Early this spring I noticed our little raspberry patch had sort of...well...disappeared. On closer inspection I found all the canes eaten down to the snow line by rabbits.
A cool rainy spring made for short windows of opportunity for preparing the ground and planting. I was late getting my row of sunflowers planted and when they finally came up, they were promptly eaten off by rabbits. It was too late to replant. Last year the sunflower seedlings hadn't been bothered at all. They had grown well in the dappled sunlight along the fence, and we enjoyed the antics of the goldfinches and other birds coming for the seeds.
I was struggling to make a very small raised no-dig vegetable garden in my backyard, using two-inch thick cement blocks to build a low retaining wall. I was racing against the next barrage of rain as well as the calendar, to get a few vegetable plants into the ground while there was still time to grow them to maturity.
A five minute bike ride away at my daughter's much more ambitious gardening enterprise, Nature played havoc as well. Rabbits managed to get through the new chicken wire fence and eat the tiny broccoli plants and the tops of the grape vines. Hole in fence found and closed. The newly sprouted beans were next to go, as the rabbits found another way in, but the onions and tomatoes were passed over--not preferred bunny food.
It's not like these urban rabbits have any shortage of food--they are enveloped in it this time of year. They just prefer tasty young vegetables humans want to eat.
I quickly bought more broccoli plants to replace the eaten ones. Last I looked, my daughter was still battling crafty rabbits, and the sad little plants languished in their tiny plastic compartments. In an ordinary year one of us would have found time to re-pot the little plants to insure survival until their final place in the garden was secure. And the rains keep coming.
There are a few bright spots to report, however.
The raspberry patch grew in more full and lush than it ever had been since we started it four years ago. There should be good berry production all summer from this ever-bearing cultivar. My three broccoli plants grew large enough to tolerate rabbit nibbling on lower leaves, and the plants aren't even fenced. The rest of my tiny garden is exploding with growth as well.
I planted the tomatoes too close together, thinking there would be time to move a few later when I had more space prepared, but their roots may be intertwined by now. Besides, when would I do that work? It keeps raining.
A couple weeks ago our neighbors that back up to our property decided to remove all the damaged branches of a tree that overhung our yard. I watched them work all day, realizing that the result would be sunshine, glorious sunshine most of the day, along the back fence. Forget the sunflowers. It was not too late in the season to set out more vegetable plants, now that sufficient sunlight was assured.
After another grueling (for me) couple of days--because digging was necessary here--I had the new area of full sun planted with one tomato, one broccoli, one zucchini squash, one yellow squash, marigolds, and a trio of cabbage. I used two old window screens to make a tent for the squash, hoping to keep them free of stem-boring insect larvae this year. When the egg laying time for the offending moth is past, I'll take off the screens. Last year's single zucchini bit the dust after producing three squash. Hard to believe, but I struggle just to grow zucchini! Who ever heard of such a thing?
I am no Pollyanna when it comes to growing food.
I remember the days when my husband and I grew a respectable garden plot in our backyard, when our daughter was a child. It was hard hot work. We both worked full time outside the home, and a goodly portion of our free time was spent in that garden, or shelling peas, snapping beans, or blanching and freezing....
I felt a connection with the land and took pride in a little self-sufficiency. I even tried making jam from the ornamental plum tree growing on our lot. Back then, my husband was the driving force behind the garden--the one who had been raised in the country and had grown his own vegetables as a boy. During a drought year, we rigged up a way to pump laundry water from the basement up to a barrel outdoors, and from there into the garden. It kept the plants alive until the drought broke, the first of August. Then it rained like crazy for weeks, and we had bountiful yields.
My own parents grew a victory garden during World War II. A favorite story is how my mother anticipated I was going to be born very soon, and decided she'd better can the tomato crop. She did, and I was born the next day. Having had a baby myself, I wonder how she was able to work so hard the day before giving birth.
Once the war was over, my parents' gardening ended for good. They avoided doing anything at all in our little backyard, and the open prairie next to our house was built up with 1950s homes. I didn't get to grow a single thing until I was married and had a place of my own. But thanks to my Aunt Rose, I knew from my girlhood days that time would come.
