by G. K. Nickless
Where do dreams go to die? From my place at the dining room table overlooking the back yard, I can see tips of multiple, wet, warped and abandoned stakes protruding from the snow, scattered at intervals four feet wide by eight, twelve, fourteen, or sixteen feet long, covering approximately one-third of my yard. Although it is mid-January, the snow is only a few inches deep and the pathetic remains of my decaying gardens are still visible lumps and stems peeping out of the snow. The forms of a half-rotted, nine pound, green zucchini, and a watermelon the size of a soccer ball, can still be detected. If it weren’t for the obvious vegetation inhabiting the somewhat raised, lopsided, rectangles, this would look like a burial ground for giants. In fact, when the stakes were first hammered in prior to rototilling, the long narrow beds indeed resembled a cemetery – I’m sure the neighbors assumed we were going into the undertaking business for very large people.
The original inspiration for living off the land came from my former boss who regularly brought to the office homegrown, to-die-for, juicy peaches and sweet orange tomatoes that tasted more like candy than vegetables, and I had visions of cultivating my own fruit trees, picking fresh berries, and feasting on organic salads. Furthermore, when I was young, my grandparents maintained nearly an acre-sized garden at the foot of the Green Mountains of Vermont. Granny’s large, crisp, emerald-green peas were my absolute favorite; to this day I have never found their likeness. Gardening was in my blood. I purchased a book I coined “The Bible,” otherwise known as The Backyard Homestead, by Carleen Madigan, which, in painstaking detail, informed readers how, when, and where to plant exactly what, in order to produce an organic crop that will feed an entire family, year-round. It described crop rotation for the benefit of fertilizing the soil and maximizing pH for future crops. On a mere quarter-acre, one could have a hog, grow wheat and nuts, raise chickens that would lay eggs and feed on bugs from the organic garden. This, in addition to instruction on growing herbs, berry bushes, fruit trees, and bees hives. Directions for how to milk a cow or goat (for larger plots) were provided, as were recipes for preserving and canning produce.
At my desk, I drew sketch after sketch trying to fit as much as possible into our small in-town plot, but alas, it never came to fruition, (pun intended). I put the dream aside for two years until we purchased my mother-in-law’s house with a large fenced-in back yard, and I immediately, once again, began planning and plotting the garden of my dreams.
According to The Backyard Homestead, I could have it all. I would quit my job, stay home with our two year old daughter, home pre-school her, and live off the land! I imagined all of the money we’d save on groceries by eating out of back yard, and I convinced my husband that this was my burning passion. He repeatedly listened patiently until his eyes glazed over, about what vegetables we should plant, where, and how to lay out the yard. He followed me around as I pointed out the measurements of each bed that I’d staked in a heavy April rain when I was too anxious to wait for a clear day. He dished out hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for soil, garden tools, a wheelbarrow, seeds, fertilizer, starter trays, an owl statue and a miniature windmill designed to scare off snakes and moles, as well as a small, four-shelved greenhouse that stood on our deck where I struggled to nurture seedlings. Rental of a massive rototill, which was far too heavy for me to operate, cost one hundred dollars. The soil alone for the “raised” beds cost over four hundred dollars. The eight-some-odd yards of composted leaves and soil were delivered and dumped in the driveway, well overflowing the small tarp I had naively laid down; I spent hours each day shoveling it into the wheelbarrow and carting it to the garden beds behind the house, while my two-year-old gleefully rode back in the empty cart and attempted to scoop the soil with her tiny shovel. My muscles ached but I was proud of my progress thus far. Even with the intermittent help of two others, it took several days for the soil to be laid two feet deep on all fourteen beds. Alas, the soil that had been proclaimed to be rock-free, in reality contained chunks of tar, and worse, unbeknownst to me, millions of weed seed – your “garden” variety, not marijuana. These would ultimately prove to be my nemesis.
I did my best to start seeds in the house and transfer them into the greenhouse. For weeks my dining room table was covered in dirt and trays of fledgling seedlings. Onion, dill, chives, oregano, sage. Many lived but many more died. I was unperturbed. At appropriate, well-researched intervals I planted seeds outside in patterns The Backyard Homestead suggested. They claimed that since one could reach from both sides to weed and harvest, more plants could grow in four-foot wide beds than in traditional gardens, so I packed in the seeds.
