Doni’s Cautionary Covid Tale: Leave Gardening to the Professionals

I blame the coronavirus for putting the dumb idea in my head to plant a garden. Actually, being the over-achiever I am, I planted two: one in an old water trough that I painted black, and the other in a kiddie pool I painted red, to cover that tell-tale kiddie-pool blue.

I realize that most folks plant their gardens directly in the ground, or in raised beds. But my backyard is on Year 3 of being a major work in progress, so there’s currently no place to plant a garden in the ground that wouldn’t get in the way.

In fact, I have a lineup of plants in pots: fruit trees, shade trees, some little pomegranate bushes, some lilac starters I bought from a lady on Craigslist, and even a bay laurel from my sister for my birthday, all waiting patiently to put down roots.

The peach and apple trees (far left) get the award for hanging in there the longest. They’ve been in pots for three years now, purchased not long after I bought this house, when I was optimistically naive about how long it would take to finish my yard. This year, there are actually four little peaches and two apples growing on those little trees. I guess they got tired of waiting for their real home. That Mother Nature, ready or not, she’s going to do what she’s going to do.

Yes, I blame the coronavirus for causing me to tackle gardening again, just as I blame it for my sudden interest in growing my own sourdough starter, just as I blame it for prioritizing my decades’-long plan to finally build that outdoor bread oven, and just as I blame the coronavirus for igniting my desire to emulate my twin, an urban chicken wrangler and beginning bee-keeper. And most of all, I blame the coronavirus for inspiring me to plant a vegetable garden.

I know better than to plant a garden, because I’m horrible at it. But there was something about living during a pandemic that activated the pioneer side of my brain. Don’t panic, I said to myself. It’s just a pandemic. You’ve got this!

My goal was to be as self-sufficient as possible, just in case there were food shortages, just as there were toilet paper shortages. We never saw that coming, did we? No, we did not. Bring on those gardens.

Check out this bounty!

Photo source: Joe Furnari’s Facebook page.

I wish I could say this was my photo. Instead, this was posted on Facebook this week by Joe Furnari. It’s not enough that he is a master sausage-maker. Apparently, he’s a master gardener, too. I am so jealous impressed!

And look at just one of many photos Jim Dowling has posted on his Facebook page this week, bragging telling about his crops. Oh my gosh! Can you believe those peppers!

Of course, I’m happy for the Furnaris and the Dowlings and all of you other successful gardeners. Truly I am.

But oh, Facebook! Nothing can make me feel as inadequate about myself as you do. Perfect Facebook marriages, perfect Facebook families, perfect Facebook bodies, perfect Facebook holidays, perfect Facebook vacations. And now, in the summertime, perfect Facebook gardens.

Lately on Facebook, I’ve noticed more produce porn than previous summers. But strangely, people are unapologetic. They don’t make their usual excuses: “Sorry for the zucchini photos, but my wife made me post them.”

Because of the pandemic, those gardeners have more time than usual on their hands to get out in the dirt and work their gardening magic like never before. But also, the pandemic gives a good excuse to step up those produce posts, almost as if they’re a public service. Those photos aren’t showing off. They’re for our own good.

“Hey, I know we’re all sick of hearing about politics and the pandemic, so I thought I’d share photos of my garden.”

Ugh. I’d rather hear about politics and the pandemic.

Do I sound bitter? Check out my July tomato crop. In the spirit of full disclosure, it took me one month to collect this itty-bitty bounty. (You call tell the oldest by the wrinkles.) It took that long to gather enough to make the world’s smallest, most pathetic Caprese Salad. The tomatoes that came before these had black bottoms. I threw those away.

Behold, Doni’s entire July tomato crop. (The basil in the background? Store bought.)Remember the Dowling’s bounty, with the amazing array of peppers?

Here’s my pepper crop. Notice the brown stretch marks, or whatever they are.

To add to my horticultural humiliation, I can’t even tell you the names of these peppers. I didn’t save the little plastic pointy tags when I planted them. Red peppers. That’s all I know.

If there were a proper GPS (Garden Protective Services), by now I would have been turned in and arrested for produce abuse and impersonating a gardener.

However, in my defense, although it’s clear that my tortured gardens are suffering, I am here to tell you that I never neglected my gardens. Never! Truly, I tried my best. I fertilized my gardens. I read Wayne Kessler’s columns. I watered my gardens every day. I watched experts on YouTube who said I should trim all the lower branches and plant them as deeply as possible, which I did.

Of course, you can only dig so deep when one of your container gardens happens to be a shallow kiddie pool.

Doni painted a kiddie pool red, for a sort of Under the Tuscan Sun look for her container garden. She got the sun part right.

Although my water trough garden was deeper, that extra depth didn’t seem to help. Maybe because it’s metal, in full sun? That’s my best guess.

