We need only to look at our home gardens to know what kind of a year this has been.
Standing at the edge of my friend’s garden, I see the evidence. Her tomato plants are a mess: curled, yellowed leaves dangling from stems leaning wearily over their cages, completely disinterested in making any effort to produce something edible. I can almost hear them whispering, pleading, “Please just put me out of my misery!”
Her corn stalks are stumpy, half the height she’s proudly celebrated in the past. She didn’t offer any for porch decorating this year, painfully aware that a 3-foot cornstalk leaned up next to a front door looks more like an admission of failure than décor. She shakes her head as she surveys her mess of a garden. “What on earth is going on here?” she says, more to herself than to me.
What on earth, indeed. All summer we traded desperate ideas about strategies to fight off the endless waves of squash bugs, the nearly invisible mites that wiped out our green bean plants before they ever got started, and the aphids that attacked flowers, plants and trees, leaving sticky, curled leaves in their wake. Our frenetic efforts didn’t halt a single invasion.
We discussed the value of pulling out nonproductive plants to give more of our water allotment to the survivors that might produce. We shared mutual disgust for the weeds that never did seem to notice the drought and, in fact, took advantage of it by aggressively spreading out and taking over garden and grass alike wherever domestic plants struggled to survive.
My own garden is a similar disaster. My raspberries didn’t bother producing a spring harvest. Not even enough for one single bowl to go with morning cereal. It was as if they raised their weary heads and said, “Hey, give us a break. We’re just trying to survive.”
My tomato plants are reduced by nearly half since several hit the garbage can months ago after curling up and dying on their own. The squash plants each produced one squash. Most of those grew sporadically, then split. They’re ugly but usable.
The plants that somewhat survived are the root plants — carrots and beets — although some decided to go to seed instead of producing a root. Each row of feathery green tops is interrupted by gangly 5-foot green towers topped with white flowers ready to seed out. It’s honestly one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in this garden.
Even the zucchini plant barely produced. The ZUCCHINI plant! Who can’t grow a zucchini plant, for heaven’s sake?
This year’s drought is the main reason. The lack of water coupled with scorching heat day after day after day took its toll. The fact that plants thrived at all is something to celebrate, I suppose. But now, at the end of the gardening season, to look back and see mostly failure is tough to accept.
My friend said she’s thinking of putting her garden spot into grass. She won’t. Gardening is part of who she is. She’ll pull out seed catalogs next February and have her garden mapped out by May. Her plans will likely include new ideas to offset what we went through this year. That’s what we home gardeners do — resolutely gear up for a better year next spring, even when the previous year was a bust.
Home gardeners are a dying breed, but it would take more than dying gardens to end us. The challenge is not only in the loss of produce we expected, but also in the subtle message to home gardeners everywhere that no matter how brilliant and sophisticated our gardening techniques might be, we’re all still ultimately at the mercy of the elements.
It’s tough to be reminded who’s really in charge.
But it does keep us humble. And determined.
D. Louise Brown lives in Layton. She writes a biweekly column for the Standard-Examiner.