(continued from “Growing Up in Gardens”)
So. I grew up in gardens, but I cannot claim to have become a gardener until my early thirties when for the first time I rented a small house from friends who were kind enough to let me experiment with digging holes in their back yard. I remember exactly what I planted: I did not yet know that flowers planted in straight lines look … odd. So I planted a bed of snapdragons in a straight line down the side of the house. And I planted tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and cucumbers, all of them crammed too closely together. Nevertheless, everything did beautifully until one day, I stepped out of my house to find the cucumber vines limp; the leaves had deflated like aging balloons. No manner of watering resuscitated them. They died just about as dead as dead can get.
It bothered me partly because I am obsessive. And also a little bit anal. But mostly it bothered me because being the daughter of a gardener who was the daughter of a gardener who was a daughter of a gardener, I actually believed that nonsense about chips off old blocks and “natural-born green thumbs.” I imagined my grandmother’s ghost gazing at those dead vines. Her black eyes flashed. She sucked her teeth, and tsk tsk’d. All the way from the Great Beyond, Grandma Juanita cut her eyes at me. I figured the only way to shut her ghost up would be to solve the riddle of the dead cukes.
Luckily, I mentioned the situation to a friend who had been gardening in the same region of the country for years.
“Oh, I know what happened,” said he. “You’ve got bacterial wilt. Have you seen any little yellow beetles with black spots on their backs?”
“Yes. I thought they were lady bugs.”
“No,” he laughed (kindly). That’s a Mexican Bean Beetle, and it carries a bacteria that kills cucurbits dead.” Cucurbits are plants in the melon and squash family. “What you need is a product called Sevin. You can buy it cheap at a farm supply store. And while you’re there, pick up a pesticide dust applicator. If you’re going to grow cucurbits in this part of the country, you are going to have to use a lot of Sevin.”
This was my first brush with how much I did not know about gardening. It was my first inkling that the women in my family had known a whole lotta things about nature that I didn’t. I recalled my grandmother’s mysteriously noxious “elixirs” that lurked on top of her refrigerator or on the back of the kitchen counter. My mother and her cousins always pulled faces when grandma took those mason jars down from the refrigerator. I just had to ask:
“Grandma, why do you put tobacco from your cigarette butts in that jar of brown water?”
“It’s for the garden, sugar.”
“Grandma, why do you shake that jar of egg whites and egg shell every time you add more egg shells to it?”
“That’s for the garden, baby.”
You see, I did not yet known that plants can catch the equivalent of the common cold, and the flu, or that they can die of the plant equivalent of athlete’s foot. I thought plants died because you forgot to water them. Apparently, my Grandmother knew, because she had a host of home made pest and disease remedies as well as tried-and-true fertilizer recipes. I can only surmise, these many years later, that these were part of her arsenal against disease-toting Mexican Bean Beetles.