Growing Pains

Even gardeners with black thumbs can create luscious vinegars and oils infused with herbs.

By Leslie Bilderback 03/01/2010

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I come from a long line of great gardeners. My maternal grandmother was raised on a Wisconsin farm, and she taught my mother all the tricks of the trade. Sadly, those skills seem to have skipped my generation. I once killed a Chia Pet.
My grandma’s garden was something to behold. It was a huge plot with neat rows of every vegetable imaginable. It had a 10-foot fence to keep out the deer (at least it seemed like it was 10 feet when I was in kindergarten) and a perimeter of crushed eggshells to keep out the snails. Long before it was cool to do so, she had a big compost pile way out back and a coop full of chickens. (You see, kids, Martha Stewart did not invent everything.) I remember walking through a rose garden and a Concord grape–covered arbor, past the pomegranate trees to the garden, where grandma would pull a carrot out of the dirt and rinse it with a hose for me to snack on. I remember her fondly every time I taste a dirty carrot. 
My mom is a great gardener too. She taught me the basics of gardening when I was little, and I eagerly helped her tend our own fruitful garden. Being stereotypical California gardeners, we always had way too much zucchini. We made plenty of zucchini bread and ate it grated and sautéed in butter all summer long. We had plenty of artichokes and huge stalks of rhubarb that my friends and I would rip off the plant, douse in sugar and eat raw, daring each other to nibble closer and closer to the poisonous leaves.
Tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers and all kinds of herbs made an annual appearance, as did the occasional pumpkin, grown for the local fall pumpkin contest, which I never won. Yep, I have a million great childhood memories in the garden. 
Sadly, my poor kid’s childhood garden memories will consist of mom shouting naughty words at the ground, having just discovered — again — that her newly sprouted shoots were nibbled to the quick by someone or something. 
It’s not fair! Gardening is a hobby perfectly suited to me. I love all things crafty and homemade, I try hard to eat organic and I can easily follow a recipe (which is practically the same as seed packet instructions). Yet despite what seems like the perfect confluence of skill and passion, I can’t make a garden grow in my yard. 
Of course, that doesn’t prevent me from trying year after year. When the temperature begins to warm up and the hardware store moves the rack of seeds close to the register, my heart races like a 13-year-old girl’s at a Twilight convention. Shiny trowels, garden gloves, straw hats and tool totes woo me from every aisle. Back home, seed catalogs call out from the mailbox, teasing me with promises of bounty. 
But there are a few seemingly insurmountable obstacles that repeatedly render my garden a failure. The first is my soil. It is nothing but hardened clay and must be constantly amended. Because of this, I have developed a serious passion for composting.
Something about sorting garbage plays right into my love of thrift. Oh, the joy of saving vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, grass clippings and dirty paper napkins for months, then watching as it miraculously transforms into a fragrant mound of soil. The fact that the critical element of compost is worm poop makes it seem a little bit dangerous, and all the more enticing. I love my mini–circle of life: Trash becomes soil, which in turn nurtures the plants we consume, the scraps of which we compost and so on. Or so it would be, if I could grow something edible.
I also have a sunlight problem. Each time I think I have the perfect plot, my trees grow another foot and my once sunny plot is now shrouded in shade. Either that or my dogs decide that, because of the sunlight, my garden bed will now be their actual bed.
And then there is the neighborhood wildlife. Someone is routinely eating my sprouting vegetables. I have narrowed it down to either the Edison meter reader guy or one of our frequent backyard visitors. We have raccoons, possums, skunks, coyotes and a colony of squirrels; an Audubonian array of birds, including feral parrots, peacocks and giant red-tailed hawks (which is one reason I chose large dogs over small ones that look tasty from 50 feet in the air); and various rodents, which I am pretty sure are not perfecting ratatouille or sewing ball gowns while we humans sleep. 
But my biggest agricultural obstacle is me. Sometimes I kinda forget about my garden. I realize this is not a nurturing attitude. Imagine if I did that with my kids: “Sure, I’ll give you water, but as far as your day-to-day activities go, you’re on your own.” I admit that by the time I remember to check in on its progress, the bird-proof netting or dog-proof fence has been breached. I suppose there are a number of Monsanto products I could apply to solve many of these obstacles, but I am striving to set a healthy, organic example. If I want to poison my family, I’ll just hit Mickey D’s drive-thru. 
I did have a good garden once. It was in the yard of a small house we rented when the kids were babies. It had great soil and no critters, which was probably due to its location on the corner of a busy intersection, with no open space for miles, unless you count the Carrow’s parking lot. 
So here I go again. Another year, another plot, another raised-bed design and the latest technology in eco-friendly ultrasonic critter defense. It really irks me to know that any bubbleheaded college kid can grow plants in a dorm room closet, but I, a somewhat intelligent and clear-minded adult, can’t do it in a Southern Californian garden. Will the indignity never end?  


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