Organic Vegetable Garden

They say experience is the best teacher. My husband is not so convinced and recounts the year I ground up live caterpillars in the blender. Our lives were never the same. If I had to do it again (which is not an option at my house) there about are a zillion things I would do differently.

It all began when my heart turned toward the tender words of another man. Yes, ladies, I was young and pretty (hey, this is my story), and the "other man" in his 70's. But, one night, when I was alone at church, he spoke such words to me as I had been longing to hear, words my own husband had never uttered in our entire marriage: Pesticide-free vegetables are the only kind of food any decent, responsible, loving mother would put into the mouths of her precious babies. And you can grow them in your own back yard. And save lots of money.

My heart leapt. Why hadn't I thought of that? We had dirt, water, sun and desire - the only things he said anyone needed to grow rich, healthy food the way God had made it.

I came home and asked my Southern born-and-bred, ham-fat-in-the-beans, a little-bug-poison-never-hurt-me-husband to please (please, please, pleeeease) plow up the only sunny spot in our heavily wooded back yard.

He tried to talk me out of it, pointing out that we lived in close proximity to neighbors in a nice subdivision in the city. But, he had always resisted change, so I pressed on for the good of the family.

I showed him pictures of trendy urban gardens.

He thought lettuce in the window box was tacky.

I told him how healthy it would be to eat fresh vegetables every day.

He asked me if I would still cook them to death in bacon fat.

I told him I could save money on our rising food budget.

He became a willing victim.

I had to rely on an all-organic-gardening friend who lived down the street to hold my hand because that "other man" had left town as quickly as he had arrived, leaving me all alone with only the memory of his words. So, with my friend's enthusiastic promise of help, our "experience" began.

Bill spent most of the following weekend trying to get a borrowed tiller to work, and looked like he was on his last legs as he choked in a cloud of smoke as it sputtered and quit from row to row with a deafening roar. Dripping with sweat, shaking and deaf from the motor, and gasping for air, he stuck his head out from a grey-blue cloud of smoke and screamed at me at the top of his lungs, "REMIND ME, WOULD YOU?! I'M DOING THIS FOR MY HEALTH, RIGHT?!"

Do not shout the benefits of eating healthy vegetables while your husband is being asphyxiated by the fumes of a tiller. I tried again later to describe their merits, but my words were in vain; he was deaf from the noise and could not hear me. I comforted myself in the fact that he was still alive, and reasoned that everything else would have to be downhill. Alas, it was not to be.

When Bill was almost recuperated, we began soil preparation. My neighbor-friend immediately told me about organic fertilizer. "Take care of your soil and it will grow your vegetables for you," she said. But, all-natural, pesticide-free, organic fertilizer, as with everything else I wanted for this project, turned out to be expensive, and I was trying to feed a growing number of children on one income. I worried that we were at a dead-end until my friend told me that the Arabian Horse Farm down the road would offer the perfect solution. I don't know how I did it, but I talked my usually-rational husband into stopping there on the way home from the office one night to pick up a truckload of free horse manure. And I didn't allow our oldest, then seven, to talk his way out of shoveling and spreading it with me. To this day the phrase, "This will be a good experience for you," makes him shudder. We shoveled and spread for four hours.

My advice to others now is to pay for commercial fertilizer, no matter how much it costs. It is worth it. The flies were plague-like after two days. They took over the back yard and in 100-degree heat the manure took on an overwhelming rural stink. This is not so awful if one lives on say, a fifty‑acre horse farm. But in a subdivision it is embarrassing to see the neighbors breathing through a towel and swatting flies as they work in their yards. Commercial fertilizer will also cut down on unnecessary neighborhood tension, and is cheaper than meals out for a week.

When we could all breathe again, my still-enthusiastic friend said it was time to learn about companion-planting. Beans go with corn. Onions can go with carrots. Radishes with anything. Someone told Bill at the garden center, "Plant these radish seeds with everything else. They'll come up in just a few days, harvest before anything else, the children will be excited, and you will have all your rows 'marked.'" Bill got radishes. No one likes radishes at our house, but for thirty-nine cents the children would get to see their very own garden come up practically overnight. Think of their joy. When the rest of our garden had been reduced to a buggie-mega-bar for every gluttonous caterpillar, grasshopper and destroyer under the sun, we still had monstrous, grapefruit-sized, two-pound radishes that threatened the pine trees just outside the garden. Bugs don't like radishes, either. My oldest took this opportunity to point out that we should always be willing learn from nature, and said if it is blight-tolerant, it probably shouldn't be consumed by humans. I did not mention anything about this being a "good experience" this time, and finally pulled them out of the compost pile six months later when they wouldn't rot, either.

