Shh! Here's the secret to the easiest garden ever.
If you want a great vegetable garden but don't like the work, you need help.
"I wonder what you like best in your garden?" a visitor asked last month as we toured past the tomato vines, pea vines, bean plants, bell peppers, cornstalks, beet leaves, and carrot tops.
"Jane," I said. "I'm partial to Jane in my garden."
Jane popped up in my backyard seven years ago, my second spring in this house. We both seem to recall that she arrived via a listing at City Hall for someone seeking garden work. I needed weeding. She needed eating. Ah, synergy, if ever mutual interests could be served on beds of freshly hoed soil.
"I love everything about gardening," I told Jane when we met, "except the work. I don't like preparing the beds, don't like digging the holes for the plants, don't like hoeing furrows for the seeds, don't like thinning the sprouting seedlings, don't like dealing with dandelions and crabgrass, don't like staking the beefsteaks, and as much as I love eating grape tomatoes, that's how much I dislike tying them up and picking them."
"What part of gardening do you like?" Jane was looking at me with curiosity, perhaps even a fear of some subversive leanings I might have.
"I like showing it off," I answered. "Boasting and bragging. I like fresh tomatoes for my dinner salad and sometimes a big beefsteak and a wedge of cheese for lunch. I like to watch kids hunt through the plants for green beans, watch them pop open pea pods and marvel at the sweetness. I like giving stuff away to friends and family who crave fresh vegetables."
"OK," Jane said when she agreed to take care of things for me, "what do you want to grow in your garden?"
The first time we went to the nursery for plants and seeds, we developed a procedure that has served us well garden after garden. It's quite simple: I put plants into the cart, and Jane takes them out. Jane sees my garden plot as the finite space that it is in my backyard. I see it as, oh, say, an acre or two when we walk into the greenhouses, and oh, say, eight or 10 acres by the time we get to the vegetable plants.
This year we decided against broccoli, having had disappointing results with it last season. And we've learned over many plantings of bell peppers that fewer plants given more space between will be better producers than more plants crowded together.
An observation of my own is that Jane really knows her stuff. She knows the names of weeds and dislikes them all. She's not impressed when I quote Emerson's belief that "a weed is a plant whose virtue has not yet been discovered." She might admire Emerson, but she's not waiting around for breakthrough weed news.
Because of Jane, I have a rain gauge in my garden that guides me in watering needs. And I have an understanding of which plants are being eaten by which four-legged foragers. We're both opposed to antibug and anticritter chemicals and just plant extra to compensate. A guiding principle of my garden is that everyone gets fed.
Also because of Jane, I regularly step out onto the deck during the summer and find a basket filled with the day's harvest: sweet and firm grape tomatoes, beefsteaks, Romas. sugary shelling peas, green beans, yellow beans, beets, corn, carrots, and onions. A little later comes the bell pepper harvest. I like to leave them on the plants until they're partially or completely red, which gives me an opportunity to explain to visitors why green peppers are called that.
I've had many requests for Jane's services and have always said she's completely booked. To me, it's the same as guarding the recipe for Coca-Cola. See, I can live with chipmunks chomping on tomatoes and rabbits stuffing themselves with beans, but without Jane I'd go into my backyard every day and face a dozen barren acres. Maybe two dozen. Could be three – I'll have to ask her.