It is as inevitable as war.
The days get longer and warmer. The glacier in the backyard recedes, revealing strata of litter and squirrel poop going back to Halloween. Something purple pokes out of the dead front lawn, and I want to grow something.
It started when I was a kid, probably because my roots are in Colorado’s best dirt. I come from generations of farmers, the last of which homesteaded Manzanola and Rocky Ford in Colorado’s Arkansas Valley. There, my forbearing German transplants grew first apples, then tomatoes, then melons and then old. I was shipped there from Denver on trains or buses each summer to ponder the horrific heat and toil in magical dirt that makes the area some of the best farmland in the country.
Here in the altitude so high Floridians can’t play basketball in it, I begin digging in the cold weed-filled dirt until my back screams for mercy. I spend until my wife screams for mercy. I plant and water and watch. I water too much. I water too little. I grow weeds like you have never seen in your life. Prize-winning weeds. Astounding, National Enquirer picture kinds of weeds.
It’s always started around March each year, just as the polar winds make skiing less pleasant, my attention would turn to the back of Boy’s Life or Mad magazine. An ad near the back page enlightened me that I could not only make huge sums of money selling seeds, but as a perk, I would get an entire crop of everything for myself for free.
I apologize now to my family and their friends, all the unsuspecting people in my neighborhood that looked at me each year with that “Oh, no. You again?” expression as I told them about the growing industry of mail-order seeds. I’m sorry for coercing them into buying seeds for endless varieties of things that really don’t even grow here under the best of conditions. And face it, the metro area has never once had the best of conditions for anything other than pestilence and plague. Maybe some rubbery radishes.
Aurora, Denver and the surrounding area is an unforgiving place. Violently cold. Violently hot. Violently dry. Violently windy. It’s just that each one of those awful things last usually but for a short time, giving people who live here the impression that it’s a pretty mild climate. Good craft beer and just the right strain of indica embellishes that illusion.
Still, each year, as the mile-high sunlight brightens, the mess in the backyard thaws and gale-force winds stir everything up, I plant my crop of seeds in paper bathroom Dixie cups or old egg cartons. I’d make solid plans on paper for a garden that would be a marvel of engineering and horticulture.
It would, however, be just a few short weeks later that the snow would improve in the mountains, and what few seeds that actually sprouted would wither from the lack of light or my short attention span. The three or four feet of dirt in a slender row I’d turned over in the backyard would be soon scoured flat again by winds from places even less forgiving than this one.
It would be April before the gardening fever would strike again. Armed with more money and fresh determination, I’d spend everything I had on exotic seedlings like “Hubbard Squash” and “Dill Weed.”
Mine was an odd and sheltered life in some ways. A new foray into the part mushy, part frozen, notorious Denver clay, left sticks flagged with seed-packet sails. They were grave markers for where I buried my allowance with optimism, shared only among the naive and the forgetful.
The final heavy snows along the Front Range give way suddenly to warm false-spring evenings and the season’s first outdoor social gatherings of neighborhood kids. There can be no gardening when there’s so much exploring out onto the plains by day and hide-and-go-seek at night.
Whatever Round II produced in the garden fell victim fast to Colorado’s weed season, truly unparalleled across the globe.
It was finally near Mother’s Day that Round III brought even more expensive gallon tomato plants, another round of green bean seeds to the unyielding clay in my parents’ backyard. I’d have an entire garden of perky little plants, I was sure of it.
And now, nearly half a century later, here I am, staring once again at the overwatered tomatoes and astonishing weeds in my backyard.
Try as I do, I am a lousy gardener. And I do try.
And if by some chance the rare Black Krim tomato sets on a scraggly bush or a zucchini graces the pile of fertilizer it sits in, the you-know-it’s-coming June hail will almost certainly finish off the unlucky fruit of my labor.
Sure, on the rare occasion, I score
On the rarest of occasion, I’ve had cucumbers and green beans survive the heat, the drought, the clay and the tornadoes, providing a magnificent feast for the squirrels or raccoons that patiently wait and laugh at me each day as I dig for something meaningful in an uproarious crop of weeds.
And during especially frustrating years, when a few hardy survivors in the garden taunt me with small eggplant or puny broccoli florets, a plague of aphids, slugs, earwigs and other chitinous creatures descend from a cruel parallel universe to render my pathetic harvest inedible.
I am an expert at producing an annual bumper crop of weariness, disappointment, tragedy and waste. Each year, as the sunlight grows yellow and squashes elsewhere grow orange, we shop for bargains in farmer markets where such curses don’t exist.
In a few short months, my wife, Melody, will take hampers of fallen leaves back to my botanical burial ground, shake her head and announce: “You’re done. This is a huge waste of time, money and water, and it’s an embarrassing mess.”
With children one must take great care to lead them forward with a tricky balance of critical analysis and nourishing encouragement. With lame gardeners, the whole world, even my own wife, feels free to lay it on the line.
But I know that over the next winter, her interest in a giant concrete pad will dwindle, and even her heart will soften along with the compacted clay mess from the winter’s disaster. This summer, I’m promising to weed more, water like a pro, hire an exorcist, camp out with a BB gun and be patient.
No one on this amazing planet is as optimistic as is the lousy gardener, except maybe the lousy dieter, which is another of my lousy talents.
So off to peruse the late-planting-season clearance bin at the garden shop with new strains of heirloom seed potatoes guaranteed to amaze my neighbors and end a mile-high famine should we have one, I’m outta here.