Joys of gardening: melon-box fences, cats, and immigrant pumpkins

As a new gardening devotee with little space, a limited variety of vegetables , and few gardening skills, I nonetheless am a zealot. Why? Because of the discoveries I continually make as I dig the soil and harvest its fruit.

I've discovered that a garden looks more like there's a hope of success if it's a fenced-in area, even when unplanted and rich in weeds. It gets more respect from the scoffers and more help from the idlers.

We've appropriated fencing that suits our needs perfectly - the vegetable-store melon boxes that come apart and fold flat for storing.

We don't bother with a gate, because we can step over the short fencing. But we put plenty of sturdy stakes into the ground to support not only the fencing but also our vines. Before installation, we coated the pointed end of each stake with asphalt roofing compound so it wouldn't rot in the ground. We carefully leveled the ground, and the fencing rests on secondhand 2-by-4s all around for a firm dry base. In the fall we easily take it all apart and store until spring.

Actually the box fencing is only on one long side and the two short ends of the garden. The north (back) side has a long wire trellis, where first the peas and then the tomatoes grow. It's set in about six inches from the 2-by-4 edging, giving a thrifty space in which to plant the peas early before doing much else in the garden.

Since our wire comes in five-foot rolls, and both peas and tomatoes stretch above that height, I've been raising the trellis to allow a 12-inch space at the bottom, filling the gap with branches of winter-dried brush for the vines to climb to the wire and to discourage the feline traffic under the trellis.

To make soft, one-inch-wide ties for the tomatoes (and fencetop vines), I cut up old synthetic-yarn socks. Using scissors, I spiral from the top down to the toe, avoiding wear-weakened spots. The ties are soft and stretchy, they won't rot, and they'll hold fast without a tight knot, so they can easily be untied and adjusted or reused.

For two years, at least one supersize tomato plant has been so prolific and hardy that I couldn't bear to let the frost part us. So I cut off several branches and planted them deeply in a large pot, along with the transplanted, pruned-back root. The plant sent out shoots that grew taller and taller on our cool sun porch.

Rather than pinch back the tips, I bent the soft vines to loop down where I could cover them with soil. They then sent out more roots and shoots. Yet after blossoming, no amount of coaxing would set any fruit. By spring the white flies had set up housekeeping.

However, last spring at planting time, I cut apart and pruned the individual rootings to make half a dozen plants for outside. As much as possible, I washed off the white flies and old potting soil. Then I hardened the rootings outside for a few warm days and finally put them along the trellis with the year's seedlings.

Last spring's long, cool, and sunless weather put the seedlings into almost permanent depression, but the super plants were soon bearing fruit and covering the trellis with their enthusiastic greenery.

Probably everyone who composts has had the same experience with the uninvited seedling - the sturdy, self-reliant intruder. This may be especially true if it comes up in a space where you've planted a slow starter and don't know what to look for.

I knew the bright, frisky seedlings popping up all over my freshly weeded seed beds weren't the beets, lettuce, or spinach that I had planted. They looked a little like squash, melon, or cucumber vines. Just the year before, I'd had lovely immigrant cantaloupes.

So I transplanted the intruders along the fencing and thinned them as they proliferated, draping them on the fencetop as they started to blossom and fruit. They turned out to be pumpkins, the offspring of the pumpkins our daughter had used for pies the previous year.

We had jack-o'-lanterns for each member of the family last Halloween, as well as pumpkin pie, bread, and soup.

How can you compare a delight such as that with idly opening a can of Del Monte's best?

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