Ah, the glorious turn of summer into fall! Though our part of the earth turns its axis away from the sun, the days still linger in warmth even as the hours of sunlight grow shorter every day. This is the time of gathering, of harvesting, of pride in the fruits of our summer labors.
And again, I have proven my complete failure as a gardener.
Earlier this year, I related my past gardening adventures and my “less than spectacular” results. This year, I tried another route: a five-layer hydroponic garden that pumps water through bowls of clean volcanic rock. In theory, this would result in a triumph of dirtless gardening.
I should have known better. Have you ever seen anything on the slope of a volcano, other than the volcano? Ash, yes. Snow, yes. Maybe a lichen or a patch of moss. Lush gardens of Eden? Not exactly.
I set the system up at a sunny spot on the deck. I happily shopped at the local garden center to find herbs and flowers to place throughout each of the five pots.
My first observation: “dirtless gardening” doesn’t apply to the tedious work of rinsing the plants of soil before placing them in the bowls of volcanic rock. But after a few hours, everything was nestled into containers, I added liquid feed, then flipped the switch on the water pump.
I heard the water flow within the pump and cistern at the bottom but could see no water coming through the bowls. My husband checked my setup and, after discovering I had installed the pipes and pumps upside down, said with wonder, “You really are that bad at this.”
Properly configured, the garden was now ready, and, within days, the plants began to grow.
And nearly half of them died within a couple of weeks.
I replaced them with grim determination, and after a few tweaks in plant food and water chemistry, I finally had a “real” garden.
Now the fun began! I had chosen tomatoes, cucumbers and beans, and herbs like sage, mint, basil, oregano, and tarragon, enthralled with the idea of fresh vegetables and herbs gracing my home-cooked meals.
(As an aside, I don’t cook homemade meals — ever —but why let that get in the way of my fun?)
The mint quickly spread, reaching out to the fence alongside the garden container. The lemon basil grew large and fragrant and flowers appeared on my cherry tomatoes and cucumber. Success! I was even more surprised when the flowers dropped and real vegetables — yes, real vegetables! — began growing on the vines. As they ripened, I became smug in my success and was so proud of my first “harvest” — five cherry tomatoes, two string beans, and a cucumber. I felt like Martha Stewart and Produce Pete, wrapped up into one water garden-growing guru.
But then, things went awry. Again.
I think it started just after I wrote about my lifetime war with spiders. As if in collective vengeance, tiny spiders moved into the gardens and draped angry white webs over leaves and flowers.
I swept them away and overnight they returned. I sprayed the leaves with lemon juice. The spiders blanketed my sage in gossamer. I cursed their intransigence. They shrouded my tarragon.
Then my vegetables began to fail. The string beans shriveled into strings. The cherry tomatoes shrank to the size of raisins. The cucumbers looked less like salad fixings and more like marital aids.
The mint died. Do you hear me, readers? I killed a mint. Nobody kills a mint.
Nuclear bombs can’t kill a mint. Mints are the plants people kill on purpose because they are tired of it taking over the rest of the garden. Mints live forever. Except in my garden.
I had a few triumphs. Three types of basil grew big and strong within weeks. I was so proud of this that I couldn’t wait to share one garden triumph with my friends. “My basils are doing so well, they are already flowering like crazy!” I exclaimed. That’s when I learned that the one thing you are not supposed to do is let herbs flower early in the season. So, in my world, even flowers meant gardening defeat!
Still, I have to say I learned a lot from my latest gardening experiment. I’m getting ready to take the system apart, rinse it out and give it another (and hopefully smarter) whirl next year. Until then, you’ll find me in the produce aisle at the supermarket, shopping for herbs and salad fixings.