Organic Gardening…Not Exactly by the Book

When I was growing up, our family fortunes varied from No Fortune to considerable Misfortune. My parents vividly remembered the Great Depression when everybody had to be self-sufficient, so we always had a vegetable garden. And since my parents were officially old…mid-to-late thirties before I was even born, all their gardening was done the Old Way. Organically. I can’t say I was all that enthusiastic about Home Grown Stuff. It wasn’t anything like what I was used to out of a can when I was little and all our food came from the A & P. But if you get hungry enough…

I finally learned to tell the difference between a radish and a weed without having to pull the radish out of the ground. I also discovered that leaf lettuce (probably Black Seeded Simpson) was easier to put on a sandwich than super-crunchy, tasteless iceberg was. So I grew up thinking of myself as a gardener and when we children of the 60s took over the world and were going to set it straight, I was rarin’ to go.

Married in the early 70s and into a house with a half acre by the late 70s, I subscribed to Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming magazine and read everything I could find on composting and companion planting, and double-digging raised beds only to discover that most of that assumed four seasons, rich soil, and plentiful moisture. Drippy summer fog, stabilized sand dunes, and no rain for eight months belong in a book of their own…one that Sunset hadn’t written yet.

I also discovered that knowing how to grow radishes in Iowa does not confer a degree in vegetable gardening in coastal California. Each year, I was lucky to get one or two more vegetables to grow. The ones and twos finally added up and I could grow most any vegetables I wanted. But along the way I found that gardening with children is an end unto itself and I think the children…my own and many of my neighbors’…are the better for helping me garden.

Gardening taught my children fractions before they started school. Big seeds like corn and beans are easy for little fingers to plant. Spacing those seeds properly is not so easy, unless somebody plants seeds twice as far apart as recommended then shows the children how to plant another seed half way between the ones already dropped into the row.

Those big seeds need to be firmly planted in damp soil, so little feet are needed for the corn dance. Once all the corn seeds are properly spaced, children’s bare feet do a shuffle behind Mom’s. Mom kicks in the sides of the corn row, kids do a dance to tamp down the dirt.

Potatoes, bless ’em, will grow most anywhere. Maybe not well, but they are worth planting anyway if you have children. I cannot count how many children I taught how to feel around the base of a potato plant in soft sandy soil. A better treasure hunt cannot be devised.

Many decades ago, some blithering idiot Francophile introduced brown snails to California, supposedly to have a ready crop of escargot. It is a major miracle that anything at all grows in California now, given the number of brown snails found everywhere. One particularly wet winter, after crunching everywhere I went, I desperately considered buying snail bait. But no…I had children and pets and birds and CHILDREN! Children LOVE treasure hunts! I rounded up the entire neighborhood, promised them a penny a snail, equipped each of them with a coffee can or bucket and showed them where to look for treasure.

An hour later there was not a snail to be found in that half acre. And I had an immense number of snails to count. Ewww…slimy, crunchy critters. So I counted 100 of ’em, eyeballed the rest and handed out ten or twelve dollars. Umpteen kids were happy and I was stuck with umpteen2 snails. Not even the chickens were going to help me now. They’d already overdosed on the things. So I dug a big hole in the corn patch, buried the lot, ran my spade through to put as many out of their misery as possible, and didn’t lose any sleep over it. Come spring, I found quite a patch of shells which I distributed evenly over the corn patch and let them do their slow job of adding lime to the soil.

I even applied organic methods to my rose garden out front. Fortunately black spot and Japanese beetles do not exist in California (at least not in my rose garden), so roses are much easier to grow than they are in Virginia and similar climates. My only real problem was aphids. Easy fix. Ladybugs eat aphids. Kids are fascinated with ladybugs. An entire generation of neighbor kids knew that all ladybugs were welcome at Mrs. Miller’s rose garden.

