First and last garden

Just Thinking by Mac McLeod

I’ve heard it said many times that the two best days of a boat owner’s life is the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it. From personal experience of one who’s owned several, built a couple, and still has one that’s not been in the water for years, the saying is pretty close to being right.

And recently I’ve added a little to that old saying by adding that the first day a person plants a garden is a fantastic one and when they decide never to plant one again, it is finally a pure relief.

All those years of praying for rain, working in the hot, boiling sun in the hottest months of the year, fighting bugs and disease, and an occasional deer or coon that destroys the corn crop just days before it’s ready to harvest are coming to an end, not to mention the fact in today’s modern society, were it not for the pure pleasure of the harvest, it now is also not a necessity.

We can get all that “fresh” stuff at some farmers market, grocery store or even from a neighbor who refuses to give in.

I can hear the purists right now throwing tomatoes at my house and covering my yard with pure chicken manure as to how wrong I am. “You can’t buy vegetables like you get out of the garden,” they’ll scream. “It’s just not as good as home grown.”

Okay, everyone’s entitled to their opinion and like I wrote about the best football teams at Livingston Academy, I have mine and you have yours and yours is always right.

But after dealing off and on with a garden for almost 75 years, I know for a fact, I’m ecstatic that after this year, I will no longer plant anything other than a few tomato bushes. I can get them in the ground for less than $10, they’re close enough to a water source that I can give them a “drink” almost every afternoon, and most of all, I can sell my collection of gardening equipment.

No more fertilizer, no more pre-emergence weed preventer, no more lime, no more hoeing down the rows in the hot sun, no more picking the harvest at the most inconvenient time, no more hours pealing, washing, chopping, etc. to get ready to can, and no more long hours watching a pressure cooker, convinced it won’t explode and destroy your kitchen not to mention, hopefully not you.

From now on, it’s a trip to the farmers market or my new favorite market in Clarkrange or the grocery store and for a few dollars and no work, I can get the very same thing I’ve labored so long and hard over the years to get.

Now before you go calling me names and bad stuff like, “He doesn’t really know what he’s talking about,” let me give you a brief of my history with gardens. It’s long and historic and it’s had its good and bad moments.

One of my very first memories was of my dad digging up peanuts in a garden he had in South Carolina back around 1947. He was a member of that generation that on many occasions had to hope he could get his next meal. Early life for my dad and all his family was rural and tough.

Through my growing years, dad still had a little garden, but he also sold appliances to people in the country and he would come home most afternoons with a bag full of vegetables, etc. the farmers would give him or he would buy.

All this time, I was into Pepsi Colas and hamburgers. I wasn’t interested in healthy stuff, just junk that kept me going. A teenager, then and now, can survive on just about anything.

Finally, around 1970, a couple years out of the Navy, I ventured into the world of gardening. Even though I studied agriculture at Clemson, I had very little, if no, knowledge in farming – another reason I didn’t graduate after four years and three summer schools.

I bought a house in a subdivision and my new neighbor had a tiller. He tilled up a spot in the back of the yard and I was in the gardening business. My dad gave me a few tips, but he failed to mention that a garden is a very lush place for weeds. I called and asked how to handle this and he told me that I would just have to get down on my hands and knees and pull the grass out.

My first big reason why I wasn’t going to like gardening. To add to the problem, my knees were as big as softballs the next morning, allergic to something in the soil.

Not learning from my first outing, I bought about 15 acres out in the country, built a log house, and part of the land was already part of a much larger farm. About two acres of my new land was plowed and ready for farming. As it turned out, a friend of mine was farming about 50 acres there and said he would keep my little spot plowed if I wanted a garden.

Once again, I’m back in the farming business.

I even went so far as to buy an old Ford 9N tractor and a plow. Already farming was getting expensive. When I bought fertilizer and plants, I really discovered the real cost, not to mention the hours of hand work that I had to do, and when it came time to harvest, I would pick the vegetables when I got home from work then about midnight I turned off the pressure cooker.

This gardening thing is really hard work, and to add to the insult, my kids were like I was, they’d rather have hamburgers than fresh tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, etc. For the most part, I was doing all this work for me.

I moved off the farm shortly after this and spent the next 15 or so years in the big city of Darlington, SC (about the size of Livingston). I did plant a couple tomato plants along the fence, but that was it.

But when I retired and moved to Livingston, my mother-in-law, Opal Brown, was still into big time gardening with one that measured 100 feet by 100 feet. The good news for her was now she had help. The only news for me was, after several failed “learning events” in gardening, I was now in probably the biggest garden yet.

Need another tractor and all the gardening attachments.

Opal and I did have some outstanding gardens. From one of my old county agent friends in South Carolina, I learned about Treflan and how it kept grass from germinating. Opal was so proud of her weedless garden, she got all her friends to come look at it.

I passed along “the secret”.

After Opal passed away, I started downsizing the garden, and this year, it was only about 30x40 – big enough for three rows of tomatoes, some cucumbers, squash, and peppers. I bought all the plants, fertilizer, and lime, and was looking forward to some big ole tomatoes for sandwiches and cucumbers for pickles.

Well, as it turned out, the cucumbers did their job and my wife, Pat, and I made pickles. The tomatoes, they are a different story. I bought 18 Rutgers plants, 6 Celebrity plants, and 6 Better Boy plants. With the early rains, all the plants were doing just fine, but when the tomatoes came on the bushes, only a few turned out to be Rutgers, several were Celebrity, but all the others were some little ole tomato about the size of a golf ball.

No canning here at all, and if there’s one thing I want from a garden it’s canned tomatoes. My mother said you couldn’t beat real, home grown canned tomatoes, and she was right.

Earlier I had bought a half bushel of beets from a market at Clarkrange for $17. They were clean and trimmed and all we had to do to pickle them was cook them, put them in jars, pour the pickling solution over them, and add the lids. No growing, no nothing.

So I called back last week and they said they would have canning tomatoes the following week – $17 a box.

“I’ll take a box.”

This is going to be my final garden, and finding out that for less than $75 I can get about all the fresh vegetables my wife and I will eat in a summer, my days of hard labor, praying for rain, trying to stay one step ahead of the bugs, etc. are over, it’s one of the happiest days of my life.

Now I can get rid of the plow, disk, cultivators, and anything else involved with gardening, including the unmerciful sun beating down and no rain.

It’s been a long and learning journey, one of which I have fond and not so fond memories, and one that convinced me that with enough salt and pepper, you can make any vegetable taste like “fresh out of the garden”.

Reminds me of the deal with the boats.