Slugs and Floods in Paradise:The First Thing You Need to Know About Gardening

Sharon February 3rd, 2009

Note: Today is the first day of our garden design class series.  Many of the posts will be published over at Aaron’s blog, so don’t forget to check it out. 

It was the only time in my life I can remember thinking that “I can’t look” wasn’t just an expression.  I literally couldn’t look.

My garden got started late last year – _A Nation of Farmers_ went to the publisher on June 1 (lesson #1 – never again will I agree to a book deadline in the growing season), and while that’s not long after most folks put in their gardens, since I run a fairly large one, it meant that things were a little constrained last year.  But I decided I would not repine, I would simply have a kick-ass fall garden this year.

 So in mid-July, Eric took the boys to New York City to visit their grandparents, and for five days, I stayed home and weeded, planted, hoed and mulched.  Now these were the five hottest days of the summer – 90s every single day.  I was out in the garden every day by 6am, worked until I couldn’t anymore, and worked late into the evening.  I did nothing but garden and sweat, and I was, I think rightly proud of myself.  The garden never looked better.  I was exhausted and filthy – and perfectly happy.

Three days after I finished, we had 7 inches of rain in 3 hours.  The garden, normally the best drained site in our yard was flooded, with more than two feet of roiling brown water over it.  We stood in the house, Eric repeating over and over “awful, awful.”  Me, I wouldn’t look out the window.

By the next day, it had drained, but the damage was done. Most of the seeds were washed away, along with the mulch.  The seedlings that had emerged didn’t survive – or if they did, they were stunted.  My beautiful planting of popcorn and sunflowers never recovered from its waterlogged roots and produced stunted ears and tiny flowers despite me nuturing it along.  I replanted, but by the time I did, many of my crops were late, and never fully matured.

Why am I telling such a depressing story as part of my first garden design class post? Not because I have any really useful strategies for helping someone deal with sudden flash flooding – while I can talk drainage with the best of them, that kind of rain isn’t something that can be drained off easily.  It was the first time that had ever happened – but even if it were likely to happen again, I’m not sure I’d redesign my garden for it until I knew it was likely to be a frequent recurrence – for example, some of the flooding was probably due to the fact that we’ve fenced the garden, impeding, to some degree, the runoff into the creek.  But that fence does my garden more good than harm generally.

I mention it because, well, watching all your hard work go up in smoke is part of the deal.  And frankly, it hurts like hell. If you are going to depend on your own work and your own land and your own soil, sometimes bad stuff will happen to you.  I certainly wasn’t the only person crying last year over flooded out land – and most of the people weeping owed their whole living, not just their winter’s produce to the project.

And sometimes what happens will be your own fault – you put something off too long, or made a mistake.  I’ve done those too – I’m still fighting the thistles I let go to seed on the other side of the fence one year – duh, thistle seed floats over the fence….  This year I’m going to redig my entire front garden – because in our enthusiasm to get maximum growing space, we made the paths too narrow, which made life a whole lot harder.  I’ve finally gotten around to admitting that now I have to redo the whole thing.  I’ve killed a few chicks and turkey poults in my time with my own mistakes as well, and don’t think that doesn’t weigh on you.   

Some of these are things that better planning could have fixed.  I don’t doubt others will probably plan better than me, but I also don’t doubt that you’ll make some design mistakes too.  Some of these things are things you can only really learn by doing them – because the words don’t really mean anything until you see the cheatgrass or know if your locality is slug heaven.  Sometimes you’ll get the wrong advice – maybe even from me. Different areas, different challenges need different strategies, and anyone who says theirs is the one true way to farm or garden is probably wrong.  Sometimes you’ll get the right advice, but won’t be able to take it, or you won’t pay enough attention.  And sometimes mother nature gets to decide – and her decisions are increasingly tough as the climate begins its shift.

So what do you do?  You salvage what you can, you spread your investments as far as you can, so that maybe the garden on the side yard or the containers on the garage roof or the water-tolerant plantings do survive. You diversify, diversify, diversify. You get up and when you are done grieving, you shrug and plant soybeans or buckwheat or garlic.  You cut away the bad spots and eat what you can.  You pick resilient varieties, and make your soil as good as you can, so you can bear up under the stresses.  You interplant things so that maybe you never lose everything.  You use the best and wisest strategies you’ve got, and even then, you know sometimes things will go wrong.  You get over being mad at yourself or G-d, and move on.  You share when you’ve got plenty, and help out when someone else is in trouble, and hopefully you all muddle along.

I wish I could say that there’s a single magic bullet that will prevent you from ever having to turn your face away from the work of your own hands, but there isn’t.  Just like I wish there was a single magic bullet that could make the long emergency easy for everyone.  And I certainly hope this doesn’t turn anyone off gardening or farming - because those disasters are a reality no matter where the food is grown. 

