Worm Castings and Cat Pee: Journal of a Newbie Gardener
Posted on May 17th, 2013
My one adult experience with gardening occurred about 8 years ago. We were living in an apartment complex a few miles away from where I went to college. Each unit had a small plot of dirt in front of it which most of our neighbors filled with cheery aster mums or hyacinth bulbs. For ours, I decided on a row of fun (and functional) pumpkin plants.
Unemployed and in need of a project, I nurtured the pumpkins from seed to plant with loving care. Eventually they flowered and, the very next morning, the complex’s maintenance crew came by and mowed them down with a weedwacker. We left the plot barren for the remainder of the time we lived there and never returned to the hobby.
Armed with enthusiasm and a plot of land of our own, we decided to give gardening a second shot this spring.
Week 1, day 1: We assess the property. The front yard is ideal in terms of sun but I can’t fathom crouching and weeding in full view of our suburban neighbors. The back yard area is almost entirely shaded by a giant Norway Maple, so we purchase two large whiskey barrel planters to place in the sunny spot next to the driveway. I begin to feel like a hip urban gardener.
Week 1, day 2: After much struggling, we bust open the (hermetically sealed) tumbling composter we started using last summer. The payload is much smaller than expected so we head to the local gardening place to get a few bags of store-bought compost. While examining the ingredients, I exclaim, “Worm casings? That’s so mean!” thinking it must be a term for dried worm corpses. Mr. Max hushes me and says, “No it’s ‘castings.’” I’m still puzzled so he clarifies, “It’s poop.” I’m relieved and amused. We get a few bags and fill up our barrels. Now we just need plants.
Week 2, day 4: We attend a beginner seed starting workshop at a nearby farmers market. The workshop is given by a friendly small-scale commercial farmer who looks like (a young) Dennis Wilson. He’s knowledgeable and friendly, but the presentation keeps getting hijacked by experienced hobby gardeners (“What do you think of [expert level technique] detailed in the latest issue of [fancy gardening magazine]?”). Just when my annoyance reaches its peak, farmer Wilson shuts down the hecklers with a chalkboard diagram of a plant emerging from the seed pod. I silently marvel at the notion that a living thing can be awoken with just water and warmth. We pick up some seeds and tiny kale and spinach plants at the market.
Week 2, day 5: It’s still early spring, so I purchase a few frost covers online to protect the plants in the event of a cold streak. I plant the kale in the barrels and drape the bird netting (for the squirrels) and the green frost covers (for the cold) around them. Our backyard now looks like a weather balloon testing ground. However, my plan pays off — the plants stay vibrant and green even after a few 20 degree nights.
Week 2, day 6: I have more kale plants than will fit in our large whiskey barrel and they’re getting unhappy in their little plastic seedling containers, so I stick the overflow in terracotta pots. It’s still a bit nippy at night, so I wrap the potted kale plants in a hastily-purchased third frost cover that looks an awful lot like a regular polyester sheet. I give up on getting a perfect seal, rationalizing that my behavior has become overprotective — like those parents who bundle their toddlers in 3 layers of junior North Face jackets for a trip to the corner bodega. When I check the plants in the morning, I see evidence of frost damage on the outer leaves.
I am a bad parent.
Week 3, day 1: A bird poops on the frost cover, and when I go to examine it I discover that our neighborhood stray cat has also been using it to mark her territory. I contemplate putting the cover in the washing machine but instead just hope for rain.
Week 3, day 4: The thyme seedlings I started are alive but look spindly and unhealthy. I google “seedlings look bad,” but I’m overwhelmed by the dearth of information. Too much (or little) sun, or water, or maybe the seeds were just duds… how do you know which it is?
Week 4, day 1: We stop by a roadside plant sale and I’m in awe at the perfect vegetable and herb starts. We buy a container of little onions, some strawberry plants, and a few decorative succulents. I overhear one of the seasoned young farmers tell a customer that tiny seeds have such a low success rate that she always starts “ridiculously way more” than she needs. I make peace with the high mortality rate of the thyme seedlings.
Week 5, day 2: The potted kale seems have recovered from my neglect and is thriving, as are the plants in the two whiskey barrels (more kale and spinach). I tell a friend that we are gardening and he mentions that his neighbor started a garden last year, but grew way too much kale. Mr. Max and I respond in unison: There’s no thing as too much kale.
Week 6, day 6: We have a spell of perfect, but dry, sunny weather. We water and weed with reckless abandon. The photos I take of our growing garden begin to replace my bad memories of guillotined pumpkins and neglected houseplants. I read Oranges, the John McPhee book about the history of citrus, and fall in love with the descriptions of 18th century citrus greenhouses. I find out that it’s possible to grow potted citrus trees indoors in the Northeast and I try to sell Mr. Max on the idea of a meyer lemon tree in our guest bedroom. He is reticent until I mention that the tree would provide a key source of vitamin C in an emergency situation. I know him too well.
Week 7, day 1: Most of the thyme seedlings have died off, but the ones that remain look like they might make it. The lilac blooms mostly mask the odor of the cat pee’d frost cover, which sits outside awaiting a hose-down. We rest for a moment on the back porch, looking out at our growing edible landscape, and I think, “This could be worth it.”