Speaking of compost, my neighbor-friend assured me that if we could not afford to build a compost bin (and Bill said he wasn't about to spend $30 to build a special place for left-over food to rot) we could just create a compost pile. I could simply place every piece of organic waste from my kitchen, like banana peels, orange rinds, coffee grounds and the like into a pile in the sun. My husband's response was, "We're throwing garbage in the yard?" The only people who seemed happy with this arrangement were the garbage men who had one less can to pick up each week from our now-non-stinking cans. The flies loved it too. They didn't have to hang around all day waiting for a dog or a child to knock the lids off the cans. We had given them equal-opportunity-access. You could almost hear their massive buzzing from inside the house. Of course, living in Florida, stuff begins to rot as soon as it leaves the air-conditioned kitchen and hits the 110-degree pile. My advice? One needs plenty of indoor activities for pre-schoolers so they do not view fly hoards as a natural occurrence. And do not keep a dog. A dog is not bright enough to understand this is compost. Our dog thought it was garbage. But, so did my husband. Along those lines, I think our neighbor thought this as well. I caught him eyeing our colorful and all-natural pile of orange peels and coffee grounds just off the fence line one night and commented to my husband that he might actually be jealous of our rugged, earthy lifestyle. Bill said he was calculating litigation costs.

When we found caterpillars in my all-organic garden, Bill threatened to poison them, but my all-organic-neighbor-friend shouted, "NO, NO, don't spray them! Poison costs money and you will only end up feeding it to your children! The best inexpensive bug repellent is to just grind the caterpillars up, add a little water and garlic, and filter and spray them back onto the leaves." I studied her face to see if she was serious. She was not only earnest, she seemed morosely enthusiastic. But I did not want any horrid chemicals to touch my beans.

So, I did it.

In retrospect, I should have collected the caterpillars in a gardening bucket, and when my neighbor was at work. Dropping them straight from bean leaves into blender jar while the children howled sadistically with glee was too much. I had been thinking, "Free, natural repellent." I shudder to think what was going through my neighbor's mind from her permanent post at their window.

Once we collected a half-blender of caterpillars, grinding them up was the next difficult step. I made one of the kids do it. I tried to explain to them deep concepts of respect for God's creation, and why we don't destroy living creatures unless we absolutely have to. But, they couldn't assimilate any of it, because each was hopping up and down begging to please be picked to be the one to get to hit the grind button. And it was hard to get a word in between, "Cool, Mom!" and "Pleeeease let me smush 'em up!" and so on. I chose our oldest on the condition that he would not turn the blender on until I was safely outside again so I didn't have to witness it. (On a side note, if you are going to spray ground-up caterpillars onto your beans as a natural bug repellent, you should divide the grinding task equally among all of your children so that each has equal access, or you will hear about it for the rest of your life.)

And be sure to give specific instructions on the grinding procedure. I discovered that hearing a 7-year old boy turn the blender on and off in morbid mini-bursts to see what partially-ground caterpillars looked like was not acceptable to me. I should have resisted the temptation to scream into the kitchen from the back yard at the top of my lungs, "KILL THEM ALL AT ONCE, AND FOR PITY SAKE, STOP ENJOYING IT!" It only fueled the neighbors' already over-stimulated curiosity.

My friend must have realized I was beginning to lose faith, and began showing our children how to deftly pinch the heads off the caterpillars and toss them back into the garden. I later found out the children had told her that Daddy said Mommy was NEVER putting anything that is still alive into the blender again. I then had to listen to our three-year-old and two-year-old fighting and whining most of the day because one got to mutilate more caterpillars than the other. When I noticed our professional childless next-door-neighbor staring at our children as they fought over the caterpillar-mutilation-count as he practiced putts in his back yard, I dashed out the door and practiced the age-old parenting methods we were using at that time, shouting, "STOP THAT THIS MINUTE OR ELSE!!"

Once I finally GOT their attention, I tried again to get in some meaningful sharing time about why we can kill caterpillars, but shouldn't murder every worm, beetle, and ladybug we see. I should not have wasted my time. It was not a teachable moment; they did not care. My children loved this form of environmentally-friendly pest-control even more than pushing a grind button and they were having the time of their lives. My friend had told them that decapitated caterpillars put off an offensive odor that told other caterpillars "Danger! Don't' come here!" But, in reality, our caterpillar's smell-messages must have been crossed somehow in a way that said, "We're gone! More for you!" because we always had a new herd moving in.

My friend then told me that my corn looked sickly and would really love some fish emulsion poured on their scrawny little roots. I wanted to give them what they loved, so they would be happy and grow big ears for me. So, we went to the garden center for fish emulsion. Alas, what I needed was again too expensive, and I had to justify this garden to Bill on the grounds of saving us money. When I read on the label that fish emulsion was mostly ground-up fish heads, I had an idea. I called a local fish market and asked if they could spare some fish heads.

"Sure, lady. I even have extras if you want them. (Chuckle) Whole bin full, matter of fact."

I was there with four 5-gallon buckets and four children in tow within an hour.

"Are they free?" I asked as the man scooped the gooey, expressionless things into my buckets.

"Fish heads, free?" He looked up at me. "As many as you wanna' cart out a here." He then peered at the four hungry-looking children standing around me (it was nearly dinner time) as I said, "Wonderful! Just think, children! We bring empty buckets and this nice man fills them with free fish heads! Let's go!"