That is, you can choose to participate or not, but not to have only the good, and never the evil, you cannot choose a life with only butterflies and no slugs.  You can bear some of the risk and loss, experience some of the pain and some of the glory on the days when the garden is stunningly beautiful and the ripe tomatoes are measured in bushel baskets, or you can accept that you eat or not at the hands of distant farmers who also lose their crops sometimes, and whose grief you only know when the price of tomatoes or beans rises up above what your family can afford – or when the trucks don’t come at all.  That is, there really is no full insulation from the loss – only insulation from passion and experience.  It is hard to grieve over fields far away, for farmers distant from you – nor can you experience their joy when the land yields up bounty.  Shopping at the supermarket is an emotionally distant, insulating experience, one where life and death are measured in money, which erases most of the joy and the pain.

There are plenty of other important reasons to grow a garden, ones I emphasize all the time.  But I think the simplest one doesn’t depend on how events unfold – it is simply the desire to drink the cup dry, to live life as fully and passionately as you can.  That passion means that you will know pain, anger, frustration, self-recrimination and sorrow.  But those are the necessary companions of joy, delight, pleasure, comfort, ease, pride and happiness.  For them alone, for that perfect moment on a summer’s evening when I go out, the smell of basil rises to meet me and the raspberries fall ripely into my hands, I would grow my garden.


18 Responses to “Slugs and Floods in Paradise:The First Thing You Need to Know About Gardening”

  1. meg says:

    How true. Last year I had a very ambitious heirloom tomato project going. I had started several varieties in my dormroom in the spring, faithfully carrying them back and forth to make sure they got lots of sun, but not too much, and to make sure they never got too cold. They were doing beautifully, and I was so proud,that being my first seed planting experience.

    And then I moved out of the dorm and into a trailer for the summer where I hoped to plant my seedlings and reap the benefits. After a prematurely warm spring, the bottom fell out, and we had a few weeks of cold, rainy conditions. My seedlings mostly rotted, and I think I salvaged 2 tomato plants in all.

    Better luck (and planning) next year.

  2. Jill says:

    We planted our garden last May on Memorial day weekend. (some seeds, some seedlings) The very next week we had a hard frost. I knew the frost was coming and we should cover the the plants, but I was sitting in the emergency room with my husband so it just wasn’t a possibility. We were remodling the house and weren’t living there at the time so up-keep was difficult anyway. We lost everything and had to replant. It was devastating.

    Jill in Michigan (zone 5ish)

  3. Jeff says:

    For me, your comments convey the fundamental reason we are drawn to work in a garden – the opportunity to toil in the presence of something greater than ourselves, whatever we may each conceive that thing to be.

  4. DEE says:

    Some days are diamonds….some days are stones…We’ve gardened for over 40 years and each year has its own stories to tell. Last year started off with 20″ of rain in April/May–only reason we don’t flood away is we live on a high Ozark mountain! Had a greenhouse full of plants and just couldn’t get them in. Bees were sulking in the hives.Then when we did get to plant it turned cool…then the usual Aug. drought arrived. Worst tomato crop we ever had….and think we had people stealing them in the night,too which didn’t help. They never take your zucchini! But each year has its rewards. Two years ago late Easter frost killed all our fruit crops but last year, with all the rain, they were super abundant. Such is the life on the land. DEE

  5. Karin says:

    Ain’t it the truth…

    Every spring as I plan and plant the garden there is this vision of what the garden will look like come midsummer. And it is never as I expected. Cucumber beetles, potato beetles, too much rain, not enough. But it never deters. Because there is always some reward in the process.

  6. Such a great post and so true. I’m about to do my first garden and the fear of failure is a huge roadblock I need to overcome.


  7. Lydia says:

    I think Jeff hit the nail on the head. To “toil in the presence of something greater than ourselves”. That is what makes all the work, dirt, sore muscles, ruined crops, mistakes, floods, and general risk of it all being for naught-very much worth it. In the garden are not just the complexities of sun, water, soil and seed and how they are work, but the garden holds the complexities of all of life, stemming from the great creator spirit, in whatever form you may find him/her.

    We have all had our failures and disappointments in many areas.

    To Parma-dive in, even a failure will not be. Failures are not really failures anyway, they are just OUTCOMES. And outcomes tell us many things that are very valuable for the next time. I wish you good mojo.

  8. homebrewlibrarian says:

    My landlord, a long time friend, started saying last year as we began making changes to the building and the yard and coming up against obstacles and setbacks, “that’s okay, I’m still learning.” Which just about sums up the whole gardening thing as far as I’m concerned.

