something disturbing and odd. I will ponder this when I have a spare moment.

*Maybe it’s unfair of me to assume the zucchini are evil enough to be in league with Romulans, but how can I feel otherwise? They are just so sneaky!

Instant Vegetable Garden, or What To Do When The Seeds Don’t Sprout

Remember all those seeds I planted in May? OK, you weren’t there, you don’t remember, but I do. When I put them in the ground, I was struck by how the earth I covered them with looked just a bit like a fresh grave, and how the wooden tongue depressor garden tags I used looked like mini-tombstones.

Unfortunately, the grave analogy was super accurate. Out of three raised beds packed with vegetable seeds, one basil plant and one lettuce sprouted. Two tiny plants from all those seeds.

One measly basil plant.
One measly basil plant.

I also planted about a dozen squash seeds, zucchini as well as yellow squash. Only half of them came up, but it was enough. We should be swimming in zucchini this time next week.

Zucchini and yellow squash: the one thing I can't kill.
Zucchini and yellow squash: the one thing I can’t kill.

Since everything else failed to sprout, we did our usual 4th of July thing: bought plants from the nursery and filled up the beds. We can only hope that the tomatoes and peppers will be mature before the first frost hits.

Instant garden! Thank God for nurseries.
Instant garden! Thank God for nurseries.

If you haven’t tried buying plants at the nursery, I highly recommend it. Not because it’s better than starting with seeds. (Well, in my case it is. A plant that is already underway has a much better chance of surviving in my garden than a true seedling does.) Not because it stimulates the economy and keeps people who actually know how to grow plants employed (although it does that, too.)

The best part about buying plants at the nursery is that the label can be wrong. You think you bought basil, but it turns out to be peppermint. Or the cucumber you got is not the usual green pickle variety but a weird round melon-looking thing called a lemon cucumber. (Those were one of our surprise plants last year, and we actually loved them. It’s a cucumber, but it has a mild citrus flavor that is really nice in a salad.)

So far I’ve only found one surprise in this year’s batch: a hot pepper that was supposed to be sweet.

I don't think this is a sweet pepper...
I don’t think this is a sweet pepper… Oops.

I keep hoping something else will be a surprise, that one of our watermelons or cucumbers will turn out to be a winter squash or something equally unexpected. But mostly I’m just grateful that we are getting lots of rain and things are growing.

In the meantime, I’m having to come to grips with the fact that I do not have a black thumb or a green one. I think it’s zucchini colored.

The Reluctant Gardener Confesses: Why I Love Weeding

I’ve shared my reluctance to garden as a child and my struggles to believe that things I plant will actually grow. But today I confess something that just adds to the mountain of existing evidence that I am nuts: I love weeding.

As someone who hates to clean my house, it seems weird that my favorite yard activity is actually a form of de-cluttering. I’m still trying to figure out why this is. But I think I understand why, compared to all the other things that need to be done in the yard, my first choice is to weed.beforeAfterWeeds

Most gardening activities require waiting. Plant seeds and wait. Water, wait. Fertilize. Wait. Boring! I like results that are obvious and immediate, and weeding fits the bill.

So does spring yard clean up. When I’m not pulling up weeds, I’m cutting away last year’s perennials or removing dead limbs from our bushes. No matter how little time I have to spend, the area I work on always looks better when I am done and the improvement gives me great satisfaction.

The roses always look better after pruning.
The roses always look better after pruning.

Last week, my husband bought a gardening tool at our local nursery. It’s called Grampa’s Weeder and looks so simple, it’s easy to underestimate its power. I scoffed at first. I didn’t need help pulling weeds; I’m already a weeding machine. But a few minutes with this amazing tool turned me from an enthusiastic weeder into a compulsive one. I swear, I can’t stop. Just writing about it makes me want to run outside and get to work.

Warning: The next paragraph sounds like an advertisement, but I am not affiliated in any way with the manufacturer. I’m just a satisfied customer.

Grampa’s Weeder uproots weeds with ease, usually with the long root still attached. You can pull up weeds that are in the middle of plantings with minimal disruption to nearby plants. Best of all, you can do it all without bending over. Easy on the back, so you can spend even more time weeding! What could be better?

As I was happily weeding this past weekend, I kept thinking about cleaning the house. Why do I love weeding, but not cleaning? I don’t like mowing, because it’s one of those jobs that’s never done. Mow, turn around, and you have to do it again. Cleaning feels like that to me.

Eventually I realized the real, embarrassing reason I love weeding. It’s destructive. The plants I’m pulling up are supposed to die. I have a black-belt in plant killing. It’s the one yard activity I am confident I can do successfully.

I was born to weed.

Thanks to the new tool, we are actually running out of weeds to pull. I still have a bunch of bushes to clean up, but when those two chores are finally done, I fear my interest in working in the yard will die.

Unless we have weeds in the vegetable beds by then.