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Weekly Alibi The Sad Tale of a Failed Garden

By Christopher Johnson

MARCH 1, 1999:  Around this time last year, my vegetable garden was already well ahead of the Joneses'. By the end of February, I had tilled my garden's soil and planted seeds and cold weather seedlings--a calculated risk with the last possible frost some time in April. Luckily, my garden avoided an early freeze and by all accounts was on track to be my first and best veggie garden ever.

Fast forwarding to the end of last year's season, it was clear things had turned dramatically worse. My gardening rewards were limited exclusively to surplus hauled in by coworkers whose horn of plenty overflowed with oversized and overripe produce. The reason I welcomed this charity was simple: I grew two tomatoes the whole season.

Before speculation begins about the multiple ways to fail with a simple vegetable garden, allow me to explain my garden vita somewhat. I am blessed by my mother's superior gardening genes. I easily maintain a house stuffed with indoor plants. And in spite of being from the Midwest, I have become an adept native (low-water use) ornamental gardener.

My own garden harvest wasn't limited solely to those two meager tomatoes. In fact, the mixed handful of seeds I planted in February yielded an early crop of spinach, a few pea plants and several bunches of lettuce. The real and profound disappointment came from the seven or so enormous tomato plants I had raised by season's end--luscious, green and healthy, with names like Roma, Beefsteak and Big Boy. Yet the seemingly flourishing plants were barren of fruit. Why?

Pure guilt. Overwhelming guilt at wasting too much water on my dry desert vegetable garden. I remember vividly an incident which typified my failure to water the garden plants sufficiently to allow fruit to bear. One evening as I gave my little garden a cool evening shower, my roommate, while smoking, interjected, "There goes half the Rio Grande into your garden, bro."

Why This Year Will Be Different

Again I have set the stage for success just like last year by early rototilling. This year there will be no plants, though, only seeds--and fewer even of them. By the time you read this, I will have already planted a broader variety, including many historically successful strains of squash, corn and beans purchased from Native Seeds/Search. Advantages already weigh heavily on the side of victory.

To combat the looming weight of water waste, I purchased a porous soaker hose. I arranged the hose throughout my garden in long rows. I then dug dirt from between the rows, piling it on top of the hose itself. Next I mulched the low area between the rows, where mulch and I will squash weeds before they take root. Turning on the soaker hose for a few minutes reveals exactly where the source of water is and precisely where to plant hopeful seeds.

Now for the final weapon in the war against water guilt: an automatic timer rigged to water for one hour at 5 a.m. every morning. I feel like I've thought of everything, which probably means a visit this year from vicious squash bugs or unbashful tomato blight.

But wait! I have not vested my gardening interest solely in this second year veggie plot. If my garden becomes another live testament to failure, I still have additional laurels on which to rest comfortably. There are the honeysuckle vines which stayed green all winter and I expect will explode in spring, covering the cruel chain link fence between my neighbor and me. Or the two Chinese wisteria, that after two prior deaths (they were, sadly, planted in unsuitable locations), have survived more than a season flanking the gate to my back yard.

And finally there's simple math on my side. Even if I harvest a lowly six tomatoes in 1999, that's a 200 percent increase--and that's not bad.

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