    Parma, just do it. Last year I dove in with both feet and the results were mixed. Every cucumber start except one perished on transplant. None of the cowpeas came up. The tomatoes, while lush, didn’t flower until nearly the end of August (this being Alaska, our season ends near the end of September). None of the squash did well. Potatoes were few. On the other hand, I was up to my eyeballs in kale, collards, broccoli, favas, kohlrabi, shell peas, cabbage and cauliflower. And the biggest thrill was that every single fruiting shrub we planted this past year survived our bumbling attempts at getting them in the ground. It will be interesting to see what survives the winter.

    I look at everything as a grand experiment. Some things work sometimes and not others and some things never work. It’s kind of like a mysterious jigsaw puzzle and the fun comes from trying to see what will fit and where.

    Kerri in Anchorage, AK, lat. 61, zone 4ish

  9. Laurie says:

    Last summer I learned to never take the miracle of the garden for granted. Between monsoon flooding, drought, voracious bugs and critters, it was the worst season I’ve had in 40 years of gardening. At the same time, never have I felt such fierce joy and admiration for those plants that overcame the adversity and managed to do their thing. Fresh, beautiful food is truly a gift from that “something greater than ourselves” mentioned by others. I am humbled and very grateful to be a part of this.

    Laurie (zone 5b)

  10. Sarah says:

    Yeah…if you rent, and have to get permission from your landlord to plant a garden, get it writing. I think I’m going to stick to indoor sprouts this year after two years in a row of coming home from work to find that the landscaping people had helpfully razed the weeds in the yard to the ground. Where by “weeds” we mean “rhubarb”. Among other species.

  11. Green Hill Farm says:

    We are entering our 12th year as a CSA a few years ago I quit wishing for the perfect summer weather :) because we never get it. But thankfully for every veg that doesn’t do well something else performs as it should or really well but it can be annoying to hear “but last year’s x was so good” (and this year its not). Summer 2007 the basil did so well I was telling members to pick as much as they’d like at least a plasic grocery bag full. Summer 2008 plants never got to full size I had to say pick x sprigs. Actually last summer was coolish and nothing did super super well but I managed to get fairly good weekly harvest.
    Many of my member dabble in gardening which is good for me for often they say my x isn’t growing well (when ours is) :) . Often because we’ve replanted it at least once :) .

    I grow most of my plants from seed I have even grown rosemary, I try every few years for fun and while I have 3 rosemary plants in pots in my basement none are from my seeds, but rosemary grows well from cuttings. Put cuttings in water and wait for roots.

    This year I have stevia and lemongrass seeds, I’ve grown both before the stevia grows well in the ground but I think I’ll put the lemongrass in pots this year because its likes it warmer than my zone 5 garden I’l bring it in in the winter.

    Got my Fedco order in, need to get my Johnnys order in and maybe a few things from Seed Savers and a bulk order from Nofa then enjoy the rest of my winter vacation while I start seeds.

    Beth in Massachusetts

  12. Susan says:

    It sounds an awful lot like marriage, or parenthood. Or creating art.

  13. Jen says:

    This is my first REAL garden too and I’m thrilled and terrified. I received a beautiful handmade garden journal for my birthday and have begun making entries. I taught myself to sew through trial and error and later opened my own sewing biz. My plan is to cover all the known “issues” in my yard, like squirrels and drought, so I’ve purchased rain barrels and chicken wire. Now it’s all the other problems that will be fun;) Whatever comes of it will be precious. As a HUGE Little House fan, I keep in mind all of those failed crops Pa suffered and yet…

  14. Shane says:

    A beautiful post….thankyou!

  15. Judy says:

    We had the worst year ever last year as well. We had record rainfall and flooding and for about 3 weeks the edge of the river was only about 50 feet from the garden (normally it’s about half a mile away). With the water table just under the surface many things rotted or just didn’t do well. I’m glad that we weren’t completely underwater and were able to salvage many things but it was so heartbreaking to see all those seedlings that we had lovingly started rot where they stood.

  16. robin says:

    Susan – beautiful art indeed!

  17. Laurie in MN says:

    Last year:
    Cool, rainy summer = really lousy tomato yield.

    I figured out what was eating my summer squash.

    We had slugs. !!! Not the year before last, but last year. Probably due to the cool, rainy summer….

    For some odd reason the basil was really unhappy. I’m glad mine wasn’t the only one. It’s currently languishing inside (along with 2 pots of rosemary and oregano) in the hopes that I’ll get a jump on the season next year.

    Eggplant seemed to do OK (and the bees adored it). Peppers — not so much. I may be done with them after 2 years in 2 different spots yielding a whole lot of frustration and few peppers.

    I need to plant MUCH earlier for some things! At least, if I expect to get what I hoped.

    I have learned a LOT over the last two years, and am still learning. It’s a heckuva learning curve, and I’m glad we started when we did. When I finally get that plot over at the community gardens, I will have far less chance of killing things outright. And I have so much admiration for the folks who do this for a living.

  18. Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It actually used to be a enjoyment account it. Look advanced to more brought agreeable from you! By the way, how can we keep in touch?

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