A Curious Gardener

Good morning from the garden.  Today I'm overwhelmed because I've got more garden problems than I know what to do with. Its mid-July and each plant and each flower seems to have its own agenda. I'm trying to get them to work together and help each other out, or at least just hold their own but these pipe dreams aren't coming to fruition. The pumpkins have thrips, the squash won't pollinate, the runner beans have slowed to a jog, and the tomato branches are yellowing and falling off. Where to start? I began this spring so very hopeful but reality has since set in. I've come to the conclusion that I'm not that great of a gardener.   

Consider as proof the saga of my watermelon vine. Some time last year,  I watched a local gardener, via Instagram, plant his watermelons on trellises. He boasted his trellises supported watermelons and pumpkins up to 20 pounds. Inspiration hit. I can do this too. So, I did. I bought a trellis and planted three vines and away they climbed.
"Wow, look at me. I'm doing it", I celebrated.  Shortly thereafter the fruit began to grow. I grew four in fact, all in a row. "Wow, look at me, I'm a watermelon grower," I boasted. One was really getting big. I was pretty sure it was done growing.  One more week and we've got ourselves a delicious treat.  I had several 
inquiries about this dangling watermelon. "Aren't you worried that watermelon is gonna fall," the voices questioned.  "Nope," I'd brazenly answer,  "The guy on Instagram swears it'll hold up to 20 pounds." Well, I don't even need to write what happened next. I'm sure you can hear the vine ripping in your mind and visualize it plummeting to its untimely death. SNAP. THUD. DEFEAT. But gosh it was a pretty melon. We opened it up, just in case. It was lily white.  Beautiful but inedible. Moral of the story, don't trust the gram. Instead think trustworthy things like gravity and the laws of physics. Okay, lesson learned.

Not to be bested by this error, I set out to prevent future watermelon fatalities. The solution of course being hammocks. Aren't hammocks always the way out from indomitable crisis?
Again, a sense of pride welled within.  I may have lost a melon but now I'm using vintage cloth scraps to fashion trellis recliners to prevent further demise. Take that Instagram farmer. I mean, you've got to admit, a fat watermelon belly slumbering peacefully in a floral printed swinging couch is really the epitome of arrival. And so, I basked in that for all of a day.  

The next morning however,  I woke up to aphids; aphids all over the vine. I don't know if you know about aphids but they are the harbinger of plant death. This may sound extreme to say about a 3 mm bug but I've never yet won a battle with this more than worthy opponent.  They may not seem that intimidating on account of their lack of speed and size. They don't even chomp on leaves, they just leisurely suck. But they are indeed formidable. Their secret weapon is their ability to reproduce at warp speeds. Aphids have a super complicated and rather compelling reproductive process. I'll spare you the details, ( you can look  here if you are really interested) but the short story is that female aphids are born with live aphids inside of them. After a week of being alive, they just start shooting out other live aphids; no eggs, no gestation.  Those newly born aphids in turn, have live aphids inside of them, and so they just keep mass producing aphid clones asexually. That explains why you blink and your plant is filled with 52,000 aphids. 

So, you now understand the feeling of dread that accompanies the statement "I woke up to aphids"  Attempting to organic garden, I usually resort to organic means of pest control.  I've tried Neem, but it only works so-so and when its hot, like it is now, I find it burns the leaves. I decided to try something new and used diatomaceous earth instead. I got out my little pumper and sprayed a thick layer of dehydrated sea creature fossil powder over everything.  Again, I felt a momentary sense of triumph. Since I'd never actually tried this method against aphids, maybe this was the answer to my problems all along.   

Unfortunately, as you are suspecting, this method of annihilation fell short as well. The leaves just kept filling with aphids. Feeling impatient and annoyed, I went on to the next solution. By word of a friend of a friend, it was recommended that I try lady bugs. I had considered this before but from what I'd read it was yet another mostly unsuccessful method of organic pest control. Most of the lady bugs tended to fly away and I'd need about a billion to combat my infantry of aphids. But, what did I have to lose? So, I tried. I bought 1500 ladybugs and followed the directions precisely. 

