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Montana, My Mom’s Garden, Childhood...

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It was a sunny morning in early June as I slowly made my way toward my mother’s garden. I stopped to watch two turquoise dragonflies mating in mid-flight, their abdomens arced in a heart-shaped curlicue. Weird bugs. I heard a woodpecker furiously drilling into one of the large pine trees in our neighbor’s yard.

Right in front of the garden hung the old tire swing that my brothers and I rarely used anymore. To kill time, I hopped on and gave myself a few pushes. I told myself I would sing just one Olivia Newton-John song and then I would get off and go do my chore for the day—weeding the garden. I hated weeding. Weeding sucked.

I wanted to be down playing in the irrigation ditch with my brothers and our dog Ida. This time of year the ditch was teeming with large white sucker fish. We just called them Suckers. They are disgustingly ugly bottom-feeders, with large, sucking, O-shaped mouths. Ida was a master at chasing the Suckers down the ditch and catching them. I could hear my brothers shrieking with excitement over the enormous fish they’d just found. “Here, Ida. Here! Get that one!” Why didn’t they have to do any weeding? I had to feed the horses, feed the chickens, collect the eggs, and all they had to do was feed the pig—together. Big deal.

I finished singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” I should be a singer, I thought. I was just as good as that Debbie Boone—and I hopped off the swing and made my way to the peas in the garden. I would start there because the peas were close to the carrots and I planned on eating both as I pulled weeds. I also planned on bragging to my brothers about having found the biggest carrot in the garden so far that summer.

Even though it was 11:00 a.m., to my utter joy, there was still dew on the plants in the garden! And everyone (or so I thought) knew what that meant: you can’t work in the garden when the plants are wet. You can spread disease from the soil to the plants when they’re wet.

“Mom! The plants are still wet!” I yelled as I ran into the house, stripping off my shirt and sprinting down the hall to change into my swimsuit. The wet garden “bought” me one hour chasing Suckers up and down the irrigation ditch—followed by lunch, including orange juice with protein powder (blech) and all my vitamins, “forgotten” at breakfast (darnit).

By the time I got back out to the garden, it was dry. My mom was already weeding in the squash and zucchini section and had a fairly substantial pile of weeds. It was hot. And my back was already a little sunburned. I tried not to scratch it. I did not want to pull up weeds. I went back to the carrot and pea section, looked them over carefully—yep, all the plants were dry.

My mom’s garden had sections, not rows. She said she was “maximizing” her space by planting this way. She said that when you have fewer rows, you have fewer paths, and the fewer paths you have, the more area you have for plants, and having fewer paths also means that you aren’t walking up and down the rows compacting the soil. Plant roots like soil that isn’t compacted. She also said that when you don’t have so many rows, you also have less weeding to do. Hmph! I thought.

After I finished the carrot and pea section, my mom asked me to pick the cucumbers. She liked to make sure they were all picked while they were “small pickle size” in order to keep the plants producing more cucumbers. She said that when the cucumbers get big, the seeds inside are big and this tells the plant to stop producing flowers. And when there are no flowers there are no new cucumbers growing. Picking cucumbers is fun. It’s kind of like looking for Easter eggs—except Easter eggs don’t poke you with their little barbs.

My mom liked to keep all of her plants regularly harvested so that they would produce manageable amounts of fruit and vegetables all through the summer. After I picked the cucumbers I asked if there were any zucchini flowers I could pick. I loved zucchini flowers coated in beer batter and fried. Sounds strange I’m sure, but they are delicious.

As I left the garden with the cucumbers and zucchini flowers I carefully stepped over the marigold border. I always thought my mom planted these flowers around the garden to make it look prettier but one day she told me that marigolds actually repel a variety of insects. I didn’t have any trouble believing that. Have you ever smelled a marigold? They stink!

I went into the house through the back door and saw my mom with her wheelbarrow heading off toward the manure pile by the barn—the pile that had been “composting” for thirty days. (That was the rule.) I wasn’t sure what part of the garden she was going to cover with moist, steamy cow poop and I didn’t really care because it looked like I had made it out of the garden just in time.

Once again I was free to go chase dragonflies, run up and down the irrigation ditch and sing as many Olivia Newton-John songs as I wanted. I probably wouldn’t sing Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” though. I was sure I already sang it better than her anyway.


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