I have always had something of a brown thumb. I could never really understand why that was; my mother was a florist with a kind of instinctive understanding of plants, and my father was a former hippie still clinging to the dream of self-sufficiency. In my youth, whenever we found ourselves living someplace with a backyard, you could almost guarantee there was something edible planted in it. When I was five, I “helped” till the soil for potatoes, strawberries, and sugar snap peas. At ten we had mint coming up, weed-like, all around the grape arbor that Dad had constructed himself. In my teens, there was rhubarb poking out from amidst the poppies and roses. Even now, my parents have fruit and veg planted behind their house, bounded by the requisite railroad ties.
When we weren’t growing food ourselves, we would still harvest our own whenever possible, stopping in at U-pick strawberry fields, hitting up the abandoned, ancient grove of twisted blueberry trees, or visiting the local filbert farm. (Dad, being the tallest, would shake the tree branches, sending the little brown nuts raining down on us, while we ran around collecting them.) On family road trips to the middle of nowhere, Mom was known to suddenly yell, “Steve, stop the car!” so that she could run off into the brush to collect wild blackberries, boysenberries, and huckleberries. We even used to tromp around in the soggy Washington woods when I was barely more than a toddler, scouring the forest floor for wild mushrooms. (I’m told that whenever we came across a slug, which in the Pacific Northwest happens a lot, I had to stop to pet and even to kiss it. Blech!)
Both of my brothers seemed to inherit our folks’ passion for growing things. My youngest brother is practically a savant, and the older one had a flourishing patio garden of his own at one time. Not me. Over the years I’d receive plants as gifts or decide that a spot of green would be just the thing to brighten my home, and almost invariably that spot of green would soon become a spot of yellow and then a wilted tangle of brittle browns. The one exception was, of course, the peace lily I gave up on with a frustrated, “Fine, just go ahead and DIE!” It lasted another year or so, and the less I watered it, the better it seemed to do. (Well, duh, I say to my younger self. You were overwatering it, you ninny.)
(By the way, I love parentheticals, something my community college English teacher chided me about on more than one occasion. You have been warned.)
A few years ago, fresh on the heels of managing to murder both a rosemary plant and an entire cactus garden (seriously?!), I decided that because I was unemployed and broke, it only made sense for me to start growing some of my own food. My parents, visiting from out of town, gleefully funded the venture, helping me pick out containers, potting soil, fertilizer, tomato plants, various herbs, and even a new rosemary shrub. (Word of advice, rosemary: watch your back!) Surprisingly, I did alright! I read up on the plants I’d acquired and tried to do well by them, arranging them on my little patio so that they’d get the best sun. I actually managed to keep most everything alive for quite some time. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the plague of caterpillars that descended upon my tiny garden, I might have had a decent, if small, crop of tomatoes that year. Instead, I found myself spending hour after hour plucking the wriggly green things from the leaves with chopsticks before dropping them into a bucket of water, trying not to feel guilty for committing wormy genocide and reminding myself that it was them or me. (Grrr.)
The following year, the older of my two younger brothers moved in with me. I’d already killed both a dwarf lemon and dwarf lime tree by the time he’d arrived, along with most of my herbs, and all but one of my tomatoes. (Sadly, rosemary was among the early casualties.) So when Bro eagerly offered to take over the gardening duties, I eagerly let him! Before I knew it, he’d managed to coax an avocado pit into germinating, and had convinced my struggling chives to give us one more chance. He’d even managed to revive one of the inhabitants of that cactus garden I hadn’t realized was still holding on. He was a miracle worker! Come spring, we headed to the local nursery and loaded up on plants, dreaming along the way of the salsas and the sauces we were going to make, strategizing about all the canning we were going to do, and even talking about finding other local growers and starting a crop swap.
Bro did an excellent job. We had thyme and mint, rosemary and sage, chives and basil, all of it thriving. It was wonderful to just pop out back and clip fresh herbs whenever I needed them in the kitchen. We had a Fresno pepper that produced so much so quickly that I couldn’t manage to use it all before it went bad. Life was beautiful. Then one morning Bro got my attention. “Did you see the plants?” he asked dolefully. A huge chunk of our garden had been reduced from luscious leafiness to sickly nubs literally overnight. We’d been struck by Plague o’ Caterpillars: Part Deux. No matter how quick Bro was with the chopsticks, the caterpillars were quicker. In the end, he managed to salvage a few things: one scraggly mint, some chives, the Fresno, a sickly-looking basil. Everything else was gone.
That was last year. Since then, Bro has been reading up. He’s discovered an organic, bacterial…something that can be sprayed on the plants to deter the caterpillars, which we hope will replace the hunt and peck of the chopsticks. We picked up a bottle when we visited the nursery a couple of weeks ago, where, fingers very much crossed, we picked up a new batch of plants. Here’s hoping this is the year our bumper crop comes in!
Coming soon: Weekly-ish photos of this year’s garden and its progress, along with more words from me about stuff, and a fresh batch of juicy parentheticals (probably).