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MARTHA SEZ: A job in the garden

June 27, 2011
Linda and Natalie from Cornell Cooperative Extension in Westport were at Keene Central School a day or two ago, helping 15 children in the Advantage After School Program make bucket gardens for a 4-H project.

We were all outside on the soccer field by the parking lot — Linda, Natalie, the children, and Andy and I, the Keene program leaders. Inside the big CCEx van were sacks of potting soil, flats of green, leafy plants, onion bulbs, seed packets and 35-gallon buckets made of white plastic. Drainage holes had been drilled through the bottoms of the buckets.

Our assignment was to use these materials to pot up gardens of tomatoes, basil, oregano, spaghetti squash and onions. Over summer vacation, we will tend our little gardens, and by the time everyone returns to school we will, ideally, have everything we need to make spaghetti.  A recipe card, laminated in clear plastic, hangs optimistically from each metal bucket handle.

Jonah, a fifth-grader, looks at me with dark, serious eyes.

"I don't want mine," he says.

"Can I have it?" I ask. I know it's wrong.

"No, I'll give it to my sister. I don't really like to take care of things like that."

And there you have it. Jonah just summed up why some people like to garden and others don't.

Eventually, you will probably start to care about whatever or whoever it is you take care of. That means more involvement, more personal risk.

I was disappointed that Jonah didn't want to tend his bucket garden, even while clinging to the vain hope that he would give it to me. Still, I admire his perspicacity. He understood what gardening requires and knew he didn't want to take it on.

That doesn't mean he will never want to take on the responsibilities of plant ownership. Many people become avid gardeners later in life.

Jonah is wise beyond his years, yes, but even Jonah cannot fully realize all gardening entails.

I have finally transplanted all of the seedlings I started inside months ago. All those that survived, I should say. A gardener becomes keenly aware of the weather as he or she proceeds. Here in Keene, my neighbor tells me, "Don't plant until after the first full moon in June." Sage advice. This year, though, the first full moon in June falls on the 15th, and who can wait that long? The growing season is too short.

There are flukes, too, that no one can prepare for. One summer, I would say about 15 years ago, there were two frosts in July, one in the first week and one the last week of the month.

Record rainfall this spring surely rotted or washed away some seeds and young plants, but others are thriving. The lilacs were wonderful and lush this year, and it's a great year so far for lilies and iris.

Insects. I wonder, does Jonah know about garden pests? Horrid invaders glide in on iridescent wings or crawl up from the soil to lay waste to the most carefully tended garden.

I have read that zonal geraniums, which Heather Coffin of Blackfly Organics tells me are just ordinary geraniums, discourage Japanese beetles. In my experience, Japanese beetles are not easily discouraged, but I am always hopeful.

My sister gave me a beautiful early-blooming rosebush. Ah ha! I thought. Constance Spry blooms before the Japanese beetles morph from disgusting white larvae into their rose-destroying adult form. But wait — now I see tiny pale green caterpillars, one to a rosebud.

Yes, my sister says, Constance Spry has its own caterpillar, which somehow finds it, wherever it may grow.

And then there is the responsibility to keep your plants home, not allowing them to stray from the garden. In years past, many garden plants went native and have become invasive.

A Keene Valley field has been completely taken over and is now in bloom with wild chervil, a relative of poison hemlock and water hemlock. Hilary Smith of the Nature Conservancy, a columnist for the "Adirondack Daily Enterprise," said that wild chervil, once sold in garden nurseries, is one of the beautiful invasive plants we should watch out for in our area, along with Japanese knotweed and purple loosestrife.

So Jonah, who can blame you for postponing the responsibilities of gardening? It is too late for me. I'm too far gone now.

Are you sure you don't want to give me that bucket garden?

Have a good week.


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