I’m a Humdinger: And How You Can Be One, Too, with the Help of a Child

Seeds, Weeds, and Not So Gentle Earth

Some years ago I admired a pussy willow bush at a friend’s house. You don’t see many hardy pussy willows, so I showed my respect.

“Let me give you a clipping and you can start a plant of your own,” she said. With that, she took out a pair of garden sheers and snipped off an eighteen-inch long stem.

“There’s no root,” I said. “How will I ever get it started?”

Back then my horticultural skills had not yet developed, but I knew you couldn’t put a stick in the ground and expect it to grow.

“Ah,” she said, “there’s a secret. You dig a hole about six inches deep. Then poke a hole in a potato and put the pussy willow stem in it, place it in the hole, and cover it with soil. The potato will nourish the cutting and you will have a beautiful pussy willow plant.”

I followed the instructions to the letter. Sure enough, the next summer I had a flourishing bush. But it wasn’t a pussy willow; it was a potato plant! Frankly, I prefer potatoes to pussy willows, so I wasn’t all that disappointed. I took the occasion as a sign that I might be better at tending vegetables than growing flowers.

But gardening was the farthest thing from my mind, when I stopped at my friend Edna’s house one bitterly cold day. Harry answered the door. At first, I thought she might be sick.

“Where’s Edna?” I asked right away.

“She’s gardening,” he said, rolling his eyes and pointing toward the family room.

Sure enough, there she was seated by the fireplace swaddled in her Snuggy blanket that she had ordered from the shopping channel last fall. She had a tea cup in one hand, a pencil behind her ear and, a lap full of colorful seed catalogs.

“Come in, Jean,” she called out. “I need some advice. I’m going to be growing my own veggies this year,” she announced excitedly. “No more green-picked tomatoes, withery beans, and melons that taste like cardboard.

I sighed and pulled up a chair. Like Edna I had “planted” my first garden by the fireside when the snow was knee deep. In the depth of winter, seed catalogs reek of hope; nothing says spring’s a-comin’ like Burpee’s description of a plump, red tomato.

Not wanting to dampen her enthusiasm on such a bleak day, I just listened. It’s futile trying to change the course of the confirmed and committed. All you can hope for is to lessen the pain that lay ahead. I remembered my son and daughter once telling me they were going to climb Mt. Everest—not all the way to the top, they said, just 17,000 feet to the base camp. I smiled faintly and replied, “Wear warm socks.” Any warning I might offer Edna would be trumped by the beginner’s “high,” a mental exhilaration that defies reason. So, I simply said, “Get help.”

I hated to tell her, but seed catalogs don’t describe the agony, only the ecstasy, the gardener will experience. There is little mention of bugs, plant diseases, weeds, poor soil, or drought that are part of the planter’s plight.

As Edna flipped pages and rattled on about the abundance soon to be reaped, my mind drifted back to the days when I was a young housewife preparing to turn my first spade of dirt for what I knew would be a bountiful harvest. Little did I know that Mother Nature was plotting against me. As I attempted to transform my backyard clay pit into a seedbed, local insects from miles around gathered on my farm for their version of Woodstock. That first summer a massive invasion of beetles turned my eggplant leaves into lace overnight while another variety descended on the green beans. The turtles did their bit, too. They enjoy perfectly formed, vine ripe vegetables as much as humans and will take just one bite from each low hanging tomato as though they were having a tasting party.

Edna interrupted my reverie. “How did you learn?” she asked.

“In a day before the Internet, I learned from the old-timers—the bib-overalled farmers—who hung out at the local feed store. I learned that potatoes go in the ground on St. Patrick’s Day and tomatoes plants not before May 8th, the last frost day in these parts. And, I learned that corn has a sex life.”

“No kiddin’?”

“You can’t plant just one row and expect the ears to develop. I got quite a laugh from the farmers at the feed store when I told them my single row of beautiful corn stalks produced no ears. I would need to plant several rows to ensure cross pollination, they said.

“What kind of garden implements do you suppose I’ll need?”

“Well, that first year I dug up the yard with an antique broad fork.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a digging tool with long fork-like prongs that’s guaranteed to jolt your frame, if not the hardpan. But the next year I sprang for a motorized tiller to churn up the soil. I think my husband was won over by the brochure showing a woman gently guiding the hundred-pound device with just one hand while balancing a youngster on her hip.”

“Oh, I think I definitely need one of those,” Edna said, as she made a note on the front of a catalog.

“You might want to consider a purple martin birdhouse, too,” I added. “They eat their weight in bugs every day, which amounts to thousands of insects, though my purple martins were a bit too territorial for us to form the partnership I’d hoped for.”

“What happened?”

“Well, one day I was walking along the rows, humming Peace in the Valley, and suckering the tomato plants—that’s when you pluck the stray offshoots to encourage a sturdier main stalk—when I was attacked by a squadron of purple martins that swooped down on me like Kamikaze pilots. I threw a few clumps of clay at them, which I suppose disqualifies me for membership in the Audubon Society. I later found out that violently swinging a towel over my head like a windmill frightened them away—strangely, it had the same effect on the mailman.”

“Why were the birds so upset?”

“Who knows? I had put up an expensive, two-story birdhouse with a great view from atop a thirty-foot pole and, heaven knows, they had a well-rounded diet of bugs.

“So when it came to gardening you were pretty much on your own?”

“Yep, you might say, in our family, I was a sole practitioner of the art. I could have stayed in the garden for three days and no one would have sought my whereabouts. Only at mealtime would someone yell from the backdoor, ‘What are we going to eat? There’s no food in the oven.’

“Then one day as I was hoeing the potatoes, a neighbor’s child wandered into the garden. We bonded immediately in the common task of getting our hands and clothes dirty. It’s surprising how many items a youngster can fetch, saving you a few steps here and there. He showed up every day, wanted no pay, and was willing to spend long hours on the job with only a break for an afternoon nap.”

“How sweet to have a little one working alongside you like that.”

“Well, he wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but he seemed to admire what I was doing, which helped my self-esteem while I was down on my hands and knees sweating, swearing, and pulling weeds—though I had to forgo the swearing part in the interest of the child.

“Listen, Edna,” I said, “we both know it’s unlikely Harry will be of much help, so my advice to you is to find a kid in the neighborhood.”

“That’s a good idea,” she said, making more notes across her seed catalog.

As I stood to leave, I became more introspective. “Gardening may seem like work to us, but to a youngster it’s pure joy and attitude is everything when it comes to backyard farming.”

Edna smiled confidently. I could see by the firmness of her jaw and the glint in her eye that her course was set. There was no turning back. I put on my coat and walked out into the snow.


P.S. (Post Summer): Well, Edna had a bountiful supply of zucchini that summer; the corn procreated happily, though the raccoons beat her to the harvest; but her purple martins kept the insects from ravaging the tomatoes. Best of all, three scouts in the neighborhood earned their gardening merit badge just by hanging out with Edna.

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