Apparently my appreciation for ladybugs was interpreted by some as appreciation for all such unacceptable “pets” so it was not too surprising when two little boys whom I did not even know showed up at my door one day with a coffee can full of lizards. Big lizards. Little lizards. Brown ones, striped ones, all totally unwelcome at their houses. “Mrs. Miller, our moms won’t let us keep these lizards. Can we give them to you?” “Of course. They’ll find homes in the wall out back. Come on, let’s go set them free.” I was fascinated with stone walls, but stabilized sand dunes do not yield up any rocks whatsoever, so my “stone walls” were dry-stacked broken concrete walls. They were already inhabited by a fair number of lizards and spiders and we all coexisted reasonably well.

It is probably unnecessary to point out to anyone who knows as much about critters as I do about plants, this plan to relocate an entire coffee can full of lizards was doomed. Apparently those little guys are territorial. Suddenly, the Lizard Condo was seriously overcrowded. Dead lizards started appearing in strange places. There were even a few who were rather indelicately barfed up by our assortment of cats. In time, the cats figured out that lizards are great as Cat Toys, not so great as Cat Food.

Because there was plenty of room for all the kids to play, one of my rules was that they were to stay out of the vegetable garden unless I was out there. My raised beds were rectangular, probably no two of them the same size. They were spaced wherever they fit and the overall effect was a maze. Imagine my dismay when I saw a bunch of kids running all over my garden! Chasing each other, even. Pulling up radishes out of a corner box. WHUT??? So down the hill I ran, ready to shoo the bunch of them out of the garden, when that charming little boy that lived at my house said “Mom, this is such a cool PacMan. Look, the radishes are power pellets.” I’ve never since been able to bite into a fresh, crisp radish without thinking of the power nigh unto dragon breath conferred by radish power pellets.

There’s a lot you can learn about organic gardening from books and seminars. And there’s a lot you just gotta learn the fun way!


10 thoughts on “Organic Gardening…Not Exactly by the Book

  1. karenrsanderson says:

    Very entertaining! And I remember the A&P. That’s where we shopped. I did not know there was such a snail problem in CA. What an inventive way to get rid of them! I wish I could have a garden, but in this just-outside-downtown apartment, it would be very difficult.


    • Karen, if you have a front stoop or a small deck or balcony, you have room for a big pot. A lot of bigbox stores and nurseries have lightweight plastic pots that look like glazed Italian pottery. Come spring, you can plant it with one or two kinds of herbs, some lettuce, a few radishes and as soon as those cool-season crops are done and hot weather sets in, plant a tomato in the pot.


      • karenrsanderson says:

        You are so right! I will try to do this next year. I certainly have space for a few pots. Do I have to worry about squirrels? Because we have tons of squirrels where I am.


  2. Denise Hisey says:

    You are so creative Esther! The snail treasure hunt is a hoot! I bet those kids still tell that story, too! 😉


  3. I’m glad you liked it. I suspect the kids remember the Great Broccoli Seed count a whole lot better, but I don’t know if I’ve written that one up yet.


  4. heartspoken says:

    I LOVED this, Esther — made me wish I had been one of your neighbors’ children to learn about gardening at the feet of the master. Can’t wait to hear about the Great Broccoli Seed Count.

    I was fortunate to grow up with a mother who gardened, so I did actually learn a fair amount — goodness knows, we had our most serious mother-daughter talks while snapping beans or shelling peas. When John and I lived in a small apartment in Lafayette, LA, I grew all kinds of things in pots on my balcony – miniature veggies and even a pineapple plant that I rooted from cutting off the top of a pineapple. My biggest concern was being careful not to water our downstairs neighbor.


    • Far from a gardening master in those days and still can’t consider myself one. But I did…finally…manage to grow two baby pineapples this year! They were just tops that I rooted as you did, then kept them in a warm, sunny spot for several years and just before we put the house on the market, I saw them both bloom. I gave them both away, with tiny pineapples on them.


  5. Karen, we had squirrels beyond number in VA but they never bothered potted plants I had on the porch or the deck. But maybe that’s because we had plenty of maple, oak, and walnut trees all around. If they’re hungry, I wouldn’t put anything past them.


  6. Pamela says:

    And the fun way to learn is also the BEST way. 🙂 Wonderful post about gardening, Esther.


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