Gardening 101: Gardener Sings the Blues

If you think gardening is all about sunshine and beetle-free flowers, think again.
blues rock

Blues songs are usually about somebody doing somebody wrong. They’re not about rhubarb. But a couple of weeks ago, I slipped into full John Lee Hooker mode when my rhubarb patch was mowed down in full by a not-so-in-the-know lawn-care guy. Admittedly, he’s a heck of a guy, and he was just trying to do his job, but he broke my heart. The rhubarb had sprung up near my flower garden, and it was an unexpected gift, its monster leaves and almost perfectly red stalks absolutely primed for a strawberry rhubarb compote. Primed, I tell you.


So when I went out to pick some one fine pie-making day and it was just a thatch of rhubarb-y stubble, and the blanket of wild strawberries that grew nearby was a crime scene of chopped leaves and little splotches of red, I cried. Lawnmower man, you done me wrong.

I never really liked that old Bonnie Tyler song, “It’s a Heartache”, but sometimes I find it floating around in my head as I pick another Colorado potato beetle off our spud plants, or as Stephen has to cut another raspberry bramble because it’s been decimated by cane borers. A few slugs are slithering around, for good measure.

Every gardener has a blues lament she’ll sing for you if you ask. A friend in Connecticut tells about the morning she walked into the garden and every single one of her ripe tomatoes had a bite out it, as if some animal worked his way down the rows, buffet-style. One of our fellow gardeners at the community plot shooed away a rabbit just as it had helped itself to a few heads of lettuce. “I usually think of it as tithing,” he said, laughing it off. “The rabbits can take their share, that’s a given, but enough is enough.”

Maybe the most frequently heard blues number is the one about the seed that never germinated. We have a row of watercress that, week after week, remained just a sad row of soil. “You have to love the process,” one of our fellow gardeners told me, “otherwise you’re sunk.”

But in early June, for every song of heartache there’s a love song. All of our first plantings are done (meaning we’re also done lugging in 40-pound bags of topsoil and working the ground). Our fava beans are in flower, delicate white blossoms with black streaks. The peas are almost ready to eat, and a week ago we picked some pods and ate them right then and there. Stephen’s cucuzzi are nestled under row covers to protect them from squash borers (hiss). We’ve eaten a dozen or so fat red strawberries, and a dozen more salads of mesclun and spinach and radishes. The carrots, radicchio, and fennel are going gangbusters whereas last year, in Stephen’s words, “we might as well have planted them in rock for all they grew.”

So we toss together a salad and admire the fava flowers. I repeat, “It’s about the process,” and try not to feel too grumpy about the process when I see another beetle. I visualize a lush rhubarb patch. It’ll be back next year. It may be bitter, but it’s what I love. I think there’s a B.B. King lyric in there somewhere.

Next week I’ll discuss organic pest- and disease-control methods that can help turn those blues songs into summer anthems, with advice from the pros at Cornell Cooperative Extension.

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