Finally, weeks after the initial physical challenges of installing a new garden, came the first tender green sprouts from the garden. I was an ecstatic green horn, without a green thumb. All the new growth looked alike to me; I could not differentiate between weeds and seedlings. Weeding thus became a nightmare. To make matters worse, I hadn’t planted in neat rows, but followed the book’s advice and sprinkled them across and around, albeit in appropriate spacing, but there was no clear pattern and the plants were too small to identify. I searched the internet for pictures of seedlings to compare them to. I could be seen several times a week holding my phone a few inches from the garden, scrutinizing plants, trying to decide what was weed and what was vegetable. This went on every time a new seed sprouted, and nearly every time I decided to wait until the plant got bigger to identify it correctly. When I was finally able to (mostly), identify the weeds, the gardens were so overgrown it took me hours to hand pull the weeds out of even one of the fourteen beds. My husband was too consumed with working two jobs to keep me from having to work outside of the home to be able to contribute much labor, and my two-year-old preferred the swing-set to the garden.
Initially, I attacked the beds with relish, savoring the light breezes and chirping birds, feeling the cool dirt under my fingernails, appreciating the burn in my calves from crouching that later reminded me of my wholesome tasks. I worried about, but was undeterred, by the hours of weeding I did each day, scrutinizing each plant to ensure accuracy before yanking. I didn’t despair when I realized I’d pulled out all of the bean and pea plants; live and learn, was my motto. I’d do better next year. I kept my chin up when the three large flower beds my mother-in-law had kept in perfect shape begged for care and upkeep.
Then it happened. Spring burned away into a fierce summer heat that drenched me with sweat and rendered me dehydrated and red faced after only ten minutes of weeding. I suddenly remembered that I strongly disliked the summer sun and planned my gardening for the early mornings or evenings when it was cooler, but time was scarce at those peak times, and worse, the bugs were ferocious. I was eaten alive every time I stepped outside. Bees (not mine) took over the grill. Too late, I realized that I’d put the overflowing, not decomposing, compost bin too close to the house and it had started to stink. In fact, the whole process was beginning to stink, yet I pushed on.
Radishes were our first and finest harvest; the first luscious red bulb I plucked from the earth I held high overhead and proclaimed to the skies that As God Is My Witness I Would Never Go Hungry Again! We had new harvests of radishes every few weeks and I learned how to make delightful roasted radishes, seasoned with the herbs I’d grown in pots on the deck. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before we grew tired of them, and after the first triumphant trip into the garden to retrieve items for a salad, I discovered that washing the dirt and dead bugs off each and every leaf of lettuce was truly a tedious and time-consuming task. I became disheartened when I realized that a salad and roasted vegetable side dish that took months to grow, harvest, and prepare, took mere minutes to consume.
It soon became clear that we had more harvest than we alone could possibly eat. Often, what we didn’t eat the day it was picked, wilted the next. The tall sunflowers grew heavy, laden with un-harvested seed, and toppled over. Berries rotted on the branches of my mother-in-law’s blueberry bushes. The pumpkins never came in, neither did the brussels sprouts, peppers, spinach, or garlic, and the broccoli grew yellow and flowered before I could pick it. My porch table overflowed with uneaten vegetables – squash, carrots, onions, beets, radishes – all of which needed scrubbing and preserved in some mysterious manner unbeknownst to me. I attempted to find a food pantry to donate to, but wasn’t familiar with the area and I kept getting referred around.
Not for the first time I wondered who the hell could manage the home harvest. The author of the Homestead Harvest must be some kind of super-human, weeding fields all day and night, with a baby at each breast, canning tomatoes, chasing chickens and extracting honey and milking cows. Comparatively, I was unable to even pickle a cucumber, with the dill I’d grown for that purpose. There was still leftover dirt in the driveway that was intended for a bed of tomatoes and green peppers that never made it out of the seedling trays alive. At this point I was still trying to keep up, if not half-heartedly. I didn’t want to admit that I failed, or had wasted so much time and money. Thankfully, my husband saw me struggling and told me that it was OK to give up. Relieved, I did. The remainder of vegetation grew over and squash rot where they lay, but I was done. To be entirely fair, The Backyard Homestead did warn readers to “start small,” but egotistically, I ignored them. Shame on me. Thank goodness my husband had drawn the line before we bought the chickens.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student