Earning A Green Thumb

It is time for a garden tour. As you can see, my thumb is still mostly pink. That is because I am learning by failure, but I have figured out why good gardeners have green thumbs. Did you ever wonder? I previously thought it would be more accurate to say a great gardener has a black thumb because their hands are dirty, especially under the fingernails. While that is true, the green part comes from (I hope you haven’t recently eaten anything) squishing bugs with their bare hands, because the bugs eat too much and it is such a pain to find the gloves, much less remember to wear them. I’m pretty sure the dog and kids have destroyed all my gloves anyway, so I am not even going to go look for them. 

When we started this garden, I asked everyone I met, who seemed like they would know, how they kept the bugs at bay. There are two main answers to this question. The first is to sprinkle and spray poison all over the food. When I get an answer of this type, I naturally change the subject to the weather or the local road construction project. The other answer, which was almost as difficult to accept, was to “hand pick” predators off the plants and to plant trap crops. Actually, planting the trap crops makes a lot of sense and doesn’t make me feel sick to my stomach like poison and squishing critters did.  I began my metamorphosis by pinching off the leaf the bug was on and feeding the whole bundle to my chickens. I cheered them on as they pecked the insects to death and added organic protein to their diet, but there was a never ending supply of new caterpillars to take their places and my garden was still becoming defoliated. Well, after awhile I became frustrated with caterpillars that roll up in a leaf and eat an entire bean stalk. When I saw the tell tale rolled leaf I got a little protective, if not revengeful, and squished the varmint inside the leaf bare handed. Frustration and disgust turned into a morbid satisfaction when I felt the roundedness get flat and saw part of it ooze out. I don’t touch that part. 

There is one caterpillar that I can’t bear to see or squish and that is the tomato hornworm. The first time I ever saw one, I knew that’s what it was because the name fits. By the time I usually find one, it is the thickness of my pinky, perfectly camouflaged with the stem of a tomato plant, which is suspiciously barren of all its leaves. No matter how many times I discover a tomato hornworm, I scream and jump around, flailing my arms in protection, incase it should become airborne. (I know they don’t attack people, but I just can’t help it. It is the fright and flail instinct I was born with.) It is just so surprising to see it there, as big as it is, pretending to be a tomato stalk. Grace is so horrified by these caterpillars that she will be unable to finish her meal if anyone mentions “tomato hornworm” at the table, a fact which her teenaged brothers have unashamedly used to their own advantage. WARNING: a tomato hornworm is in the next picture. Protect your food from teenagers, until you recover your appetite. 

Thankfully, most of the bugs I see are not as scary. Besides the rolled up leaves, we also have something that cuts a slice out of a leaf and makes a sort of caterpillar taco. Or that is what I tell the chickens when the whole leaf is too infested to squish and save. 

But enough about bugs. Forget that we even have them and come see my garden. Mike installed four bean trellises for me, made out of panels of cattle fencing. They are perfect. 

The chicken coop has a lovely vine growing all over it which we learned, while we were in the Bahamas, is good for making a tea when you have a cold. None of the chickens have colds. It must be because they have eaten all the vine they can reach. 

David, who volunteers with the Cubbies, and Ethan, who is a Cubbie, brought home two cups with zinnia plants growing in them from AWANA. They begged for a spot to plant them in my raised beds and they grew almost as tall as David and bloomed constantly for months. We enjoyed fresh flowers in the house so much that I planted more to take over when the first plants get too tired. 

My usual morning routine is to have a quiet time with the children, get dressed, make my bed, hurry out to feed the chickens, begin patrolling the garden for bugs, and start the sprinkler. I used to have to go back out and move the sprinkler 4-5 times to get every corner. This was stressing me out, because I wanted to walk around, and pick flowers, and just stand in the sunshine every time I went back out, but I had school, laundry, and dinner preparations waiting for me inside. While Grace and I were on our Girls’ Getaway, the guys and some friends installed an irrigation system for me! Now I can water the entire garden at once and still have time to pick flowers!

The system included a portion for the orchard, which was not yet in existence. We have been talking about planting fruit trees since before we even moved here, and every year we lament that we did not yet plant, and we are one more year away from growing our own fruit. The main reasons we were so slow to get started are that we felt intimidated by the project, but also because the land needed to be cleared. There was a dead tree to be chopped up and hauled away and brush to be burned. The first time Mike began burning, he was the ultra-cautious Scoutmaster, burning one twig at a time. I couldn’t bear to watch. The next time, I mentioned S’mores and you better believe we had a roaring bonfire in no time flat. Did you know Spanish moss is exceptionally flammable, even if it is wet? The boys discovered it made lovely smoke signals, which inspired some people to dance around the fire and make more noise than usual. It turns out that S’mores can legally be lunch once or twice a year. Just please don’t mention tomato hornworms, because that is not fair. And did you know that if a marshmallow falls into the ashes it will expand like the monster that ate Hollywood? 

That was the most fun we have ever had gardening as a family. We should burn things more often. In a safe way, of course. Meanwhile, Mike had been studying the pattern of sunlight and chose the exact spots for our new trees. In the citrus grove we have six trees: a navel orange, blood orange, satsuma mandarin, ponkan tangerine, lemon, and... something else. I forget. Then next to the house we planted Anna and Dorset apples and Kieffer and Flordahome pear trees; one of each kind for pollination purposes. 

I had been longing for fresh mulch for the garden paths for quite some time, but I really needed it to be free, because I needed so much of it. I called several tree trimming businesses and got on their waiting list for free mulch, but months went by with no delivery. Then one day while at the gas station, a tree trimming crew pulled up with a truck overflowing with wood chips. Well, I quickly overcame any reservations about walking up to strange men and introducing myself. Turns out, the least strange looking one lives on the street behind us and was pleased to dump his truck load at our house rather than drive somewhere else less convenient. I could use another truck load, but I am so thankful to have all this! Most of the children were amazed and excited when they saw the pile, as they imagined how much fun they could have in a mountain of mulch. Only Paul sighed and said, “I know what this means.” We had plenty to go around the garden and the citrus grove, with a little leftover for other landscaping purposes. As we hauled it away, the children took turns shoveling, driving the wheelbarrow, and riding over the top of the pile on their bikes. If it looks like Paul and Victoria did most of the work, well, a picture is worth a thousand words. 

We have a chain link dog kennel, which came with the cattle fencing we bought off of Craig’s List, and which I placed next to the Passion Flower Vine, knowing that it would be engulfed and make a delightful playhouse. Grace has turned it into a home with improvised furniture.

The boys stained and built three Adirondack chairs for future bonfires. Mike was contemplating building them from scratch when he found the kits on sale at Ace Hardware and called to ask how many he should buy. They were $20 each, so of course I told him to get nine, one for each of us. When people start getting married, they will have to share seats, but we should have several years before that is a possibility. Hopefully we can stain and build the six remaining chairs before then. They are surprisingly comfy and make the front of the barn look like a destination. 

It would be a pleasant place to sit and shell beans, if you can get any before the bugs and toddlers do. 

Startling as she may be, that spider on the giant web is only helping us out in the garden. I hope she gets lots of juicy moths and mosquitoes, as well as the other predators, because I have not given up the attempt to feed my family from my backyard, even though my thumb is not yet green. 

© Being Fruitful, 2012