Hastily made plans
rarely end as expected.
A Spring garden was in the ground. I was awaiting the days of May to depart and with it the last likelihood of frost to finish sowing beans and squash. Then the heavy rains of spring came rolling in. First a thick band moved in from the east and dropped nearly four inches overnight. I awoke on a Friday to find both sump pumps running continuously but still unable to keep up with the water rushing into the pits and into the basement, now four inches deep with water. Hastily, I brought the pond pump in and attached the emergency hoses together, running them out the basement window and out into the yard towards the storm sewers. Eventually, the basement pumped out, and the hydro static pressure seepage from the wall seams finally stopped. But the following Sunday warm gulf moisture arose into the upper Midwest and along a slow-moving frontal boundary, the familiar tail of heavy continuous rain stretched from Arkansas to the U.P.
For two days I watched the water run into the pits at an increasing rate until all three pumps were running nonstop, the water inches from spilling back onto the floor again.
For twenty years, my wife and I lived with my in-laws, in this house and yard that I have described in my gardening logs. My wife worked at, and more recently ran, the family business. We pay relatively little rent to help pay the utilities and heavy property taxes of Illinois, which were frozen at a lower rate than they otherwise would be because my in-laws are now seniors. My mother-in-law worked until 70 and only recently retired. This unconventional multi-generational arrangement was not without some strains, but it afforded us the ability to build a large water garden and ample gardening space. Our living areas included two bedrooms and half of the basement to do what we wished. For the first ten years, we enjoyed a separate living room in the basement.
Then developers fucked up the hydrology of the area, which is very flat, building a large subdivision west of our cul-de-sac. This subdivision included a retention pond with a fatal flaw: they build a raised jogging path around the pond. Every winter, when the snow thaws the runoff can be observed running across the jogging path into the pond. When it rains heavily in the spring the same thing happens. Even though the sub-soil of the area is very stony and has good drainage, it can only drain so much downwards before it is saturated. Deprived of the natural ability to move westwards, the hydrostatic pressure builds up, seeps from the wall joints and pours into the pits at a rate which the house was not designed for.
The remedy is expensive, disruptive and messy. The basement floor would have to be jack hammered around the perimeter, a new trench and a new pit would have to be dug and drainage tiles would have to be laid. This would be a $15,000-$20,000 endeavor.
All the houses on my cul-de-sac and in the area suffer from the same issues. No one has finished basements anymore. The most foolish had to pull out carpeting, furniture and drywall more than once before they too concluded that basement flooding would be a recurrent issue going forward. Ours was never finished. Even so our basement living room was trashed by water and we lost furniture, books and records before we decided to move what was left into my bedroom. We kept some storage down there, lifted off the floor upon wood blocks and upon wooden pallets and in plastic bins.
So when the spring rains came this year, it brought one flood too many. We have purchased a townhouse and are moving out by the end of July. It has no basement. Never again.
My in-laws are now in their 70s. We are in our mid-40s. A three-bedroom house on an acre affords a lot of privacy and outdoor activity, but we are all growing weary of the time and expense of maintaining such a property. And now the basement floods every other year.
It really has been too long a move in coming. Back in our thirties we just thought the market was priced unrealistically high and we stayed put. Our caution payed off and we avoided the bursting of the housing bubble and subsequent recession which put so many of our contemporaries underwater. Once the economy bounced back, I lost my job. Now we are back on firmer financial footing. But rather than having thirty years before retirement to pay towards a mortgage, I realistically only have twenty. I don't want to be in my seventies, still paying a mortgage.
My own parents are living in the house they bought while my sister was still growing up in. We are still going to be living close to both sets of parents who will finally both be empty nesters on large properties, so we will be able to help with floods and with blizzards and with what comes up. My sister and her husband and son live nearby as well.
So ends the large-scale gardening. My parents are thinking about downsizing within a few years. My mother says that this is the last year she will be gardening as well. Her joints just are not in a shape where she is enjoying it anymore. I am thirty years her junior and I feel the same way. Honestly, I have not felt the inclination to take care of a garden in many years and my increasing neglect has produced little but an abundance of weeds.
I am going to miss it though. The past few years, I have grown mostly sunflowers and cover crops and I will miss just wandering about amongst them in the evenings listening to the insects chirping and clicking. I will miss watching the dogs laze around off leash and I hope they take well to the new place. I have a lot more dog walking for exercise in my future. I am going to miss the water garden the most of all. I really hope that my in-laws will downsize within five years before they are both in their eighties so I guess that I will be able to come over on the weekends with the dogs still. By then the elder dog will probably have passed away and I will be nearing fifty.
In concluding my gardening experience in the Upper Midwest I feel that I should summarize some of the things I have learned which made my gardening a success (and a few things which did not).
- Any successful garden, no matter what size will require an investment of time. If you don't have the regular time to maintain the garden, it will get away from you.
