Gardening

Think twice before asking this contrary horticulturist how her garden grows

I have always admired farmers and gardeners. My sister still brings up how proud I was of a 10-page paper I authored in college about lettuce.

Earlier in my career, I advocated for stronger food systems and security. I marvel at (and fully enjoy eating) a meal composed of local ingredients.

You’ll notice that none of these things involve me growing food myself. I’ve dabbled, but I’ve usually killed anything I tried to grow. For a long time, I let growers do the growing and I did the buying/eating/cheerleading.

Then a friend casually dropped a truth bomb. We were at one of those Alaska-style summer weddings with popup tents on green grass, standing in the half light of 1 a.m. twilight while drinking our umpteenth beer from the keg.

You know, she said, I’ve realized something after years of trying to one-up myself on this hardcore adventure or that badass backcountry ski. I just like being outside. I don’t really care what the activity is or how intense it is; I’m just as happy standing around in my garden all day as I am mountain climbing.

“I just like being outside.”

That idea ricocheted around my brain. I played with it for the rest of the summer. I happened to be training for an iron-distance triathlon, so there was no rest in sight to simply enjoy being outdoors. But the idea was tantalizing.

[Those strange-looking ‘blueberries’ in your yard? If you’re lucky, they’re honeyberries.]

Couple this with my admiration for those who grow food and throw in a pandemic that left me trapped at home, and I had a fertile ground (so to speak) for trying my hand at gardening in earnest.

Another friend shrugged at my plans for a full-on garden and my trepidation about it, and he said (in true nonchalant Alaska fashion): “People up here overcomplicate it. Really, you throw seeds in the ground and they want to grow. It’s magic!”

“Weeding?” I pressed him.

“OK, you pull a weed now and then. But really, you have to do very little and food grows.”

What’s funny is even though I now know this to be true and patently, absolutely untrue at the same time, this is the same story I told myself last winter to get myself to garden again.

See, some people love the activity of gardening. Take my friend who has realized she just loves being outside, no matter the activity. She loses herself in gardening. I picture her in a hat and gardening gloves. Is she hunched over? Because that part, I cannot stand. Maybe she’s crouched by a garden bed here or there, happily weeding and inspecting the plants.

Honestly, I don’t know what gardeners do to get so completely lost in it, because I still don’t.

Like a well-trained dog owner, I spend summer evenings schlepping a hose around at the beck and call of the things growing in my yard. Tending to the garden is a pain, but it’s a better pain than that of failure if I were to just watch everything I invested in early on die around me.

That would be too shameful, a constant, yellowed husk of a reminder of my failure to take care of living things.

So, I schlep and I water and I even weed. Weeding requires hunching over, and I dramatically groan like someone twice my age every time.

It’s hard to pick my least favorite part of the endeavor. Is it worrying about leaving on vacation and finding someone to take on the (I think) behemoth task of tending to the plants? Is it trying to get to the chickweed before it goes to seed, or getting pricked by the wild roses that are somehow weeds in our particular corner of Palmer?

I don’t like putting seeds in the ground (finicky, especially the tiny ones — and again with the hunching over).

Thinning? Don’t get me started. Troubleshooting? I find it difficult to care about why I only have zucchini flowers and no fruit. I don’t even like zucchini all that much, but I grow it because my husband does.

[What’s up with this cold, slow-growing summer in Southcentral Alaska gardens?]

Finally, I hate slugs. Revolting. They come around every year without fail. No matter how much Sluggo I cast about, they still end up nesting in on the lettuce and eventually the kale. I let my lettuce soak in the sink before spinning it and watch the drowned ones float up. I wish I could salt every single one into oblivion.

See, these don’t sound like the words of a gardener.

What I will say is this:

Profoundly lazy though I am, I do love beauty. I love being fully immersed and present in a natural setting, even if it’s carefully curated — there’s a special kind of appreciation I have for a really well thought-out and constructed garden.

Sometimes I see birds delighting in taking a bath in our lettuce after a rain shower that’s quickly chased by sun (I try not to think about what they leave behind). The poppies shine in bursts of orange and, for the Himalayans, blue.

The Brussels sprout plants are getting taller and stronger, and I think I got to the broccoli right when they were at their biggest but before bolting. The beets are deep red. The rhubarb punches up and out dramatically, taking over its corner.

I’ve tricked myself. I have constructed and tended a place that lures me in with its promise of beauty and the outdoors, and eventually with snacks. In the winter I forget about all the work.

But now, in midsummer, I’m all too aware.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

Sponsored