I’ve felt for a long time like our gardens are reflections of our lives, and looking back at what my garden has been over the last decade has forced me to take stock of a life which, frankly, has always felt a little bit out of control. I haven’t blogged here in over three years. In that time, I’ve gotten separated and divorced, and my one-time gardening buddy, who used to play in the mud beside me, has grown into a ten-year-old who has no interest in gardening whatsoever ― unless she can do it in a Minecraft world.
Such is life.
The thing about my garden is that it has just become so much struggle. Don’t get me wrong; there is pleasure, too. But, truthfully, less of it than there used to be. For years I have been trying to keep my garden neat and orderly, but I’ve been fighting a losing battle. All things utterly refuse to be bent contrary to their natures, and my backyard, apparently, wants to be wilderness. I can’t even remember how many times I have tilled it; how many times I have dug it up with a shovel; how much grass I have pulled out by the roots; how many cinderblocks I have moved in a futile effort to create a sort-of Berlin Wall between what I deemed to be “yard” and what I had declared “garden.” I can’t count how many feet of ugly fencing I have put up, and taken down, and put up again, and for no good reason, since every groundhog and rabbit in the area still came and went as they pleased.
But what truly gives me pause is this: I am spending 90% of my time in the garden battling the inevitable instead of actually caring for the plants that I am purposefully growing. And this year, the plants that I was purposefully growing did not fare very well at all.
All of which is to say, my garden and I, too, have been contemplating divorce.
A little over a year ago, I made the decision to return to the corporate commuting world in order to earn a living. This may seem at first glance like an unrelated thought; it’s not. I was sitting in a business meeting last week, and one of my suited colleagues was explaining the “natural” life cycle of a business, which, I can’t help but point out, is not unlike the natural life cycle of a marriage. There’s the start-up phase, full of plans and enthusiasm; followed by the growth phase, in which things go well and there is some success. Then there is the plateau stage, where things are going along just fine, but things are no longer growing and improving. The plateau stage is the status quo, the point where you think, “Hey, what we’ve been doing got us where we are today; why change it?” It is at this point, my colleague stated, that unsuccessful businesses begin to decline. Successful businesses, on the other hand, look ahead and innovate; thus essentially re-starting their life cycle and throwing themselves back into a mindset of plans and enthusiasm for the next great thing.
So what, I have to ask myself, does innovation look like in my stagnate and declining garden?
Well, it looks something like this:
It's actually two pieces: a simple 4' x 4' raised bed, and a 2' x 4' x 4' "cage" cover. It's pine. It cost me about $60 in materials from Lowes and required very little effort to build. The most tedious part was stapling all the chicken wire around the cage frame. I bought everything in four-foot lengths, which means that the only thing that needed to be cut was the cross-pieces on the cage, and even I can do that with a hand saw.
The stones are only there to keep the paper bags and cardboard in place until I get the soil in.
I’ve been kicking this idea around for some time now. Not so much the raised-bed part, but the cage part. Every year after losing young pepper plants to voracious rabbits, every fall after losing brassicas to the even more voracious groundhogs, I’ve thought to myself that I really needed to make some kind of cage to keep them off my plants. I won’t say it was out-and-out laziness — or miserliness — that kept me from implementing the idea; I’ll call it inertia: a crappy gardener tends to remain a crappy gardener, etc.
Yes, I know that raised beds still get weeds. Weeding is inevitable. The seeds blow in. And the grass in my backyard, I swear, cannot be eradicated. But I believe that using these raised beds will allow me to shift my focus away from fighting Mother Nature and onto caring for my vegetable plants.
I plan to cut down even further on the garden maintenance by spacing these beds far enough apart to get a lawn mower through. No more trying to lay down stone paths. No more putting down mulch. No more focusing on ― and becoming discouraged by ― the aesthetics of the garden as a whole. I want to focus on what I’m growing.
And as for my burly groundhogs, yes, I am aware that they could quite easily shove this cage off of the bed and chow down if they wanted to. That’s why I will keep the cages fastened down. There is a hole drilled towards the top of the wood of the raised bed on two sides. I will thread a piece of wire through the hole, and use it to fasten the cage cover to the bed. It’ll make it a bit of a pain when it’s time to harvest, but it will be less trouble overall and less physically taxing then what I have been doing out there for all these years. And in many cases, the cages won’t be needed for the entire growing season; I will only need them on my pepper plants until they are too big to entice the rabbits, and I won’t need them on my tomato plants or herbs at all since the groundhogs and rabbits never seem to bother those.
Taking down my garden at the end of this summer — a task which is still not complete — has given me mixed feelings. It’s symbolic, to me, of the fact that I am moving into a new phase of my life. There is both regret and nostalgia. But there is also relief and anticipation, and hope for a better future. And I have learned the hard way not to take on too much, too fast. In my midlife garden, I am starting small. I may only have the one bed this fall; it will be my winter project to build additional ones that will be ready for the spring, at which point I am hoping that my garden will not be the only thing around here that will bloom.
S.M.R. Saia is the author of the children's books Little Ant and the Butterfly and Little Ant Goes to a Picnic, as well as a book of humorous gardening essays, Confessions of a Vegetable Lover: Scandalous Stories of Love, Lust, and Betrayal in a Backyard Garden.