It’s nearly time to plant again. A little voice urges me not to—reminding me nature always wins—but I can’t seem to resist.
We started a garden last spring as a quarantine distraction. By May, we realized our summer travel plans wouldn’t be possible.
“For the kids!” I told my husband, even though I knew this idea had little to do with them: I needed something to replace trips to French markets and the incredible produce my mother-in-law grows in her potager every July.
Most summers, we arrive in Provence just in time to enjoy the results of my in-laws’ labor: delicious tomatoes, berries, apricots, beans, lettuce, fresh herbs, eggplants and more. They appear, miraculously, ready-to-pick in the garden each morning.
Growing up, I had observed my own mom plant flower beds every spring, smiling, happy to be outside enjoying the Colorado sun and nature. These were the rare occasions she would slip away from a bustling household (3 kids, 2 cats, 1 professor) to take time for herself.
So last spring, after weeks of being cooped up, and dizzy from the mounting tragedies of 2020 spilling across every household screen, having an excuse to be outside seemed like the perfect escape for me too.
There would be dirt, water, sunshine, and big hats to wear. I could hardly wait to start reaping my rewards.
After all, one of the things that had intrigued me when we purchased this house, the year before, had been its overgrown garden. I’d often made new discoveries, walking around the property—unearthing paving stones, a hidden blueberry bush, or a pretty stone border delineating some long forgotten flower patch.
Things began with promise. I spent a full day preparing the plot, with help from my two boys, pulling up massive weeds and clearing pieces of sun bleached wood and mulch. I turned the soil, cheered on the earthworms and built a trenched terrain in which to plant.
For days I’d been Googling planting tips, researching best practices, and how to deter the adorable deer, birds and other neighborhood wildlife from tampering with our work.
Did I need netting? Should we build a fence? How high? How much? Could I spray something? So many choices and conflicting suggestions. There’s no better way to procrastinate on life’s various demands than to start a garden.
I planted a variety of seedlings, and things actually started to grow: tomatoes, strawberries, zucchini, eggplants, watermelon.
Then a few nights in, I noticed some leaves were missing on a cherry tomato plant.
Soon, an entire strawberry plant disappeared, a half eaten strawberry left in its wake.
A couple mornings later, zucchini blossoms were gone. As the day wore on, I got so worried about leaving my plants unprotected, I slipped out just before midnight, to sprinkle Cayenne pepper around the garden.
Who was I kidding? Deer around here probably feast on Carolina Reapers for breakfast.
I read up on other potential botanical deterrents, then planted a fortress of basil, lavender, oregano, rosemary and thyme—closer to a Simon and Garfunkel hit than a pesticide—unsure of whether I was at war with the fluffy brown bunny, lurking next door, or that gang of unrepentant deer known to terrorize the neighborhood.
A week or two went by and all seemed well. Then one morning, I noticed more zucchini blossoms and leaves had evaporated overnight.
On my mother-in-law’s advice, I dug into our recycling bin and punched small holes into several tin cans I found. I strung them up, on a web of Pepto Bismol-colored pink yarn (all I could find) stretching from the little tree in the center of our yard to the tomato cages about 10 feet away.
I filled the cans with a few marbles, pilfered from my kids’ rooms, and tiny stones I’d spotted around the yard. If aromatics wouldn’t work, maybe the terrifying sound of miniature glass spheres and pebbles lolling in cans would do the trick.
Across the street, our ten-year old neighbor peered from behind a slender tree trunk. He watched me struggle as I tied knots over and over again, attempting to arrange the cans at just the right height and angle to clink—should a deer dare to breathe on them.
His eyes grew big and he didn’t say a word, but his alarmed expression was an easy read:
Something has snapped in that lady’s head.
His was the same look I’d given in my twenties to unusual people “of a certain age” I’d observed while living in New York: the woman who contorted her body into a spontaneous yoga pose—head down, leg up—grasping a column for support every morning at the 96th street subway station, or the man with the exquisitely cultivated handlebar mustache, stretching from one ear to the other, who hopped on the 2 / 3 line at Times Square.
The little boy’s face told me what I already feared: I had joined the ranks of these middle aged eccentrics.
And, as you might have guessed, the cans didn’t really work anyway.
So I researched deer repellent, first calling the garden store for advice, then spending an hour on a customer service line, double-checking the product was safe for comestible plants.
I bought it, sprayed it around and waited. Several days without disturbance. This was good, but was it good enough?
Of course not! I’d been told the only thing that could really stop deer from invading was a 10-foot high fence. Not quite ready for that kind of investment or blight in the middle of our front yard, I invested instead in 4-feet high rolls of chicken wire. (The neighbors were thrilled, I’m sure.) Unwinding them, ripping up my forearms and legs, trying to figure out how to connect them together, I managed to wrap the three tomato cages.
I collected branches and purchased bamboo rods to pound into the ground, trying desperately to fashion some kind of rudimentary structure to support a fence.
My 11-year old held one side up as I trudged around my pièce-de-resistance, the zucchini plants, once again covered in blooms.
After a while, he lost interest but I continued pulling and wrapping until it was almost dark. Finally, I had connected all the sides to form some unidentified geometric shape, resembling a long-forgotten cousin of the hexagon.
I surveyed my work, breathless and battered, to find I had managed to rip up the roots of the very plant I was trying to protect. I replanted it the best I could, leaning over my new fence and digging under it, since I’d neglected to create a proper gate.
I returned to the hardware store, contemplating my next move: coyote or wolf urine, I wondered? Or could I simply convince my seven-year old, all too willing to help “water” the yard when nature called, to try aiming for the border around our little vegetable garden the next time he had to go? Would a deer really know the difference?
Luckily, some musings go best untested…
The zucchini never quite recovered and eventually were replaced by yellow squash and cucumber plants. Some kind of fruit eventually grew there, although impossible to say whether it was a yellow cucumber or a strange cucumber-squash.Their demise was hastened, I fear, by the vinegar spray I applied to ward off an impending white, powdery mildew.
Speckled watermelons grew larger and larger—with insides ranging from bright white and pale pink to yellow and dark red—but largely lacking in sweetness. The cherry tomatoes grew best near the end of the summer, some of which I actually managed to collect before the birds nabbed them.
We had a few mini-sized green peppers and large quantities of yellow banana peppers, which I’d mistakenly planted in place of yellow bell peppers. The eggplants and the herbs, which none of the neighborhood animals seemed to fancy, thrived well into the fall, making many fine meals between them.
This garden—my garden—provided just enough hope, heartache and bounty to make me want to try it all over again.