Two weeks after we moved to Vermont, I received a call from my dear friend, a born-and-raised Vermonter who was as excited about our relocation north as we were. Surprisingly, she wasn’t reaching out with tidings of warmth and welcome, wondering how my unpacking was progressing. She was calling with a warning.
“You need to start your garden. Memorial Day is coming. You must get your starters hardened off and in the ground, ASAP.”
Whoa. What was she talking about? Hardening off sounded like an activity for the bedroom, not the garden. And why the urgency? It was only just beginning to feel like spring. Then again, I wasn’t going 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 this 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 to start digging in the dirt 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? Besides, I was still waiting for my raised beds to be built and the compost to be delivered.
“Yeah, can I put that off a little longer?” I asked her.
“Nope.” Vermonters can be most persuasive.
We met at an organic nursery on a day that was Ross-esque—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 that I would never have dared in the metropolitan area: I unrolled the windows and left my babes 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 obvious but when you are as sleep-deprived as I was, the most basic advice is sage. I had, in fact, heard the same line from a neighbor, 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,” as host of a gardening show on public radio and author of 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. I was too much of a cliché: a city girl who wanted to start a garden but didn’t know manure.
Instead, I ordered Charlie’s book with aspirations to self-study. After it arrived, I had even highlighted his “most important rule”—grow what you like to eat—on page eight, but hadn’t gotten much further than that before mommy duty had called. Now, 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 two hundred dollars worth of transplants from the Volvo, set the kids free from their car seats, and grabbed my book to get a handle on this hardening off business—a simple concept, as it turns out. By giving plants a period to acclimate to sun, wind, and cooler temps for a period of seven to ten days in their pots, it ensures a smoother transition into the garden. This I could relate to. I myself needed some time to adjust to my new surroundings.
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 harden off the plants by setting them out on the front porch without my toddler bulldozing them. Success! I also harassed our nice handyman 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 neuroticism proved effective when a flatbed truck arrived a few days later carrying two sturdy frames and a mound of black gold, aka compost. (Buy the book.)
I’ll admit, I had painted quite the picture in my head of what gardening with my family would look like. It was a full-blown fantasy I had formed baselessly back in my cramped Brooklyn apartment as I gazed out over an asphalt playground. The dream looked like this: we’d be sitting in the grass with Zen placidity, my kids digging holes in the earth, quietly focused, delighted to help me. Then with a touch of reverence, they’d pour water over our seedlings, noticing the insects, butterflies, and bees bouncing among the blossoms that would in turn bear the harvest that would feed us …
The reality looked more like this: me crouching over the transplants, frazzled, trying to figure out what was what while my shovel-wielding tots left tomato plants decimated, marigolds decapitated, and a bag of cucumber seeds strewn everywhere but the raised beds. All within the span of thirty seconds. This wasn’t going to work.
Dangling the proverbial carrot, I told my kids they could watch any show they wanted and eat cheese puffs on the couch, so long as I could have thirty minutes to plant some vegetables. On went Go, Diego, Go! and off I went. I had to move quickly but I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Defaulting to panic mode, I got started by placing clumps of onion starters into the ground at breakneck speed. Then out of nowhere: “Hey, neighbor! Nice garden!”
“Charlie!” My voice was shrill with desperation. He was out walking 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 said, chuckling. 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 much 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 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, becoming a good gardener takes years of practice, a lot of patience and a little bit of luck weather-wise. Charlie still walks through with his dogs now and then, and I’m not shy about my questions du jour. I’ve got a lot still to learn but I am always happy 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.