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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Gardening in today’s climate

Start of gardening season.

Start of gardening season. Credit: Michael Dobie

The beets are in the ground.

So are the lettuce, spinach, peas, kale and Swiss chard.

And the cycle renews.

The seeds were planted over the last week or so. But it’s not like that’s the end of it. The work continues. Such is a gardener’s life.

As the trowel scratched the soil, I thought of the moment in the musical “Hamilton” when George Washington tells Alexander, his headstrong aide, that dying is easy, living is harder.

Both, in truth, have degrees of difficulty. But for a gardener, the corollary is: Planting is easy, nurturing is harder.

Because nurturing takes time. It takes attention. You can’t just yank a row of eggplant out of the ground because they aren’t coming up right. You’ve got to figure out what’s going wrong and do something about it.

Patience is always harder than impetuousness. It doesn’t feel as good, or bring results as quickly, but the results that you do get are going to last.

You also need knowledge. Which comes from curiosity and experience and the desire to seek it out. So when you see the brown spots on the bean leaves or those huge zucchini leaves starting to wilt, you study up. You find out what’s causing the problem, and how to treat it. Sometimes you seek advice from someone who knows more than you. And you come to understand that information and adaptation are better than ignorance and winging it.

Respect for balance and order is critical. One thing affects another, nothing exists in a vacuum. So you hatch a plan to keep away the squirrels that are chomping on your tomatoes, without deterring the Italian wall lizards that feast on insects.

It starts with the groundwork, literally. You turn the soil, add the manure and the compost and whatever else it needs, rake it smooth, and only when it’s ready do you entrust it with your seeds.

Usually, I have company. This year, it was the robin hopping around a few feet away and the mockingbird sitting overhead on a dogwood branch. I say “the robin” and “the mockingbird” like it’s the same two birds that come by every year, though I know it isn’t. I talked to them as I worked the soil, supplying both ends of both conversations, making up the story as we went along. It’s what we humans do. We create stories to fit circumstances. It’s mostly harmless. But some fiction isn’t.

After the seeds are in, gardening becomes an endless series of adjustments. You water, a little more or a little less as the weather demands. You sprinkle some bone meal. You weed and prune. Mostly, it’s tweaking as you try to get it right (except when composting, where I never ever truly get it quite right).

And you don’t get a garden right on day one, nor in a week or a month or even a hundred days. It doesn’t work that way. The work never ends.

The asparagus, a perennial, are an early reminder that it’s all worth it. This is their time of year, if you did your job right. And the spears indeed are starting to stand tall, thankful for the blanket of leaves you laid that offered shelter in the winter.

The spinach shoots are starting to poke through, too, little green slivers of hope in a warming world. It’s success, but it’s not a win. Gardening isn’t about winning or losing.

The truth is, we’re always cultivating, whether it’s vegetables or friendships or enthusiasm. You keep at it, or it withers.

There’s no getting around that responsibility. When you have a garden, you have to tend it. Because you have to care. That’s true whether the garden is a humble backyard plot or one that stretches from sea to shining sea.

I wish we had a gardener cultivating that one, too.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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