BY CAMERON CASTLE
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
April 13, 2016
A few plump, red-breasted robins sat on some low hanging branches, keeping me company as I plunged my index finger into my warm and perfectly mixed garden soil. I removed a pea seed from the pack, stuffed it in the hole, covered it delicately and repeated the process.
The birds chirped away. It almost seemed that as my planting progressed, so did their chorus. The number of birds didn’t increase, just the frequency and volume of their song. Curious, but I love the birds.
Moving to our five acres on Whidbey Island from our pool-table sized yard in Snohomish has so many wondrous perks. A main one is being able to have a vegetable garden. My garden is a very modest affair. The raspberries behave themselves along the back fence, leaving enough space for beets, beans, lettuce of different varieties, green onions—just the basics.
Some things do okay. Many things not. Carrots, which should be a no-brainer, grow a couple of inches into the soil, then stop as if blocked by a pane of glass. My radishes grow above ground into red threads, worthless for eating, but possibly handy for darning Christmas socks.
My asparagus and I waited patiently for the four years it’s supposed to take to actually produce a stalk of asparagus. Would have been grand, I am sure, if only the person I had help me turn the garden last year hadn’t dug up the roots and tossed them into the woods.
I planted red onions. I still don’t quite get the process. One puts an onion in the ground and then later, pulls out an onion. Kind of a zero-sum vegetable game, if you ask me. But I’m assuming one puts in a little onion and pulls out a huge one. I, on the other hand pulled out one the same size as went in, only older.
Yeah, yeah, all you accomplished gardeners are straining at the bit to offer up obvious advice. Better soil. Deeper soil, more manure, more water, yeah, yeah, yeah. If I did it right, what would I have to gripe about? Actually, my lettuce does fine. Scallions, not bad. Beans are my finest hour. Trouble with that is I actually don’t like beans. I love peas.
I covered my last little pea seed burial chamber, crumpled the empty seed pack and bid the birds adieu. They were all a twitter. Such fun to be one with nature. I went inside.
That’s when the birds gave the “all clear.” While I was cueing up SpongeBob for Wilson, my six-year-old, all the extended family and friends of the scout birds converged and removed my peas. I don’t think they ate them right there on the spot. We recently are missing a really nice china bread and butter plate. I am fairly sure that the robins were cozy and safe having brunch off my lovely plate, hardly able to contain themselves. “Have you seen a dumber human?” one will ask with a full beak. “He kept looking at us and smiling. I almost feel sorry for him. Not. Chirp, chirp chirp!”
The next day I realized what happened. I replanted my peas. I didn’t smile at those red-breasted pirates. Instead, I spread this handy dandy white mesh stuff I got at the nursery. It lets in sun, water soaks through, but birds . . . HA. I think I could actually see the smug smiles melt from those robin’s beaks. Replanted and protected, “Let my peapods grow.”
In no time my white covering was buoyed up all over the place.
And then it wasn’t. What? Where did the . . . SLUGS. Those bastards. Crawled right under the cloth and devoured my progress.
I replanted. Cloth covering, and now a slug abatement program. That’s what I’m going to call it, because if I said I used Deadline there might be picketing soon outside our house. Once I was at the hardware store and a gypsy woman was following me and my young son around. “What are you here for?”
“Oh, just getting some WD-40 for his squeaky door.”
She started to cry. “THAT’S POISON!! You can’t use that in a child’s room.”
“I’m not going to have him drink it. I’m just going to put two drops on the hinge.” She was beside herself. Using actual poison would surely push her over the edge.
Okay. Birds at bay. Slugs dispensed with. Peas replanted. Up they came. They grew enough that the birds were no longer a threat and off came the linen sheets. There the pea starts stood like proud soldiers.
Until morning. I went to the garden to salute them. And they were knocked over and lying side by side like they were shot by a firing squad. What the Hell? Dead as doornails, their stems sliced clean through. I went to the nursery.
The fabulously friendly, patient and informative woman at the nursery proclaimed, “Cutworms! They just take one tasty bite out of the pea stalks. Problem with that is that particular bite is the one that keeps the plant attached to the roots.”
“You have got to be kidding.”
The nice woman gave me a solution, toilet paper tubes! Plant the pea, surround it with a toilet paper tube and, Voila! The cutworms are on the outside looking in. One per pea is a lot of toilet paper. But you get three to a paper towel tube, and five from wrapping paper. Anyway, it is borderline ludicrous. But it worked!
My peas grew up. I defeated the birds. I defeated the slugs. I outsmarted the cutworms, and there were my pea plants’ loving tendrils embracing my chicken wire-lined fence.
Then one day the leaves at the bottom started to turn brown. What?
Again to the nursery.
“Look at what’s happening to my pea plants. They are finally healthy, growing. What could this brownness be?”
Root rot? I am way past feeling I am being picked on at this point. “What, pray tell, does one do about root rot?”
“Move the peas to a completely different spot in the garden. It’s a fungus in the soil.”
I repeated the entire planting process again. On the opposite side. And it worked. And they grew. And they started to flower. And it was midsummer. There was sunlight galore. Success was to be mine.
Until they started to shrivel.
Back to the nursery.
The woman at the nursery looked at me with a look that wasn’t insulting, but did have all the aspects of simply saying, “Duh.”
“It’s the middle of summer. It’s too hot. You’ve planted these too late.”
Dejected. Despondent. I dragged my sagging-shouldered body back home. I didn’t go near my garden.
I went inside and distracted myself with doing the dishes. I collected my little bundle of compostables, and headed out to dump them on my pile. I looked to my left, and growing out of the edge of my sprawling, unmanaged compost pile was some greenery. Some healthy green leafy stalks. They looked rather familiar, actually. I pulled one, and as the soil gave way I saw a big brown rock. But it wasn’t a rock. It was a potato. A large, perfectly shaped, Russet baking potato. The ground was packed with them. Volunteers! I nearly wept.
My two favorite things. Successfully home grown food, and delectable irony.
Editor’s Note: We’re please to have Cameron joining us on WLM, he’ll be sharing more humorous observations about life on Whidbey Island every month in “Castle on Whidbey.”
(All photos courtesy of the author)
Cameron Castle is an author and a stay-at-home dad. His recently published memoir is entitled, “My Mother Is Crazier than Your Mother.” He lives on Whidbey Island.
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