Continuing Education


Mary Witalis

My garden season starts with meticulous planning, row marking, and a straight little white fence. Then plans go awry and control ends. Spring comes too late or too early. The ground is still frozen, or its boot-stealing muck. My seedlings are buggy or too leggy or dead. That favorite perennial didn't survive winter. I hand pick Tomato Hornworms after sunset. What I do with them depends upon whimsy, as long as they end up dead. After nine years mysterious little green caterpillars drove me to remove most of my yellow loosestrife. Then there is powdery mildew on the vines and rust on the hollyhocks. Don't forget the squash vine borers that killed all my plants last year, undeterred by carpets of green onions. Numerous yellow and black bugs startled me. What I feared was yet another '1bad" species turned out to be a valuable predator called Soldier Beetle. Black Swallowtail larvae share my dill, but what a beautiful butterfly! Children trample the beds. Give them a plot and they will discover the joys of gardening - attracting all sorts of little beasts. Will my garlic do well this year? I took a chance planting them in the fall and burying them under hay. After all, the carrots and beets made it through frozen mud. Maybe this year my compost will finally become that "black gold". I was Compost Queen when I used the pile method. Experience aside, I am having trouble with the new "easy" black plastic compost bin. Can I meet the challenges, or do I give in and enjoy the novelty? Setbacks aside, I always have vegetables to reap and flowers to enjoy.

Every year gives a surprise from which to learn. Season 2003 was the "year of the rodent". There were rabbits, chipmunks, voles, and not enough predatory birds I might suggest. Chipmunks absconded with my strawberries, and something, maybe voles, gnawed at everyone's root vegetables. Earth hilled up over the roots helped until the next rainstorm. I hate to admit it, but the rodent side won the battle of 2003. An endearing Cottontail was a key player. The tiny rabbit was a baby when I first spotted him at my feet. Ignoring the risk, I called him Wily Wabbit and hoped that he'd remain cute. Wily ate EVERYTHING! I woke daily to clear-cut poppy beds, disappearing hollyhock seedlings and anything else in the mallow family, gnawed-back cantaloupe plants, and dying bean vines (Wily test-chomped the base of each vine). He loved young cauliflower plants, but not broccoli. My new violet plants vanished in two days. I hope they will grow back. What about bad-tasting plants? He loved my peppery-tasting nasturtiums and the chili powder I dusted over the lot. In 2003 I grew a fat Cottontail. In 2004, Wily Wabbit Cottontail is bringing his family to visit. If chicken wire barriers don't help, will I have to "give in and enjoy the novelty" of an entire family of super-munchers? Courage might be this year's lesson.

Gardening will always require something more of me. I will forever be a gardener-in-training because the tough lessons just do not quit. But, hey, that's what I love.