The nature conspiracy

I am not having the last laugh in the gardening department.

I had high hopes, going in. After last year, which was so wet and cold that nothing grew until well into July, I saw our warm May and weeks of sun as harbingers of lush tomatoes and big, firm cucumbers, succulent eggplants and full, ferny fennel.


I am being thwarted by bugs and weeds, and I’m convinced they’re in it together. “Gardening” is just a hoax.

Here’s how it works. Humans are lulled into the idea that they can grow things by the fact that things are just growing, of their own accord, all around us. If trees, and grass, and flowers, and even edibles like wild grapes and beach plums manage to grow themselves, just imagine what we humans, with our free will and opposable thumbs, can grow, if we put in a little effort!

So, what do we do? The first step is to till a nice patch of soil, and amend it with compost and fertilizers to make it as plant-friendly as possible. This is the part where the weeds rub their little roots together and say, “Heh heh, we got ‘em now! Just look at that nice patch of ground – it’s way better than what we have now!” And they promptly move in.

But not before they make a deal with the bugs. “Hey, bugs,” they say. “If you leave us alone, we’ll leave just enough room in the garden for some nice young kale, and a few tender beet greens.” The bugs know a good deal when they see one. They’re extremely fond of kale.

This is why, a mere three weeks or so into the gardening season, the garden is a bed of absolutely unblemished weed seedlings interspersed with devastated cucumber sprouts, beet shoots, and fennel frondlets. I can barely tell the beets from the weeds – I have to look closely for the purple stems – but the bugs seem to be able to find them with both antennae tied behind their backs.

I can’t blame all our problems on bugs and weeds, though. Some of them stem from sheer ineptitude. Our problems with the sugar snap peas, for example, seem to be our fault.

I started them back at the very end of February, and transplanted them to the garden some time in April. They were a little weedy-looking, with long skinny stems and sparse leaves, when I transplanted them, but I figured they’d thrive once they were no longer pot-bound.

No such luck. They got longer and weedier. Too much nitrogen? Could be. We tried to amend the soil with greensand (for potassium) and phosphorus, but then the leaves started to turn yellow, from the bottom up.

I had a moment of hope when I visited our friends Al and Christl. I’ve talked about them here before; they’re the best gardeners we know. Their house is surrounded by healthy, vibrant, growing things. They have a beautiful asparagus patch, a big raised bed of strawberries, a forest of raspberries, and a well-ordered vegetable plot. Somehow, they’ve managed to outwit the bug-weed cabal. Personally, I think Christl made a deal with the devil.

My moment of hope came when Christl told me her sugar snap peas were also suffering. “They just won’t grow,” she said. “I only have one flower.” So I guess it’s just a bad year for them, I thought. If Christl’s having trouble, I certainly can’t expect to succeed. There’s hope for me yet!

And then she showed me her plants, and the hope died within me. They were full and green and thick-stemmed. Okay, so there was only one flower, but the plants themselves looked like they could produce them any time they wanted, and were just holding them in reserve. Compared to mine, her sugar snaps were a veritable jungle.

It’s not just our sugar snaps that are tall and skinny – our garlic, kale, and collards have met the same fate. They’re also, I suspect, victims of nitrogen. The kale, particularly, is downright willowy, like a Bolshoi ballerina. Good kale should be short and squat, more like an East German gymnast.

The tomatoes haven’t had time yet to get leggy, since we just put them in last week, but I’m sure they will. Unless, of course, the blight gets them first. I’ve seen a couple of spotty leaves that make me very uneasy.

The one bright spot is Kevin’s potatoes. They’re bushy and green, and seem to grow several inches a day. We have two rows of Kennebec, which we bought as seed potatoes, and one row of fingerlings, which we bought to eat but languished, forgotten, at the back of the potato bin until they sprouted.

There’s only minimal insect damage, from what we suspect are thrips, but I think it’s only becaue the potato beetles strong-armed the rest of the insects to stay off the potatoes until they’re big and tasty, so they can move in and devastate the crop at the very last minute. Once they’ve eaten their fill, I’m sure they’ll band together and lift the fence so the rabbits can come in and finish everything off.

If the devil’s still available, I’m ready to deal.

