Slaps and Medals

In the lovely book of essays A Full Life in a Small Place, gardener Janice Emily Bowers wrote that in summer, the garden pins medals to her chest with one hand and slaps her across the face with the other.

I was sitting in the airport when I read that line and laughed out loud, causing people sitting around me to edge away in concern. Still, I couldn’t help but laugh. I recognized it immediately as a great truth of gardening, and it is currently reflected in my own garden in spades.

Take the tomatoes. I ate the first ripe tomato of the year today—“Homestead,” which will set fruit in the ruthless heat of the south—and it was exactly as a ripe tomato should be, firm, intensely tomato-y, with a little seasoned salt drizzled over it. I am salivating at the thought of a ripe Pink Brandywine, sliced thickly for tomato sandwiches. My wing-and-a-prayer attempts to train one over an archway succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. (Also, I had no idea that tomato plants got to be ten feet tall. Go figure.) The plants are lush, lavish, covered in round green balls, and if even a quarter of them survive to ripeness, I will be swimming in the bloody things.

And then of course, there’s the corollary—raising tomatoes in pots has been a dismal failure this year, with my “Black Elephant” guzzling a gallon of water a day and still wilting savagely. (Self-watering pots, my eye…) Going out of town for four and five days at a stretch hasn’t helped. The peppers will put up with that kind of abuse and just turn out savage, angry peppers that will take their vengeance on your palate and parts further south. Try that with a tomato and all you get is a floppy, tragic tomato.

Still, the ones in the ground are beautiful. And I cannot claim all the credit for these tomatoes myself. The garden wildlife helped.

This year brought with it an extraordinary infestation of hornworms, one of the worst I’ve seen in my gardening days, and I will now confess, O reader, that my response to parasites in the garden is “Meh.” I do not pinch them, pull them, grab them, squish them, hose them off, or anything of the sort. Better gardeners probably do. My response is that if it can’t be fixed with mulch or a soaker hose, I’m not interested. (In times of extreme stress, I have picked Japanese beetles and plunked them in soapy water, but these days I don’t even bother with that much. It’s easier just not to grow anything that Japanese beetles want.)  I ascribe to a theory of garden equilibrium, which is “Sooner or later, something will probably come along that eats that.” It works, more or less.

But the hornworms were unsettling. There were quite a lot of them. I even pried one off a leaf and tossed it into the frog pond, where presumably something ate it. (You gotta understand, for me, this is the equivalent of screaming “DEFCON ONE!” and running in circles waving my arms in the air.)

I needn’t have worried.

That’s gotta hurt.

Parasitic wasp larvae were on the job. A week from the time I noticed the first hornworm, the little white larvae showed up. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a single hornworm that isn’t host to a back full of these savage little buggers. I admit to feeling a twinge for the caterpillar, who is suffering an unpleasant fate, but on the other hand, those are my tomatoes.

Total neglect for the win!

And then there’s the matter of the summer squash. I planted ONE squash. One. Singular. It is the perfect number, as it happens, because it has grown into an enormous dome of leaves, throwing beautiful, cream-colored squash at the rate of about one every three days. This is just enough to slice into instant pickles, chop into fettucini alfredo, add to a salad, whatever, without leaving us utterly sick of summer squash.

This is a total win in the garden, except for the bit where I tried to get all permaculture-y. One of the tenets of permaculture is use zones. You put stuff that you use a lot close to the house, and you make it easy to reach them so that you actually DO use the plants. Ideally you should be able to go out, cut herbs for your omelet, and come back in without even getting your slippers wet.

“So obvious!” I cried. “I shall place the summer squash near the walkway, in the one flowerbed, so that I can reach it easily!”  (Hey, it worked for the potted blueberries on the deck. My boyfriend wanders the garden as gingerly as if every third plant had a bomb strapped to it, but he harvests the blueberries happily.)

I still think this might have been a good idea, if summer squash did not get so…big. Half the sidewalk has been engulfed by squash leaves. They met the mountain mint coming in from the other side, with a volunteer Agastache foeniculum reinforcing it, and the end result is that I don’t go down that part of the sidewalk any more. I think I lost a couple of strawberry pots under it. I’ll need a machete to find out. (Do not ask where the volunteer sunflower in that tangle is growing from. I have a bad feeling it might be growing out of a strawberry pot.)