Again, in my naivety, I was actually feeling hopeful. Turns out I forgot one minor detail.
I have ants in my garden, serious ants.  My garden is filled with them. My home is filled with ants. Not a day goes by that I don't encounter ants, mounds of them. So it would make sense here, in this battle over watermelon life and death, that the ants would once again rear their ugly heads. Ants love aphids. And aphids, in return, appreciate ants. They have a mutually beneficial relationship. 
The aphids drink all the sweet liquids from my plants and then basically poop out a sugar syrup that the ants think is pretty tasty.  In exchange for this nectar of the excrement gods, the ants protect the aphids. They literally hide them underground, cart them around from leaf to leaf, and ward off their enemies.  Fast forward to my lady bug release and you may be able to guess why it didn't go so well.  I released the innocent and unsuspecting ladybugs at night and came out the next morning expecting rows of ladybugs with knives and forks gorging themselves on aphid aliments. But this wasn't the scene. Mostly, they had flown away, thankfully. A few remained on antless areas. And one dear ladybug fell to a most dreadful fate.  I never knew ants to be violent towards other bugs. I'd thought of them as insects that just stuck to themselves, besides farming aphids of course. But they killed that ladybug; surrounded it and 
took it out, goodness knows how. I couldn't help but think of it as a sort of pighead on a stick for the other potential lady bug visitors. I felt bad; responsible. Poor ladybug!

And yet, I still had aphids. Can you believe you are still reading about one watermelon vine?  Needless to say, I gave up on the ladybugs. I did dump copious amount of diatomaceous earth at the base of the trellis in order to slow the aiding and abetting by the ants. And, I'm generously applying  insecticidal soap to all aphid infected leaves. Reapplication is supposed to happen every 2-3 days as long as the aphids persist. However,  we all know how this will go. At some point 2-3 days will turn into 7-8, and then the aphids will completely take over. My only hope at this point is to prolong the inevitable and enjoy my trellising vine for as long as it remains and possibly eat a homegrown watermelon or two.

So you can see by my tale, I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to come out on top. And this is just one (albeit very detailed) account of the plants in my garden. Every single thing in my garden needs tending, watering, and pruning according to its specific varietal needs. And on top of that, there is always some type of garden 911 like the watermelon vine and the aphids. How will I ever manage to do this? I set out at the beginning of each season dreaming of perfection. I imagine the garden that doesn't stop; the one with the vines spilling over boxes, the plants heavy with fruit, a surplus of produce to share with my neighbors, and the undeniable feeling of success. That didn't happen this year. And there is no guarantee that it will happen next year either. At this point I start to feel defeated and find myself having to push away the continual desire to just quit. I begin to wonder, why is it that I love to garden, I have much more wrong than right. At this point, I'm circling the drain and I have to work really hard to wrestle myself away from this unhappy pursuit of a Garden of Eden ideal.

Over and over I forget, that regardless of how the garden produces or even how it looks, the thing that I rely on the garden for most is its ability to remind me of simple truths. Each day, above wondering what I'll harvest, I really do wonder what cosmic stories will be revealed. Some of what I see absolutely delights me and other times it breaks my heart. But without fail, all of it pulls me in and makes me pay attention to what is happening in front of me.  In the garden I find my current story whether its a tragedy or a comedy or one of death and rebirth. And for this purpose, outside of bushels of beans, I need my garden. I need it as a constant reminder, that even though I long to be a perfect gardener, and the siren song of bounty is so captivating, a garden has more important things to do than cater to its gardener's ego. The most valuable fruit harvested in my garden are the little gospels revealed in and around those aphid infested watermelon vines.  I think this is why I settled on the name, a curious gardener. In being curious, I remind myself to set down my ideas of perfectionism and success and instead pursue a perpetual state of awareness and awaiting. Curiosity says there is no arriving, only more to learn and see. Of course, I still hope that my gardening skills improve. It would be fun to have a really good year and make jars upon jars of tomato confit. And maybe someday I will become a very good gardener. But even then, the truth remains that my ever-present work will be that of a curious and imperfect gardener. 


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