- Always do research on the size and spacing requirements for your plants and follow these recommendations. Plants do not thrive when overcrowded. Don't get overly ambitious. Most important of all, leave room your your butt too. You are going to need to get up close and personal with the soil and if you don't have enough room to move YOU around in it, you will end up trampling your plants and pissing yourself off.
- The seeds you sow are never the only plants in the garden. There are no real shortcuts to manual weeding. Buy a good hoe. Once established, weed plants will be a constant struggle to remove. With some plants, grasses especially, there will be no avoiding getting down on your knees and pulling weeds out from the roots that are growing seemingly underneath something you are wanting to grow. Landscaping fabric and plastic is a lie. They will not stop weed seeds from penetrating it from the top down with their roots. Mulch is mistress that will never stop demanding more mulch and will give evil disease carrying vermin a place to overwinter. Don't make the mistakes I have made.
- Never sow or transplant warm weather crops until Memorial Day. Just don't. That warm late April weekend only exists to trick you. Content yourself by cultivating the soil and sowing sweet peas and spinach as soon as the soil can be worked. Brassicas and Beets and Carrots and other root vegetables a couple of weeks later, onion plants can be transplanted by mid April. Enjoy the cool weather and lack of mosquitoes and lack of weeds.
- When the warm weather finally does come, your weeding has only just begun. You can let up in October. Maybe. Go weed your peas and onions and spinach rows. Weed around your cabbages and Kales too. Sow bean seeds on the first hot day. After that storm that will roll through in a few days, they will pop up like gang busters along with weeds the like you have never seen before.
- Remember how plants need space? Those tomato and summer squash plants that you bought at a farmstand are going to need plenty of it for air circulation and room for growth. Invest in sturdy cages and make sure that you have enough room to walk easily between the cages. If you can't, they are too close together. If you fail to give them proper space, they will turn yellow and die from fungal diseases.
- If you let them cucurbits will take over your entire yard. You will need four summer squash plants. Two will die. The other two will thrive until they are sprawled into the next row over. Check the undersides of the leaves. You have hundreds of squash bug nymphs. Squish ‘em. Find the parents and squish ‘em too. Stinky blue guts. Soon your summer squash get powdery mildew. So will winter squash and melons. Skip the plants at the farmstand. Buy the fanciest most expensive disease resistant seeds you can find and direct sow at the same time as the beans instead. They will get powdery mildew a lot later in the season.
- Chicken wire is your second best friend after your dog. The dog's presence will keep groundhogs and rabbits and other large rodents from taking up residence. The chicken wire will keep the dog out of the garden. Build a fence. Save your back and grow pole beans and cucumbers and even winter squash and melons along the fence line. They like to climb and now you wont be stepping all over the vines.
- Your onions need water. Your onions need to be weeded. If you thin your onion plants to be a foot apart in June when you harvest your sweet peas, you will have green onions and sweet peas for the best stir fry you have ever tasted. Your onions need water. Your onions need to be weeded. Repeat until you have softball sized onions. Now you know the joy I know.
- The ideal window for picking sweet peas is roughly 12 hours.
- Tomato and Melons will always reach peak ripeness just a few days after a torrential summer storm. They are now waterlogged and splitting. You curse the Gods.
- If your sweet corn has been ransacked by birds, squirrels and raccoons, it is time to pick what they have left for you.
- If you have weeded and if you have watered and if your garden has been spared late cold spells, floods, droughts, too much heat, not enough heat, plagues of cucumber beetles, varmints, vermin, dogs and small children, by mid July you will have enough produce to give away to your neighbors, who will also have too much produce. When your kids return to school in August, you will still be giving it away at the same rates to your co-workers and at PTA meetings.
- Buy a rototiller. Buy a cultivating fork. Buy a better stirrup hoe. Buy an expensive Japanese gardening knife with a serrated blade. Attack the weeds.
- Grow sunflowers and buckwheat and hairy vetch in some of your garden. Make a messy spot full of things with lots of flowers for the good bees and bugs to feed upon. Make time to just watch them. Feel how time slows down while watching insects forage on a sunny June morning and in the evening when the cicadas and katydids start to sing in late August. Make a note of how at night how the common toads' songs in April sounds different from the chorus of crickets in September.
- If you are mindful of it, the garden will return to you an awareness of the passage of time through the seasons. Plants and insects have their story to tell. To observe the life going on in your garden from day-to-day is to deepen your bonds with the natural cycles of life and death and rebirth on this earth.
So that is it. Once the cool afternoons of autumn come, I will pull down all the fencing and dig up the fence posts. In the spring, I shall rototill one last time and throw down grass seed and the gardens will become lawn once more. I shall then sell the rototiller. If any future gardening is to be done, it will be on a patio in containers. And I will dedicate my recreational pursuits to walking the dogs and to my long-deferred aspiration of having an electronics laboratory to make weird sounding noise boxes.
I look forward to writing all about it.