There was a new moon on Wednesday, so I poked some lettuce seeds into the ground in my mini garden. I follow the Old Farmers’ Almanac lunar calendar thinking. So far, it has served my gardening well.
It’s funny, it’s just occurred to me that the Old Farmers—whom I’ve always pictured as bearded old men in overalls—might actually have been women, also possibly old, also maybe in overalls, probably not bearded. So many of their methods are based on paganism and witchiness, so could be. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Anyway, the seeds I stuck in the ground are a mesclun mix. The picture on the seed package looks like the salad mix they sell at the farmers market for $10 a bag, so I’m looking forward to the possibility of my own mixed baby greens in April or May. If they’re like other lettuce seeds I’ve planted, however, they may show up next fall. Or never. I have four lovely volunteer Buttercrunch lettuce plants growing right now that were planted two summers ago. I’d long given up on them, but here they are.
You just never know in Joshua Tree. It snowed last week, it was 80 degrees yesterday, and more snow and/or high wind is forecast for tomorrow. You get what you get when it comes to gardening here; and the seeds just do what they want to do, on their own timeline.
In September, I planted two kinds of spinach as well as rainbow chard, kale, and arugula. They all did well over the the high desert winter, despite a couple of hard freezes, one of which burst my neighbor’s water pipes. I’ve had a steady supply of delicious organic greens all winter, which feels miraculous, really. The arugula just bolted, producing gorgeous foot-tall flowers that are themselves quite tasty.
I built “The DeLorean,” my 4x8 foot garden fortress—so named because of its side opening doors—in April of 2020. I’d finally come out of my presumptive Covid haze and it felt good to be outside in the fresh spring air. I was only able to do short bursts of work before reaching exhaustion, but it was enormously satisfying. I say “presumptive” Covid because I was one of thousands (maybe millions?) worldwide who got sick before there were tests available to officially diagnose us. Instead, I was diagnosed over the phone by a couple of healthcare professionals, which some people in my life at that time found hard to believe. After hearing three or so of my symptoms, my primary care doctor blurted out, “Whatever you do, don’t come in!” She was clearly freaked by the whole situation. Instead, she had an advice nurse call me back. (They closed that medical office a few days later and only did telephone appointments until just recently.) The advice nurse asked a bunch of questions then said, “Oh yeah, you have it. Just isolate and drink plenty of fluids. We’ll have a standing order for a chest X-ray at the hospital, so go there if you can’t breathe.” I said, “You know I live almost an hour away, right?” After a beat she said, “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point.”
Luckily, it didn’t get to that point.
Over the next few days, as I went in and out of fever delirium, I felt a strong urge to grow food. A lot of people felt the same urge, it seems. The bare shelves and toilet paper raids at the grocery store made people realize that shortages were a thing, maybe for the first time in their lives. Suddenly, there were daily stories on NPR about “victory gardens,” a strange reboot of an old idea, I thought. Was this a pandemic or a war? A guy I knew started making little vintage WWII style “Victory Garden” signs that you could hang on your garden gate. He sold out immediately. Other gardening supplies also sold out quickly, including seed. Luckily, I had a stash from Prairie Road Organic Seed left over from when I interviewed them in North Dakota, and another farmer friend sent seed from Iowa. It turned out for my little garden project, the most problematic shortage was that of hardware cloth. Home Depot, Tractor Supply, and the small hardware store in town were all picked clean.
Where I live, in the Mojave Desert, there are five kinds of rat (my favorite being the adorable kangaroo rat) two kinds of rabbit, and two kinds of squirrel. If you want to keep tender plants from being devoured by critters, you have to imprison them in hardware cloth. I’d always called this stuff chicken wire, but I soon learned the difference: chicken wire is a wider weave with a thinner wire. The holes are big enough for small rodents—but not chickens—to get through. Hardware cloth is the heavy gauge thicker stuff with holes usually ½ inch across. It’s a bitch to work with, and I had to work with a lot of it.
The first step was to dig down 6 inches and line the bottom of the hole with hardware cloth. This would prevent tunneling by the tenacious little antelope squirrels.
I’d ordered a 4x8 kit online that served as the base. My pal, Fox McBride, brought me some scrap lumber to use to reinforce the whole thing and to make the doors with. It looks like a kindergartener built it, but it does the trick.
The last real garden I’d had was when I was 20. I’d dug up a 10x30 area of mostly crabgrass parallel to the backyard clothesline of a house in Pacific Grove, California. It was a splendid garden, for a time. Then I noticed most of my veggies were damaged or disappearing. One day, as I was out weeding, a faint voice said, “It’s the slugs. They’re eating your carrot tops.” I looked around. No one was there. Did I really hear that? I went back to weeding. “You should lay down some rock salt along the edges,” the thin voice said again.
“Where are you?” I asked, looking around. “Over here,” said the voice. The house next door had a small screened-in back porch. I realized I’d never seen the occupant of that house, which turned out to be a tiny lady in her 90s. I walked over to talk to her through the screen, confessional style.
“I love your garden,” she said. “I look at it every day. I had a wonderful garden during the war. We called them victory gardens in those days. Every house had one.”
This was probably the first time I’d heard the expression victory garden. So when the term reemerged in 2020, it brought this lady to mind—in a Donna Reed dress and apron, out killing slugs with rock salt.
Two years later, I wonder how many who started gardening that first Covid spring have stuck with it? I know a few city dwellers who still have container gardens on their fire escapes. A friend in Upstate New York converted her land to a working menagerie with goats, chickens, rabbits and pigs and has a huge garden in summer. They’re now growing almost everything they eat. I have a feeling they are the exception, though. The people I know locally who built entire greenhouses at great expense gave up growing anything because it was just too much work. It really is not easy out here with the hot hot and cold cold. Even a compost pile takes care and thought and water. But perhaps, with the current European instability, we’ll once again see shortages. Let’s just pray that if these plots and greenhouses get called back into service, they don’t get rebranded as “End of The World” gardens.