Things fall apart. That’s the way it is sometimes, and that’s the way it happened with the cold frame kit. I put it together on a warm day in early March, and set it up over the arugula I had started inside weeks earlier.
I set the lightweight plastic cold frame over the plants I had stuck in what the soil thermometer said was 48F soil. Assuming the ground would warm considerably in short order with the frame in place, I seeded a small row of arugula beneath it to stretch the harvest. I shut the lid with visions of early homegrown arugula salads dancing in my head. And then the winds came and like the Big Bad Wolf, blew it all down. (The pieces are visible in the background of the second picture propped against the fence.).
Instead of trying the frame again, I covered the plants and the little line of arugula, which looked by then like a stream of frog spittle. But the row cover wasn’t enough. While everything survived, barely, it all went into a kind of stasis for weeks; it hung there, refusing to get any bigger.
It just goes to show that you can push the season some, try to make it adhere to your wants and needs, but the weather does pretty much what it wants (which is what makes farming such a high-wire act). With high tunnels, hoop covers and sturider cold frames than I had, you can mitigate adverse growing conditions and fool plants into production, but the mechanisms need to be strong and you need to pay close attention — tweak, adjust — and pray or hope, depending on your bent.
Recently I was talking with a friend, a professional horticulturist, about the lessons that gardening teaches. Thinking primarily of what gardening can teach the I-want-it-all-and-I-want-it-now generation, my list consisted of things like Delayed Gratification, Working Toward Long-Term Goals, as well as the satisfaction and sense of empowerment gained in growing some of your own food. She had a list of one.
“The biggest lesson,” she said with conviction, “is that we’re not in control. We can work with Nature, do our best, and it can still get trashed when a big hailstorm comes, or a tornado, or a drought. It’s humbling.”
She’s right. My cold frame kit, flimsy at the start, was bound to collapse with less provocation than it had, but I could have worked harder, done better, and it still might have come apart. My failure was partly due to my own negligence, partly due to the inadequacies of the kit itself and partly due to the vagaries of Nature. But if things had been different, it could have worked. When you’ve managed to pick your own arugula for a roasted beet salad (and pulled your own beets too, but it’s way to early for that right now), the sense of accomplishment is incredibly buoying, which is what keeps me, and many many others gardening.
We persuade people to try growing their own vegetables and herbs – at least I do – by highlighting the potential positives and soft-pedaling the possible failures. It’s often the best way to inspire people to try something new.
But there’s a balance. You need to let people see your failures – and I’ve had plenty –to let them know that they, too, may experience failure, frustration, discouragement. It’s normal. And it builds emotional muscles, which come in very handy in life. But if new gardeners start small, don’t do stupid things like starting things way too early and putting them in the ground way too soon (as I often do, and as the commercial competition among garden centers has encouraged by selling tomato plants in the beginning of April for heaven’s sake! I mean, come ON! Our usual last frost date here in zone 6b-7 is mid-April and I’ve seen frost here on the Upper Eastern Shore as late as May.).
But the joys, despite flimsy cold frames, despite hale storms, rabbits, voracious bugs, blight and the other things that we might encounter, still don’t diminish the pleasure and satisfaction of growing our own food. In fact, it may increase it. Success without struggle doesn’t offer the same sense of accomplishment. When I grab a jar of homegrown, home-canned tomatoes off the pantry shelf, it’s with intimate knowledge of what went into the process from seed to jar. What I bring to the table for family and friends is not only the result of attention, care, and in some cases, luck, it’s an expression of love.