How Can Growing Vegetables Be So Hard?


Go ahead, add it to the list. Since there weren’t already enough ways to fall short as a parent, somebody had to add backyard gardening to the list. I’m going to put it somewhere between spending every Saturday playing soccer and having outrageously expensive annual children’s birthday parties. (For more on that topic, see Parenting, Inc.: How the Billion-Dollar Baby Business Has Changed the Way we Raise our Children, a great book detailing all the outrageous trappings we have worked ourselves into as parents).

From parenting magazines, to cooking shows, to publications featuring the First Lady—we’re being convinced to grow our own vegetables, to teach children where food comes from by cooking with homegrown produce and to start our family dinners six months in advance with a plot of dirt. We’re also being told how easy it is. The only problem is—it’s not.

Now it’s time to back up. I absolutely love the idea of showing children where food comes from. I love the idea of growing our own food and doing it without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. I love eating food in season, and teaching children which foods are in season and which are not. I appreciate the drive to get us in the garden with our children. I only resent that it’s made to seem so simple. Or, maybe I resent that it just might be simple, and perhaps it’s another thing I’m bad at.

Our first garden boxes were a birthday present from my husband. I found a location along the side of the house that got plenty of sun and was close to a water source, and he went to the lumber store and came home and built the boxes. They looked beautiful and were even more exciting to look at when filled with bags of rich, dark potting soil. I planted lettuce and spinach that first spring. It came up but never matured. The location along the side of the house, next to our neighbors’ house seemed to create a type of wind tunnel and spring winds battered small seedlings before they could reach maturity.

The next summer I tried something hardier: tomatoes. I used tomato plants in pots that were mature enough to withstand the wind. Beautiful little flowers bloomed and green tomatoes grew and grew, then finally began to turn red—red with large, hard, brown patches on the bottom. Everybody in the world seemed to know about blossom end rot, yet it was never mentioned in all those articles telling me how easy it would be to garden with my children.

It turns out maybe gardening and parenting do go hand and hand. Like parenting, I’ve noticed every gardener can’t wait to dissect the problems with the vegetables you’re raising and they all have advice about what went wrong and how you should be fixing it. Gardeners, like parents, also like to brag about what they’ve raised. They talk about how beautiful it is and how large it is. I keep waiting for the gardener who is going to tell me how high their tomatoes scored on their placement tests, how well they play piano and how long they can hold their breath underwater.

Blossom end rot, I am told, can be counteracted with either deep watering or Tums tablets placed into the soil. Yes, you read that correctly.

Last year, we moved out of the garden box and into the landscaping, and we focused on one crop—corn. What could be easier to grow than corn? The Indians grew it, the Pilgrims grew, it encompasses half of the Midwest. I figured I’d even know how well I was doing half way through the summer—wasn’t it supposed to be “knee high by the Fourth of July” after all?

The seeds were only two days in the ground when I encountered the first gardening gasp. “You can’t just plant corn,” one of my gardening friends said. “It’s one of THE most complicated vegetables to grow.” She went into a detailed explanation about how there are male and female corn plants and a precise cross-pollination must occur that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without a mass-production of corn.

I thought I had the last laugh when my two rows of four corn plants quickly camp up. They grew taller and taller, and soon they began to produce long silky tassels. I went back to my friend, bragging of my success. “Wait until you open them,” she said. “They’ll be full of gaps where the kernels are missing.”

Three weeks later, I opened one, and the lines of corn had wider holes than a battered prize fighter’s gaps of missing teeth.

It’s possible, the real lesson in all of this is that it’s difficult to grow food, and our farmers deserve our utmost respect. I haven’t given up on hoping for larger success with the endeavor, though.

I’m using the garden boxes and the landscaping this year. It’s as if I’m doubling down on a blackjack bet. Already, our beans are coming up fast and furiously, and they look lovely. I’m careful not tell anybody, so I can enjoy the small plants before a master gardener catches up to me and tells me why they won’t ever turn into beans.


6 responses to “How Can Growing Vegetables Be So Hard?

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