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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 11, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

By my calculations, on 14 March the daylight hours are the same as on 30 September. The noon sun is as high above the southern horizon. The sunrise and sunset are at about the same time of day.

And on 30 September, I was still barbecuing salmon in my back yard and driving around with all the car windows open.

I am ready for spring, and the blossoms on the trees are telling me that I'm not the only one.

Of course, the trees also blossomed during that freak warm spell back in November.

It's nice they had a couple of good springs in them for this year. I hope this second one is the real thing.

Spring is that season when a middle-aged man's thoughts are turned to gardening.

Now, if you're a serious gardener, the kind who uses a tilling machine to chew up a half acre of red clay and plants eighteen different crops, timed so they come ripe at convenient intervals, then I have nothing to tell you about planting a garden.

Real crops require serious amounts of land -- and work.

When I was a teenager and the gardening bug bit me, I planted a single long row of corn in the back yard. Nobody told me that you have to bunch up the corn so that the tassels of all the plants can pollinate each other.

So I ended up with lovely ears of corn that were about one-third populated with kernels.

Like a theater with a lot of empty seats. Not a pretty sight.

The thing is, gardening is fun. Makes you feel connected with the soil. Plus the backache you get after bending over to pull up weeds gives you the illusion of having exercised.

So for you amateur gardeners who want to have some success with a small garden, without earning a Ph.D. in agronomy to do it, here's some advice born of bitter experience.

1. Our garden is small -- two four-by-eight planting boxes, plus a couple of big pots with raspberry bushes in them.

The soil in our boxes and pots is not red piedmont clay. I'm not even interested in trying to garden in dirt that can be used to make freeway overpasses if you pack it down hard enough. I think anyone who grows anything in that red clay should be given medals.

The dirt we use came out of bags. It has fertilizer already in it. It works, and I'm lazy.

2. If your garden is a small one, don't plant melons or cucumbers. Yes, they grow profusely. But they spread over the whole area, covering everything with big shady leaves, which kills all your other plants. They also suck all the nutrients out of the soil so you have to fertilize about every twenty minutes all summer.

Each plant produces exactly one melon or cuke. I know it's not supposed to be that way, but I'm talking about my garden.

Insects and small animals wait until five a.m. on the morning I was going to harvest that one fruit, and then they bore holes in it and eat it from the inside out.

That's a lot of work and fertilizer to feed a chipmunk and a bunch of ants.

3. Don't ever, ever plant mint. It grows very well in this climate. It grows in dirt. It grows on brick. It grows on glass. You can't kill it. Pull up one mint plant and you'll find it has roots connected with the cable TV system and the phone lines, and you just put the whole neighborhood out of service for a week.

4. Herbs are good. Fresh Market always sells plants for a kitchen garden, as do the local nurseries, and I've had great success with basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage. A single basil plant supplies all our needs for a summer. Ditto with the others.

We use a lot of these herbs, but they produce so bountifully we can even dry them and use them through the winter.

5. Cilantro is an herb, but forget it. I don't know how they ever grow this plant in Mexico, but the first hot day makes it get all spindly and within two weeks it's dead. Fortunately I'm the only one in my family that likes cilantro. The others all think it tastes like soap. So nobody misses it but me.

6. Tomato plants always thrive in our climate, if you watch them closely. They put out lots of blossoms and then lots of green tomatoes get started. It looks easy. You get complacent.

Then the weirdness begins. For instance, just as they're about to get ripe, we'll have three days of heavy rain. The tomato plants, being as dumb as ... well, as plants ... soak up so much moisture that the tomato skins split and the tomatoes are ugly and usually get eaten out by bugs.

Or we have a week of heavy humidity and suddenly the leaves start turning yellow. So if you're a novice, like me, you think, Ah, they need water.

No, they don't. They need heavy doses of anti-fungal chemicals, because those yellowing leaves are caused by mold. Treat them immediately and then every couple of weeks for the rest of the summer, because once this stuff starts growing on your tomatoes, it keeps coming back again and again.

And make sure you give the tomato branches plenty of support, because when they're heavy, they bow down to the ground where little animals can feast on them.

Also, for what it's worth, don't be deceived by the plants with tags that promise huge jumbo elephantine tomatoes. They deliver -- the tomatoes are huge. They're also misshapen and flavorless. Go for the more modest ones that actually have flavor.

7. Nothing is easier to grow than peppers. Cayenne, jalapeño, habanero, three colors of bell peppers, banana peppers -- they all thrive and we use them all summer.

Of course, the first three I listed are very hot, ranging from lethal to illegal. Habanero, especially. You can't really cook with habanero unless you remove the seeds. But to remove the seeds, you risk touching them.

And if you touch habanero seeds, wash your hands thoroughly. Then do it again. Then do it a third time, and you still need to wear gloves for the rest of the day, because if you touch your eyes when you have even a trace of that stuff on your fingers, you'll cry like a baby for the rest of the day.

I don't mean your eyes will water, the way they do with onions. I mean you will cry, because it hurts.

8. Don't ever, ever, ever total up all the money you spent on your garden and compare it to the cost of buying this stuff in the grocery store.

Why not? Because you'll feel like a chump, that's why.

And you shouldn't. Because no matter how hard they try -- and they do -- to get really good quality produce in the stores, it simply takes too long to get things from the farm to the bins at the supermarket.

All summer long, when I want to make salsa, I can get peppers and tomatoes and herbs out of my own garden. You can taste the difference.

My mozzarella caprese salads have fresh basil leaves that I picked three minutes before.

There's no store that sells that. You have to grow it. Or live next door to somebody who does, and sneak over and raid their garden really early in the morning and try to leave little chipmunk footprints so they won't suspect you.


Next week: My wrapup of all the movies of 2001.

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