Two weeks after we moved to Vermont, I received a call from my friend, a native Vermonter who was as excited about our relocation north as we were. “You need to start your garden.” she warned me. “Memorial Day is coming. You need to get your starters hardened off.” Whoa. What was she talking about? Hardening off sounded like an activity for the bedroom, not the garden. But who was I to question her? Vermonters know their stuff when it comes to gardening. It’s intimidating, really. Especially for an urbanite whose experience with plants was limited to keeping her potted geraniums from frying on the balcony.
On occasion in the last year, I had called my friend from my apartment in Brooklyn asking her to convince me of all the ways our quality of life might improve if and when we moved to the country. It didn’t take much effort on her part to persuade me — really, I was begging for it, but now her demands weren’t very convenient. My husband was away on business and boxes from the move were still stacked in the foyer. Unpacking was proving a daunting task with my two kids under the age of four whirling about in our newly acquired square footage. Who had time to start a garden?
“But – but I’m still waiting for my raised beds to be built and the compost to be delivered. Can’t it wait a little longer?”
“Nope.” She insisted and I acquiesced. We met at an organic nursery on a day that would have brought Bob Ross to his easel— blue skies, happy clouds. Both my kids had fallen asleep on the bumpy drive over and for the first time I enjoyed one of the benefits to country parenting: I unrolled the windows and left them to snooze while I perused. But as I walked among the abundant stock of kale, beets and tomato seedlings, I felt more like Alice lost in Wonderland than a prospective buyer.
“What should I get?” I asked, as if I’d never heard of vegetables.
“Get what you like to eat.” This might seem like an obvious starting point but when you are as sleep-deprived as I was, matter-of-fact advice is sage. I had, in fact, heard it before from a neighbor of mine, Charlie Nardozzi. Charlie lives across the meadow from us and no sooner after meeting him did I learn from locals that Charlie is a Vermont celebrity, the state’s “organic gardening Guru”, who has a show on public radio and wrote the book “Vegetable Gardening for Dummies”. Could I be so lucky? I had everything to learn about gardening and my neighbor happened to be the authority on the subject. Still, I wasn’t about to hit up Charlie with my questions. Embarrassingly, I was too much of a cliché: a city girl who wanted to start a garden but didn’t know… err, manure.
Instead, I ordered Charlie’s book with aspirations to self-study. I had even highlighted his “most important rule” — grown what you like to eat — on page eight, but didn’t get much further than that before mommy duty called. Standing in the nursery, I asked my friend if she’d taken that tip from Charlie’s book. “Nope.” she said, raising an eyebrow. “It’s just common sense.”
Back home, I unloaded the Volvo of two hundred dollars worth of transplants, set the kids free from their car seats and grabbed my book to get a handle on this hardening off business. Turns out it's a simple concept. By giving plants a period to acclimate to sun, wind and the coolness of night, their transition to the garden will be much smoother. This I could relate to. I myself needed time to adjust to quotidian country life.
Over the next few days I managed to catch up on Charlie’s book, ignore the stack of moving boxes, keep my kids watered and fed and acclimate the plants without my toddler bulldozing them. I also harassed our nice handy man for the raised beds and compost, warning him that my expensive plants were going to die of overcrowding in their pots. I’m not sure that’s a thing but my neurotic attitude proved affective when a flat bed truck arrived shortly after carrying two sturdy frames and a mound of black gold, a.k.a compost (buy the book.)
Here’s what my fantasy of planting looked like: sitting meditatively in the grass, my kids would dig holes into the ground and delight in placing plants into their new home. We’d pour water from handmade vessels over seedlings, as butterflies landed on our noses and bees bounced among the blossoms. Yeah - no. Reality looked like this: thirty seconds of little hands grabbing and jabbing with shovels leaving tomato plants decimated, marigolds decapitated and a bag of cucumber seeds strewn everywhere but the raised beds. This wasn’t going to work.
Dangling the proverbial carrot, I told my kids they could watch any show they wanted and eat junk food on the couch, so long as I could have thirty minutes to myself. They were thrilled. On went “Go, Diego, Go!” and off I went. I had to move quickly but I didn’t know what I was doing. Defaulting to panic mode, I hastily placed clumps of onion starters into the first few holes. Then out of nowhere, “Hey neighbor! Nice garden!”
“Charlie!” my voice was shrill with desperation. He was out on a walk with his dogs. “Can you help me? I mean,” I laughed nervously “you are helping me!” His book was lying open on the grass, smeared with compost and a sprinkling of seeds.
“Well, I hope I didn’t say to plant the onions like that in the book.” he chuckled. With a steady hand he showed me how to tease the onion grass apart. “Each one of these will become an onion but they need a little room to grow.” All this common sense was beginning to make me feel like a dummy.
That first summer we had an unbelievable garden. Even my friend was envious. Charlie’s book had come in handy. Who knew that fish emulsion would be the key to gorgeous spinach and that tomato cages work great for eggplants? My kids might have been too young to do the planting but they did all of the picking and by the time October blew in, they had expertly pulled out the last of the root vegetables, snapped off the final leaves of kale and had eaten more veggies those few months than they had their entire lives.
The following year, I never used fish emulsion and truth be told, I didn’t once look at Charlie’s book. But we still had a grand time growing things and since then, my garden has more than doubled its original size. Thankfully, I’ve relaxed into my role as gardener and my kids have learned to tread more lightly, too. They’ve even taken to the task of watering, albeit with terrible aim.
When spring came ‘round again this year, I was determined to start everything from seed, which I'm happy to report cost me a grand total of fifty bucks. Of course, I've had to revisit "Vegetable Gardening for Dummies", which now lives on the shelf, dog-eared and dirty, with the rest of the books I finally unpacked.