How I discovered my gardening instincts
Among my many aunts and uncles, Aunt Rose lived a bit differently from the rest. She had Better Homes and Gardens magazines laid out neatly on her living room coffee table. As a young girl, I was impressed just by the cover photographs. Aunt Rose had a beautiful home, and right there on that table was the information on how to do it. I was going to learn how to make my home lovely too, when the time came. This is not to say my childhood home wasn't wonderful in its own way, but artistic it was not.
One very warm sunny spring day my family paid a visit to Aunt Rose. We found her busily digging in her garden, muddy and sweaty--and having fun. Aunt Rose of the beautiful tastefully decorated home was out digging in the dirt! I saw the band of black earth she had cultivated, awaiting her plantings, and the area she'd just completed, with flowers arranged in patterns by color and shape. So that was how it was done!
I knew right then and there, I was going to do that as soon as I had my own dirt to dig.
Garden ambitions to suit my senior citizen status
My husband and I are both retired now, or at least partially so. Our home is attractive and comfortable, but it doesn't look like something out of a magazine. For quite a few years, the only vegetable gardening going on in our family was at our now-adult daughter's home. She turned out to have the green thumb in the family, and in exchange for buying garden supplies and helping with weeding and picking, we enjoy taking part in her harvest.
She decided to plant less of the two family favorites, tomatoes and broccoli, after last year's excessive supply. Concerned about getting a surplus for myself, I figured if she can do it, so can I. Besides, I was reading up on new techniques like no-till gardening, raised bed gardening, square foot gardening, and so on, and was eager to try these different approaches. In particular, these methods might let me pursue this hobby on my own, without bothering my husband too much. He had other DIY projects going on.
The raised garden near the house was planned a year ago, in a small space that managed to avoid the shadows of trees for most of the day. I followed the no-till compost-layering approach over the turf grass, finishing up before winter with a final layer of leaves and pine needles. This spring I moved back the top dry layer and plunged my spade into the ground to see what was down there. The lower layers were not fully decomposed, but the spadeful of earth was black and moist and full of earthworms. No more grass. OK, on to the next step.
I found the cheapest concrete patio blocks that I could handle by myself (although my dear husband helped load and unload them from the back of our vehicle). It took three trips because of the weight of the loads, but the store was close by. I used a level to lay them flat and end to end along the lengthwise outer edge of the plot, just one stone deep at one end, four deep (eight inches) at the other, lower end-- for there is slope in both dimensions of this garden plot. Using that slope to my advantage made the raised aspect a little easier, actually. Then I emptied bags of soil into the plot and spread it to the top of the blocks. Now I was really having fun!
The strip is narrow and runs parallel to a wooden deck built about two feet off the ground. I left the dry mulch on a strip between the plot and the deck, so I could easily access the planted area from either side.
At the deepest, sunniest end of the plot I planted tomatoes, in the middle a pair of broccoli and a cucumber, and at the shadier end some marigolds. I stuck onion sets along the edges, and on top the row of blocks we set planters filled with herbs my husband had started from seed inside the house: thyme, sage, and lots of basil. Planters of perennial chive and garlic chive from last year joined them.
Not perfect to be sure, but not bad for a first effort! My hands are stiff, my back is sore, and my knees aren't going to work right for the next month, but I'm happy. Every morning we walk out on the deck to count heads (each plant is an individual that I know) and check progress, and so far all present and accounted for.
I subscribe to only a single magazine--I'll bet you can guess which one.
For the sake of thrift and a greener lifestyle, I reduced my magazine subscriptions to a single one: Better Homes and Gardens. I keep the the issues to re-read again, and save back a few for yet another review while taking the rest to the public library magazine exchange.
I know that other magazines contain more examples of the kinds of crafts and DIY projects we actually do in our home, and more examples of green lifestyles and how to re-purpose old things. I don't want a magazine that is as practical as I am, but one that lets my imagination roam and takes me to places I will never go. I enjoy seeing colors and styles I would never want in my own home for the pure novelty of it. But there are also many ideas I can put into use as well.
I have a collection of bells hanging from the low boughs of an ornamental cherry tree. In the areas beneath, I've arranged among the astilbe some small garden scultures collected over many years. A few of them are objects re-purposed from what might be called junk. My eyes rest upon this scene, and my artistic spirit is nourished. For woman does not live by vegetables alone.