I can't begin to describe the smell of rotting fish inside the back of a station wagon in Florida heat, but let me say I drove all the way home with my head hanging out the window, and four children fighting for the remaining three windows. I thought the loser was going to pass out, but I wasn't going to share my air for love nor money. It didn't help matters that I rounded corners on nearly two wheels speeding home and spilled slimy fish heads all over the back of the car. We sold it shortly afterward at a loss.

I thought I could get away with grinding them up while Bill was at work (they were dead), and have all the evidence cleaned up before he got home. But, the human nose is weirdly adaptable, and I adjusted to the smell of stinking fish-heads after about four hours. Once the kitchen was clean, I smelled nothing. However, my husband, not having had the same adjustment period, walked in the door late that night exclaiming, "WHAT STINKS?!" Bill said he felt sorry when he saw a neighbor dash from his car with his suit jacket over his face, but I could not muster any compassion for him. At least he had had a break; I had been in it all day.

Up to this point, Bill had held up pretty well. This was probably due to the fact that he spent nine hours of each day in a non-organic office and did not have to wear cloth diapers over his nose if he left it for a moment. His only trial was in coming home to find out what new horrendous odor had percolated from our kitchen or back yard and permeated the neighborhood. He told me he once tracked our house by the smells coming through the air vents a block away.

My all-organic neighbor-friend, however, was undaunted in her counsel, and told me to be patient, that we were doing all the right things, and that we learn as we go and all that. Bill muttered that she lived just outside the death and rot zone we had created on our block, so nothing she said counted. He also said if we got to the place where we could fit all of the non-organic-gardening-type-friends we had left in the world on the head of a pin, and the one-and-only organic-gardening-type friend still around was this one (and she seemed like the kind that would eat tree bark) - and if she thought we were really cool - it was time to nuke the garden. I knew he was fading fast.

But my friend came over one day (after Bill left for work) with advice about talking to the plants and mulching the corn. I had already thought about talking to the plants, but had postponed their over-due rebuke when I noticed the neighbor spending more time peering at me from her window. But. my friend spoke sweetly to the corn and covered two of my wilting stalks with beautiful mounds of pine straw and leaves from an old leaf pile. In a moment they looked like a picture fresh out of a gardening magazine. So I spent another four hours carting mulch to the garden with our first-born while trying to broaden his understanding of what a "good experience" was.

But, three days after our mulching project the corn suffered major leaf devastation. Something must have been living in the mulch pile which now said, "A dream come true! They have carried us to the garden!" My friend and I poured through books and decided the problem had to be slugs. And the cure? The book said if we put saucers of beer in the garden before nightfall, the slugs would be attracted to it during the night (I guess for same reasons humans are), climb into the saucers and drown in the beer.

My greatest dilemma in this project was how many miles I, a homeschooling mother and Sunday School teacher, would have to drive to buy a six-pack of Budweiser where I wouldn't be recognized. My non-church-going, all-organic-gardening-neighbor-friend pitied me and donated a six-pack from her husband's stash, and I dashed quickly home with it in a brown paper bag stuffed under my shirt and feeling strangely guilty.

So there we were, Bill and I, in bathrobes and flashlights at midnight, walking up and down corn rows, anxiously awaiting our first drunk slug. Houses tend to be built rather close in subdivisions, and to see flashlights beaming around a neighbor's backyard late at night is not a good sign. We probably should have waved and smiled when the neighbors' lights went on. The more nonchalant we tried to act, the worse we looked. And the smell! An entire six-pack of beer poured into forty plates, saucers and plastic lids and left all night in a small yard when temperatures aren't dropping below 80 on a muggy summer night produces a strong stale-brewery smell which seeps through the windows at breakfast. Our children vowed to never touch anything that smelled that putrid, as I wondered aloud about how desperate someone would have to be to actually swallow anything that repulsive. It was the only thing I cashed in on in the entire garden.

By the time harvest arrived, two neighbors had moved and any delusions about saving money had wilted with the corn. We grew about sixty 3-inch ears of corn, four small bowls of green beans, eight tablespoons of limas, and tons of holey lettuce. The children refused to eat anything that they had first-hand knowledge had been formerly covered in caterpillar poo-poo, which turned out to be the entire garden. These small offerings came from a garden about 1,000 feet square. And with deed restrictions that would not allow us to have a clothesline. (I am sure it never crossed the governing board's mind to rule out fish heads and horse manure, or all would have been saved.)

I thought Bill would absolutely veto a spring garden, and I was watching the classifieds for new homes (preferably in neighborhoods where my old neighbors had not just moved) when he shocked me with the news that we would indeed do this again. I later realized this was because vegetable seeds turned out to be much cheaper than resodding or closing costs. "But," he declared, "the spring garden is mine - bug poison and all." The children cheered, and I got a semi-commitment out of him to cut down on the ham and bacon. It was a deal.

Our family has since moved to the country (where we have organically gardened with a little more success), and where I am no longer so opposed to a little chemical help now and then. And even though our oldest still shudders when he hears it, experience has been a truly natural teacher.