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Watching my garden grow, weeds

Boxwoods before trimming (left) and after trimming (right)
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Boxwoods before trimming (left) and after trimming (right)

I was amazed to discover, after a month on the West Coast, that the spring-cleaning chores that waved goodbye to me as I left hadn’t completed themselves before I returned. Nature can be nasty and, if anything, tried to punish me for my neglect by festering while I was away.

Let’s start with the garden, though it doesn’t resemble a garden in any conventional sense. It would be prize-winning if the propagation of weeds was its goal. My strategy was to attack the raised beds, left untouched since last fall – and that includes those conical metal tomato supports – and deal with the flourishing weed lot between the beds at a later date.

I’d like to start by stipulating that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I grew up in a city believing that fruits and vegetables came from a grocery store. When I started to grow things like lettuce, tomatoes and peppers upstate relatively late in life I discovered that nature had much to teach me. And what it taught me was this: you spend money on soil, plants, compost and perhaps fertilizer if you’re feeling flush; water religiously; and partake in the miracle of nature as you watch them grow. And then, one day, you go down to the garden prepared to harvest the feast only to discover that some discerning critter – the list of suspects is large but includes birds, chipmunks, woodchucks, deer and the largest group within the arthropod phylum, in other words insects – has gotten to them the night before.

I intentionally don’t include mosquitos in this rogue’s gallery because they dine on me rather than my vegetables as I attempt to water the plants or pull weeds. However, they are invaluable, not just in providing nourishment for bats, but also for thoughtfully posing this question as I survey my formerly lovely Brandywine and Cherokee Purple heirlooms: Why bother? Why not just throw in the towel and purchase them from one of the talented farmers at the Saturday morning Kinderhook farmers market?

I’ll get back to you once I’ve formulated a cogent answer to that question. But I am proud to report that I have made psychological progress in regard to my garden and perhaps life in general. I’ve discovered that perfection is a fool’s game. “Good enough” doesn’t mark you as a loser. It qualifies as a form of enlightenment.

Also, isn’t the new thinking is that you don’t need to turn over the soil excessively because it contains lots of nutrients or something like that. I do anyway because my soil is the consistency of concrete after a winter of neglect and I can’t imagine any self-respecting plant condescending to grow in it. Then I add a few bags of McEnroe Organic Garden Bed Blend. I don’t know whether it does any good. But I think of it as bringing in a ringer on a high school baseball team. At least I can be confident that the surface strata of soil is high quality, even if the depths of the garden is some combination of shale, moon dust and the plowed under labels from last year’s plantings.

Finally, I insert the specimens and sprinkle the entire surface with straw to inhibit weed growth. Even as I’m doing so I know it will make no difference. There’s only one thing that retards weeds and even that imperfectly – black top, macadam, asphalt. I have neighbors that employ that method on their garden and it seems to work.

Another neighbor offered a less resource intensive solution If I don’t want to deal with heavy equipment such as sweepers, dump trucks, pavers and rollers: polyethylene black sheeting. But my wife nixed that idea as aesthetically unpleasing. I don’t know why she cares since she rarely strays in that direction after instructing me to plant kale and cilantro, both of which I have a well-considered aversion to.

So now I’m thinking of weed-whacking the aisles between the beds. I know it’s an imperfect solution but at least I’ll teach the budding sumac and their indistinguishable brethren who’s boss. They are.

This was supposed to be a commentary about my myriad spring-cleaning chores but I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s the tennis court that’s seen better days and sports cracks that promote the propagation of maple seedlings. I zap them with Roundup. Criticize me for employing herbicides if you want but there’s nothing more dispiriting than losing a point because the ball hit a plant and took a weird bounce before it got to you.

My most successful effort at landscaping came this week when I trimmed our burgeoning boxwoods. The mind has many ways of entertaining itself as you go about mundane chores. For an instant, as I sheared the bushes, I thought I understood the allure of being a barber or a hairdresser. Unlike with a garden, or international diplomacy, you see results right away and you’re not battling different existential threats every day. You have a discernable impact on people’s lives and appearance for the better.

Honestly, I’m pretty proud of our hedges. So it’s probably time to call it quits for the summer.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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