11 people are having a conversation about “The nature conspiracy

  1. Long and leggy sounds like a light issue- not enough.

    The only thing that seems to work against bugs and be innocuous (I don’t advocate pesticides) are barriers, which so far have worked pretty well for me. Except the slugs found their way into my planter boxes once stuff started growing over the edges. Who knew cabbage gets so big? I had a length of Agribon over that box and it’s worked against the cabbage moths, but in the meantime, the slugs were making lace out of the cabbage.

    Years ago I had a neighbor with a really wonderful organic garden, and he said he planted enough to devote one third of it to bugs, one third of it to the rabbits, and one third for him and his wife. I think the answer is volume. Plant lots and lots and lots of stuff.

    But the bug and slug population is so good in my garden, now I have garter snakes, which are okay, except they startle the bejeezus out of me when I get too close. That is one adrenaline rush I can live without.

  2. If that’s a tomato leaf, it’s not late blight. Can’t speak to early blight. Late blight will show up somewhere in the middle of a leaf, near the edge. It will leave a dark mark that does not follow any of the anatomical structures of the leaf. Some say it looks wet or oily. To me it looks like a spot on the leaf has been parboiled. The damage will spread fairly quickly from that spot. The real tale tell is that if you turn over the leaf and look at it very closely (magnification helps) you’ll see a faint white ring around the spot, which is actually the fungus setting up shop and letting loose with its spores.

    In my limited experience, late blight is total curtains for potato plants, they go down fast and hard. While with some tomato varieties at least it seems to be manageable – as in, you won’t get a great crop, but if you remove infected leaves aggressively, the plant can limp through the season.

  3. Great looking potatoes – looks like you and Kevin will have quite a harvest later in the summer.

    As for the bunnies, we have a fence and in spite of that we’re on our third litter in a month. I just plant lots and hope to share with all creatures great and small.

  4. Gardening really isn’t magic. As you observed, plants grow in spite of our intervention or interference. Take heart that some years are bad for certain crops, and pests & diseases have boom and bust cycles. If it’s affecting you, it’s probably affecting those around you too.

    Of course there’s human error, but that’s how you learn. We’ve all started our crops too early in earnest and ended up with weedy light-starved plants or worse, a whole crop killed off by a late frost. You’re now officially a member of that club so wear your badge with pride.

    There’s always late crops and short ‘catch’ crops to replace any false starts. Late carrots or zucchini can be eaten as ‘baby vegetables’ if you have to sow them again. Lettuce, leaf beet, spring onion and radishes are quick, and seeing a crop – any crop – coming up is a great salve to a gardener who’s lost confidence.

    If P & D are still a problem, have you looked into companion planting?

    Don’t cut that deal with the devil yet – you’re doing great.

    (My vote is a miner bug or insect causing the leaf damage)

  5. Not even the bugs are getting anything here. That’s because there isn’t anything to get yet! I thought about planting the last weekend in May (prior to a brief vacation) but snow was predicted, so I left it.

    It has been raining and cold ever since. Not quite freezing every night, and around ten (C) during the day. Even the days that have been warmer have had rain just sluicing down.

    I bought seed potatoes online (Russet, Pontiac and Yukon Gold being the sole local choices) and they’ve all happily sprouted. They’re crying out to me in frustration “look at us, we’re sprouting, we’re green, for the love of heaven plant us!”. A plea I am not immune to…I just need it to stop raining, for one night. Even for a few hours would work. I’ll take vacation leave if there is a break in the rain and cold, anything to get it started. Such a short season out here anyway, this delay is heart breaking.

    And yet -because in reality my life isn’t so bad – I should be thankful; I garden because I want to. There are vast farming areas out here that may have to call it quits on seeding anything this year, and it isn’t a hobby for the farming community, it’s their living.

  6. Paula — I haven’t tried Agribon, but I know a lot of gardeners, particularly the organic variety, who do. Next year, I think that’ll be part of the plan. As for your neighbor who splits his crops three ways, I’m not the sharer that he is. Let the insects and the bunnies fend for themselves. This is war.

    Kate — I think you’re right about late blight. We had it last year, so I got a good look. It’s kind of a greasy gray, which these spots aren’t. I’m more concerned that it’s early blight (what with it being early and all), although it doesn’t quite look like that either (but I’ve only seen pictures). Right now, I’m just keeping an eye on it. If I figure it out, I’ll report back.

