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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Gardening — blunders, hard work, setbacks, rewards, joy, accomplishment

By Ginger Dawson
Special to NKyTribune

It seems that, in life, pursuits that are rewarding and give the greatest satisfaction are those things that are a challenge.

Hard work and setbacks are the norm. Everything I’ve ever done that has given me a sense of accomplishment has ALWAYS required some level of aggravating diligence, and usually on some protracted timeline that has, in some cases, caused me to question my sanity.

Why is this?  This business of living doesn’t have to be this hard, does it?

They survived me. And they look pretty good.

I have come to the conclusion that it does. This observation outlines, not only my life in general but also my relationship with gardening.

Now, dear reader, I do not want to run you off. Since it is in my best interest to lure you into the world of gardening, let me soft-peddle this obsession to you with this old, golden nugget — a favorite of teenager’s parents everywhere — “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

Now, I don’t buy that about parenthood. They are, after all, trapped. With at least thirteen years into it, it’s not like they can give them back, so I view this as more of an affirmation mantra. Whatever works.

Gardening is different. It really is. You could walk away any time. I’ve tried many times.

This is the time of year when the most rewarding challenges come in to play.  For many years now, I have experienced this critical point in the gardening season—its disappointments, and its victories.

This year, the seed-starting happened, the little germinated seedlings were shepherded to the grow lights and fed a dilute mix of fertilizer on a weekly basis. Everything done just right.

Rescued from death by exposure. Back in the embraces of the grow cart in my office. (Photos by Ginger Dawson)

A couple of weeks ago, the tomatoes plants were moved to bigger pots to accommodate their tiny little white roots which were poking their way out in search of bigger territory. Perfect.

The weather was prematurely warm then and, stupidly, I decided to move them OUTSIDE. I did, fortunately, move them into the garage at night, so they were not completely miserable. They did not look happy. The temperatures were hovering in the 50s. What is wrong with me?

Tomatoes should not endure temperatures under 65 degrees, particularly during their early growth.  I knew this. 

I came to my senses and brought the plants back into the house.  They were moved back to the grow lights and have seemed to recover. They actually look pretty good.  

Does tough love work with tomatoes? Who knows. That answer will come as the season goes on and I see how these plants grow and how they yield.  

Moving forward with the rest of the seed-starting, the peppers were ready to transition to larger pots and, true to form, I did the same damn thing. I moved them outside. The temperatures are warmer now, but I know how this looks.

Having courted disaster so recently, I have been watching my weather app and my house thermometers like a baby monitor in a premie ward. I am usually only stupid once per season, mercifully.

The peppers in bigger pots and tempting fate in the out-of-doors. I am not afraid, but they might be.

All told, things look pretty good.

When the time is right, generally the first of May (and I jumped the gun!), it will be time to condition the plants to the vicissitudes of life outside in the garden. This process is known as hardening off.

Over the years, I have had many different, sometimes horrific, results with this.

One year, around twenty years ago, I put the plants outside in a cold frame that I had contrived from some old windows. I left the lid down and merrily went to work. Naturally, they were roasted.  DOA.

I, at that time, decided that it was the cold frame that was to blame. I shouldn’t tell you this stuff.

I’ve scorched plants by leaving them in the sun too long the first day outside. The leaves will actually bleach white. I’ve done this a few times.  

The plants did recover from this abuse.  One can only surmise that if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have a been a repeat offender. But then, there was nothing else (like that cold frame) to blame it on, either.

One year, in between heavy business obligations, I actually didn’t harden off the plants at all. I just couldn’t seem to find the time, and then time ran out.

I went ahead and just planted them straight into the garden. This was one of my worst blunders.

In one day, every single plant looked as though it was gasping its last breath. They were all terrifically wilted. My entire tomato crop ruined. It was crushing.

Some more of the brave, the few.

But, amazingly, they recovered! I took this as a sign to repent. The threatened outcome and ultimate deliverance was so stressful, I finally fessed up and took the blame. There was simply nowhere else to go with it.

Hardening off plants makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Let me put it into terms that will make sense to you as a parent (if you are), or as a former teenager.

Suppose you are a rank, pale teenager dying to hit the beach. Any more than two hours in the bright sun is going to burn you. Plants are kind of like rank, pale teenagers, except they are more pleasant and they can’t talk back.  

Trading sides as a good parent, do not let them stay in the sun any longer than that. It is even better for them if it is not hot, or the sun is somewhat filtered.

The second and third days at the beach (in the sun) can be extended a little more, as there is a base tan to build on. 

By the fourth and fifth days, the plants are tan and ready to spend the whole day at the beach/garden.  

After this hardening off/weaning period, when the time is right, it’s time to throw them off the deep end and plant them in the garden. Sink/wilt or swim/thrive, You’ve done your job.

Fittingly, the last frost date which will enable you to plant outside is usually Mother’s Day!

“It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.” And people think I don’t have a streak of maternal instinct!  

I was, however, a first-rate teenager.


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it. See her new website at intrepidurbanfarmer.com

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