Still, the squash I can reach are awesome, and it’s not like anybody NEEDS to use that door to the garage. There are other doors. This frees me of the existential anxiety over which door to use. It’s a good thing. Probably.

My water barrels are full of slugs. Nobody warned me that slugs would hang out there. It’s a trifle unsettling, and looks like somebody blew their nose all over the inside of the barrel. On the bright side, there are no mosquito larvae in the barrel at all, because I left the lid off one day and a Blue Dasher dragonfly laid eggs in it. The three surviving water tigers are nearly an inch long and I think they swear at me in Dragonfly when I take the lid off. I guess that’s a win, except maybe the bit with the slugs.

There are other victories in the garden, although they tend to be harder to photograph—and other slaps as well. The fig tree has no figs, nor even the suggestion that figs might be a possibility at some point in the future. All my coneflowers fell over and left a weird bald patch in the middle of the bed. (That’s easy to photograph, I’m just pretending it’s not happening.) The squirrels uprooted two rose bushes and ate one of the other ones. (I am dead serious. They ate it. I watched them do it. Squirrels are freaks.) We will not speak of the daikons, or what happened to the one sculpture when the branch fell on it. (I fixed it! Mostly! You can do a lot with those little green wire twist things!)

But the victories, when they come, are sweet. There’s a single enormous pipevine swallowtail caterpillar devouring the hairy Dutchman’s pipe (which looks as mangy and ragged as a vine can look, but at least now I know WHY) and I just hope that there’s enough left to see him through to chrysalis-hood. (I rather suspect that there were more initially, and part of his great size is the cannibalism common to caterpillars.) Single Female Hummingbird raised two fledglings to adulthood, one of which I saw this morning, zipping around with baby fluff still clinging to his feet (and, rather endearingly, to the top of his head.) The blue-gray gnatcatchers have also fledged a brood, increasing the supply of Bad Attitude in the garden by nearly 200%. My tentative experiments with cutting back giant Hollow-Stem Joe-Pye Weed were wildly successful, and possibly next year I will keep them to a manageable eight feet instead of the sixteen-and-wobbly they keep aiming for. (“Never needs staking.” Swear to god, if I find the person who claimed that, I am going to shove these plant stakes where the gnatcatchers do not fly…) The stemless ironweed, a lovely little native plant, thrived on complete neglect this year and put up a marvelous spay of tiny purple flowers. The sweet pepperbush, despite one of the most skill-free transplant operations of all time, is alive and well and covered in tight little flower buds.

So, y’know. You win some, you lose some. I think in summer, the wins and the losses are simply much more dramatic than at other times of the year. Life. Death. Tomatoes. Baby hummingbirds. Things like that.


© 2012, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Talk about making me laugh out loud as I read! I can so exactly picture your garden…as it sounds like almost a twin to my own. “Defcon One!” on hornworms for me involves a jar full of soapy water, but the tomato vines have to be almost denuded before I’ll do that – I love hawk moths! I can’t remember the last time I actually tried to get rid of one.

    A pair of Carolina wrens have successfully fledged young in our yard this summer and I’m seeing hummers, so I’m pretty sure we’ve got a nest of those nearby. The gnatcatchers are exciting – that’s a species I haven’t seen in my yard yet. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your experiments in native gardening!
    Gaia gardener recently posted..Hard Choices: Heat, Drought, Grasshoppers and Blister Beetles

  2. says

    I love the idea of slaps and medals Ursula. Many more medals this year so far and I am liking that…I had just the opposite problem with my tomatoes….containers are on steroids and garden tomatoes were limping along….microclimate issues due to a cold June ….oh well medals and slaps!
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-June

  3. says

    Ursala, What a funny post! In my garden, the medals belong to the agastache I planted in containers on my deck that bring hummingbirds everyday. On the slaps side, I’d have to say it’s the rabbitsthat are wreaking havoc on my garden this year. They’ve eaten so many of the flower stalks of my rudbeckia, liatris and achillea that I’ll be lucky to have one or two flowers of each this season. Like you, I try to take it in stride and realize it’s all art of being a gardener.
    Debbie Roberts recently posted..Wordless Wednesday ~ New

  4. Siouxellen says

    Great post!! It’s always good to see others combat the same issues I have. Gardening is so much like taking care of your body – sometimes you just have to let things be, like fighting off the flu instead of dowsing yourself with antibiotics. Come to think of it, we are each just a little self-contained garden, with our own personal slaps and medals. Thanks for the post, Ursula!

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