I'm one of the many people who planted a vegetable garden this year. I've been wanting to do it for years now, but I really don't know why. Way back when I was first married and chronically unemployed (English degree), I had several very large, very successful vegetable gardens.
The idea was that since I wasn't earning any money, I could contribute to the household economy by growing our food. It sounded like a good idea at the time. When we did the math, back in the day, I spent a lot of money on my garden. It was especially expensive to get started on the project since we had to buy all the gardening tools, including a gas-powered rototiller and a small chest freezer. Those two large purchases made up for hundreds of zucchinis and tomatoes that I didn't actually buy.
But it was more than the large purchases. I also had to buy plants and/or seeds each spring as well as bags of fertilizer and eventually pesticides. I wanted an organic garden, but after picking worms out of my homegrown broccoli by the mug full, I gave up on that ambition.
Then, I had to find ways to use my homegrown produce. So I had to buy a canning pot, boxes of mason jars and lots of spices for pickles, jams and jellies.
The pickles were fun to make and even my mistakes were interesting. I once made a batch of dill pickles that were so spicy, we couldn't eat them. I never knew what happened there. Maybe my jalapenos cross-pollinated with bell peppers?
Once I figured out the basic process, my pickle making escalated. I bought more boxes of mason jars so I could give away pickles to anyone who might take them. I used to ship them to family members even though the cost of shipping was much higher than buying pickles at the grocery store. I had jars lining a pantry closet off the kitchen.
I remember a friend who saw them commented, "You guys must really like pickles."
I had to admit we don't like pickles that much. That was when I realized I had a problem.
A couple of years later when we got ready to sell that house, the pantry was still full of pickles that I ended up dumping out.
I never canned tomatoes. Instead, I made spaghetti sauce and froze it. But there were issues making the sauce. First, you had to peel lots of tomatoes. I mean, lots of tomatoes. On sauce making days, my kitchen would be red with tomato juice and seeds that gushed out of the fresh tomatoes onto me, the floor, the counters and the walls. I think I had red spots on the ceiling for years.
No matter how long I simmered those labor-intense, fresh, peeled tomatoes, they never thickened up enough to make a good sauce, so I would go to the store and buy big cans of tomato paste to add. Between the paste and all the seasoning, my tomato sauce got a little expensive. And it was never that good.
I tried freezing all kinds of vegetables and some of them were good and some of them were not. I remember how disappointed we were when the winter squash that I spent hours peeling, boiling and mashing, came out of the freezer as a stringy mess.
I planted zucchinis that grew to be the size of baseball bats and made them into zucchini bread, zucchini pancakes and, of course, zucchini pickles. I tried to give some zucchini away, but people would see me coming with a giant zucchini and run in the other direction.
So after we had kids and I finally found a job, I put a hold on my gardening career, but I always kind of missed it. I didn't miss the tomato sauce or the stringy winter squash. In fact, I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was I missed, but every spring I had the urge to plant a garden.
One year in Indiana, I put a couple of tomato plants into our landscaping close to the house. It wasn't very attractive but we had a few good tomatoes.
When we moved to Arkansas, I decided the lack of topsoil and the deer population were excellent reasons not to plant a vegetable garden, but I always had a couple of tomato plants in containers on the deck. One year I used upside down tomato planters that produced no tomatoes. Since our deck is not that large, I bought hooks to hang clay pots off the railing and planted them with herbs each year.
Neither my container tomatoes or my herbs were particularly successful. So I channeled what gardening energy I had into trying to grow grass. That didn't work well either, but I totally blame the dogs for that one.
So, when the spring of social distancing rolled around, I gave in to the primal urge to plant vegetables. This time, I went with a raised bed garden that I located inside the fence. So far, I've picked four cucumbers, two each of zucchini and yellow summer squash, and three tomatoes. I'm getting ready to make refrigerator pickles this week and I tried a new zucchini recipe the other night. So all that free food only cost me the price of several boards to make the beds, a ton of bagged topsoil to fill the beds, a little wire fence to keep the dogs out of the beds, the tiny plants, the fertilizer and the spray to control Septoria leaf spot. It's a bargain!
• • •
Lynn Atkins is a Weekly Vista reporter, an occasional columnist and a sporadic blogger. Opinions expressed are those of the author.