Doni puts beach umbrellas over the water trough garden because the plants were drying out and dying in the full sun.

The photo above is from about a month ago, before it really started failing. Those are geraniums in front, which I thought would be pretty with the tomato plants in back, since tomato plants aren’t that attractive.

This is that metal trough container garden today. See all the tomatoes? Don’t bother. You won’t find one.

After I took this photo, I felt so disappointed that I had to stop myself from just yanking up all those pitiful plants and tossing them into the green waste container where they could go to their final resting place.

It’s weird, because I can grow flowers and herbs OK, but if my life depended upon it I could not grow a decent vegetable garden. I know this about myself, and yet, every few years — like forgetting the pain of childbirth and deciding that having a baby wouldn’t be so bad after all — I have amnesia about my lifetime of garden failures. Each time, what made me try again was the belief that somehow, this his time would be different.

Also, I have a rich imagination. I spend all that time standing in front of seed displays, spellbound by the photos and the promise of when my garden looks JUST LIKE THAT. I load up my car with flats of starts, kind of cheating, but oh well, in the end what matters most is my garden, and who cares how it began. Those starts are like getting a house-trained rescue dog, skipping all that annoying early puppy angst. I can picture all the produce, all the sharing, all the pride that comes from gardening, all the joining in on the fun gardening talk. “Sorry for dropping off that bushel of tomatoes on your front porch, neighbor, but once again, my garden is awesome!”

I have always wanted to be that kind of gardener.

My last stab at vegetable gardening was when I lived in the Garden Tract. When I remodeled my home, I thought it would be a swell idea to save those old cast-iron bathtubs and make them into raised vegetable gardens. I got a few blueberry-sized cherry tomatoes over the course of the summer. The tomato plants had lots of green leaves and lots of tomato worms, but very few tomatoes.

What a waste of time, energy, hope and water. For nothing. That’s when I vowed I would never attempt to grow a garden again, and to leave gardening to the professionals, and to those blessed with green thumbs. People like me are why God made grocery stores and farmers markets.

So that was that. No more gardens for Doni. It felt rather liberating to admit my shortcomings and move on to something that didn’t make me feel like a failure, like baking.

And then, along came the pandemic.

Pandemic or no pandemic, I don’t know why I even bothered with a vegetable garden. The truth is, I’ve never really bonded with vegetables anyway, unless they’re roasted in olive oil and involve melted cheese.

So when I say “vegetable garden” I’m referring to a plot that grows just four things:

  1. Tomatoes, for marinara, and fresh tomato paired with mozzarella, olive oil and basil
  2. Pumpkins, strictly for Halloween decor
  3. Peppers, for making pepper jelly, which is a delicious holiday appetizer, poured over cream cheese with crackers; and for shishito peppers, prepared son Joe’s way: grilled, tossed in sesame oil and sesame seeds, served with a dip made of sour cream, sesame oil and miso paste
  4. Eggplant, what else but eggplant Parmesan

I accept that I must be doing something terribly wrong. I acknowledge that my garden failures are probably a result of operator error.

But still, I feel deep shame. And I call myself a California girl? Here I am, in Redding, California, a Mediterranean climate, for Pete’s sake. Here in the North State, there’s no excuse to not be a successful gardener.

I’m feeling pretty bummed out, because once again, I’m a quitter. I gave up on the idea of chickens after reading a post on Nextdoor.com about the number of rats here in west Redding. And you know how I feel about rats. The last thing I wanted to do is attract rats who’d come after the chicken feed. So goodbye, chickens.

And then, after watching my sister and her fellow bee-loving friend tackle a very complicated, very sticky two-day honey-extraction process – not to mention all the information about colony collapse and mites and wax moths — I also gave up on the idea of bees. Too complicated. Sorry, bees.

In my heart, even though I’m a lousy gardener, every time I plant something, I pause for a moment and I can see in my mind’s eye how magnificent that plant will one day be. I’m a failure at gardening, but I’m also an optimist who loves Audrey Hepburn’s philosophy: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”

But it’s time for me to face reality. For my own peace of mind, I think I’ll ditch Hepburn and stick with Margaret Atwood: “Gardening is not a rational act.”

Amen, sister.

In a month or so, Redding’s blast-furnace temperatures will leave us. We”ll enjoy cool, crisp mornings and evenings, and the luxury of wearing sweaters. I will tear out the failed gardens and in the naked bare soil I will plant  chrysanthemums and cyclamen. With any luck, I will be far enough along in my landscaping projects to finally plant all those trees and shrubs in the ground.

And maybe then, I’ll work up the courage to tackle that bread oven, in which I can make sourdough bread, and pizza. Hold the veggies.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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