I ventured down to my community garden plots today and they totally look like shit. The little landscape I planted in my backyard also looks like shit. I have double horticultural shit on my hands and I don’t know what to do. What was I expecting when Tucson temperatures have been in the triple digits for the last 3 weeks, and this is just the beginning of the seasonal inferno. It doesn’t matter that I’m watering every day, nothing is growing. The birds are desperate and opportunistic, helping themselves to any vegetable that provides moisture (fun fact: bird’s poop and pee comes out together in the same glob). The Carpenters’ popular song states, “all the leaves are brown; on a winter’s day, California dreamin…,’” but I’m pretty sure they were singing about Southern Arizona summers, and more specifically, my gardens where all the leaves are seriously brown…and crispy.
I’m no stranger to desert horticulture. Growing in hot dry climates is all I know and what I did professionally for several years so it’s not like I’m novice. From Albuquerque to Abiquiu in Northern NM, I grew all over at a variety of different elevations. Those high desert temperatures were also no joke in the summer, and yet most my gardens thrived.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that a big part of my self-efficacy rested on being a good gardener and landscaper. I could retain knowledge on the subject and regurgitate with an autistic precision. I frequently called plants by their Latin designations, and loved share my vast knowledge with the little people, you know, customers. I resided in horticultural nerdsville. I especially enjoyed customers new to the area from Oregon or the Carolinas; any place green with decent precipitation. They would look at me like, “you’re so smart and capable, I’m at your expert mercy.” My boss, and mentor at the time, was both a lecturer and a teacher of master gardeners. To demonstrate the intensity of the local garden scene, he had a throng of white-haired groupies; a true legend among the Native Plant Society folks and anyone above age 50. We were the experts available to calmly assist the painfully indecisive, the ignorant, and the “I’m angry because my plant died,” people (disclaimer: unlike me he is kind and infinitely patient so he would never say such things. These are my observations only).
I mean, people get extremely anxious and angry about fucking up their gardens. Those of us in the field know that plants are living beings and so is the soil; it’s a community of living things. Living things die sometimes for reasons we don’t understand. I’ve told people, sometimes plants want to die; a little garden suicide so to speak. Likewise, terminally ill plants opt for ecosystem assisted suicide and emit hormones that call in pests and diseases to finish the job. Still others are murderous, they secrete allelopathic chemicals to snuff out any vegetation around them. Like politicians and corporations, they mine and amass nutrients to keep for themselves.
Sometimes my work had me feeling like an ER nurse, sitting down with the family to let them know everything possible was done, but sometimes plants just die; it’s their time (usually a pat on the shoulder with an accompanying “there, there” would suffice). Luckily, they can be replaced easily, like dropping an ice cream cone outside the fancy gelato place, just go back to the nursery and get a new one, plop it in the hole, water it, and make a sign of the cross.
Yet here I was, an expert, standing over crispy browns, yellowing curly leaves, picked over beans, and tomatoes with V-shaped bird beak impressions. I planted jalapeños, a true love of mine and fool proof back home in NM, but here the stems were encapsulated with white fluff. It’s 105 degrees out how could there be a fungus? But that’s what the AZ extension agency stated; peppers are susceptible to a white powdery fungus, fuck the fungus and screw my summer garden. However, I think the worst blow to my ego was looking at other people’s plots filled with jungles of tomatoes, beans, peppers, and artichokes. After my successful cool season garden, I had nothing to show on social media except a zucchini and a handful of cherry tomatoes, cringe-worthy #epicflorafailure. I picked out some spurge, an act of control perhaps, and wondered if anyone had noticed the slow decline of garden photos on my Facebook?
Finally, I had to ask myself, what would I say if I was a customer? Probably to build a good foundation, i.e. continue to develop good soil next year. Observe what was successful thus far: eggplant, wild Texas cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and sweet potatoes, and replant these next year. I might consider investigating fugus resistant peppers, and ought to learn from my mistakes and plant tomatoes earlier in the season. They need to begin ripening before day time temperatures reach 95 consistently. I needed to drape shade cloth to protect from my fellow bird brains and keep things cool. Most of all, don’t give up, I know gardening is a labor of love; long-term reward instead of instant gratification.
Gardening has an infinite number of applicable metaphors for life which you pick up on as you begin to invest your time. Like soil for example, create yourself a good foundation; a support system that builds you up and keeps you healthy. Repeat what works. Don’t compare yourself to others, you are the only you so focus on and foster your strengths. Don’t plant yourself around those who emit allelopathic chemicals and steal your nutrients. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable to those who would peck your head and suck your brains for moisture (okay that one doesn’t work.) What my friend and mentor said that stuck with me the most, is that in gardening, as in life, you learn far more from your mistakes. You can only learn when you step back and calmly observe instead of letting perceived failure influence you to quit. From this space, you can find creative solutions and act intelligently. So, go out there and grow your own damn plants to eat. Give it a shot. Next year’s garden will be better, I’m sure of it.