    Karen — I could lend you our cat. She’s hell on bunny litters. Just a couple weeks back, she brought in a kit, mewling and dying, while we had dinner guests. Nice, huh?

    Jen — I seem to earn the Gardening Bonehead badge every year. When does it stop? And I haven’t tried companion planting because it seems like plant voodoo to me. Like the mere presence of cucumbers will help the broccoli. Has anyone done controlled studies? (Can you see that gardening failures make me testy?)

    KB — BRRR! I promise not to complain about long springs ever again (at least until next year). And you make a very good point about farmers. It’s really only people whose livelihood depends on this who feel it acutely. If my garden fails, no one goes hungry. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. I understand your reticence when it comes to all-purpose gardening solutions. Companion planting includes a number of theories concerning integrated pest management. You can pick and choose the aspects that sit well with your scientific beliefs.

    CP can be using a legume crop to fix nitrogen for hungry feeders (beans & squash), or a strong scented plant to conceal the smell of a target plant (onions mask carrots from the carrot root fly) Or just polyculture / crop rotation to prevent a buildup of a specific pest or disease that can happen if you grow plants that seems different to you, but are all the same to a particular bug or fungus (host disruption).

    The bonehead gardener badge is a badge of honor – it means you haven’t given up. And, the better you get at gardening, the less you’ll feel like you know about it. It’s a perverse paradox. I imagine beekeeping is the same.

  8. Heh, hee! Join the club! I do so get where you are … but can I add pigeons to the list of enemies? They reduced my french beans to the state of your cucumbers one night last year. Grrr…. I’m convinced that gardening should be only be attempted with The Art of War (Sun Tze) on the reference shelf!

    More seriously, companion planting does have its (pun alert!) roots in common sense. It is worth having a look into sometime. I haven’t found anything to be the whole answer, but everything that helps is worth something in War!

    But if you want something really like plant voodoo – have a look into Moon Planting. Some people swear by it …. I am tempted to give it a whirl. There seems to be nothing (left) to lose.

  9. Jen — I’ve read about some of the companion planting theories, and I’m sure there’s something to them. They just seem so subtle, and the problems — bugs running rampant, vines withering, plants bolting — seem serious enough to not lend themselves to subtle solutions. I’ve always had a sense that companion planting is something you do once you’ve mastered the more blunt-instrument tools for soil amendment and pest management. On the other hand, what the hell do I know? Next year, maybe I’ll give it a shot.

    Madcat — Sorry to hear about the pigeons! And I’ll look into Moon Planting — sounds like it’ll put companion planting in perspective.

  10. Hi Tamar, It has been weeks since I’ve read your blog and so on this rainy Sunday, I’m catching up.
    The fixing and frilling up and the mowing and yardwork of 2 houses has me and Don out straight. We thank you for the “bass- break” in our world of work…it was delightful. Another friend bestowed bluefish on us and again we were in heaven for a moment. My brother has been here helping with many little projects that a blind man and sighted woman find overwhelming at times. Our garden gets a bit neglected at these times, but we’ve still managed some snow peas and lots of lettuce (I treated myself to a spinner for my 65th bday and am loving it!) The tomatoes have flowers and all the seedlings we started in the little greenhouse have survived and look good. What we are most frustrated about are the strawberries. In late May we began to gather 10-15 a day from our small raised bed and eat and enjoy. But then the squirrels discovered them and have eaten all..even the green ones and the flowers!!! It just doesn’t seem fair. Anyway, am thinking about you. Hi to Kevin,too.

  11. I don’t know if you check old comments, but I thought I’d send an update:
    my garden is planted, and wet loving things like potatoes and peas are doing well. Carrots and tomatoes not so much!

    Sadly, of the farmers I know, none of come out of this – the wettest spring on record – unscathed. Some haven’t planted anything, some have only planted some and many are watching what did come up die as the roots rot under standing water. It’s funny, I grew up in Quebec where everything was dairy and equestrian. I hardly paid any attention to the weather except in regard to how it might affect my summer. Here, in an agriculture based provincial economy EVERYONE pays attention to the weather. A bad year for farmers means a bad year for everyone down the line.

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