Monday, October 11, 2010

Erin Knightley: Gardener Extraordinaire

For most of my life, I have felt as though I was born in the wrong era. I mean, how could it be that hats look so good on me if I wasn’t meant to live in a time where they were practically required?
My 'going away' outfit on our wedding day :)
I’ve always been one to shake my head at some of the new fangled ideas that are out there today, and all the little modern touches that make speaking to people face to face increasingly obsolete.
I look at our pre-packaged food and cluck my tongue disapprovingly. I wonder at the good old days when people harvested their own food in quaint little kitchen gardens filled with fragrant herbs and vegetables bursting with flavor. The disconnect between us and our food seems to have widened into a hopelessly wide canyon, so much so that many children have no idea what some foods in their natural forms even look like.
So, last January, I decided that I was going to break that cycle in my own life. I was going to plant a garden. And not just any garden—my garden was going to be the Shangri La of all gardens, the envy of the whole neighborhood. Of course, with my magnificent bounty, I could spread goodwill to my fellow man – a tomato and cucumber for all, I say!
*Cue Little House on the Prairie Music*
Giddy with excitement for the coming project, I sat down at the computer one cold winter night and began to plan. I wanted a completely natural and organic garden, just like my ancestors would have had. Over the next several weeks, I studied, and read, and poured over various websites. What to plant, when to plant, how to plant—absolutely everything I could want to know about gardening.
I would start with organic seeds. In a fit of gardening optimism, I scoured the racks of seed packets at Whole Foods, agonizing over the Japanese or English Cucumbers, Heirloom or Better Boy Tomatoes, even Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake pole beans. So many choices! But I must choose wisely: each packet was $2.50, and they were adding up quick. By the time I made my selection, my wallet was $50 lighter. I wasn’t daunted, however—just think how much I’ll save when I am eating all my own food all summer!
The idea was to have 6 raised beds, each one built of untreated wood rubbed with linseed oil, just as it was done in the old days. No nasty chemically-treated lumber for me, no sir. In between the sturdy beds, I wanted gravel pathways for easy walking and no worry of weed-eating around the precious vegetables.
It was, in a word, magnificent. See for yourself:
Isn’t it glorious? It is, isn’t it? Go ahead – admit it. You’re jealous. *brushing shoulders* Yep, maybe someday you will be like the inspired genius awesomeness that is Erin. Not now, but someday.
Every veggie I could ever want, abundantly planted so that I could can enough food for the whole winter, and even feed some of my envious neighbors (remember the tomatoes and cucumbers for all?). I could just see me strolling down the aisles, lovingly checking the progress of my darling plants, each one exploding with color and fragrance and inspiring a plethora of delicious, healthy meals.
So, come February, I started my seedlings. Tucked in their little starter disks, warm beneath the plastic dome top, I willed them to grow. Each day I watched and waited for the stems and leaves to spring forth from the dirt, and when they finally emerged, I heralded their coming like the birth of a long-awaited king.
For weeks, I gently watered them, nurturing them like the little miracles they were. “Good morning, my darlings. Ready for another day in the sunshine?” They’d smile at me—okay, so not really, but I imagined they did—and carry on about the business of growing strong and healthy for me.
Soon it was March, and we started to plan the making of the planter boxes. My babies needed a home – and soon! My husband was in charge of the actual building, so together we headed to Lowes, measurements in hand, to buy the lumber. After half an hour of looking at prices, I began to feel a little queasy. This wasn’t your granny’s garden—it was turning out to be the King of Sudan’s. Or perhaps Bill Gates’. All I knew was, ain’t no way we were going to drop that kind of dough.
So we sat down with the calculator and began to do a little number crunching. This would save us a whole summer’s worth of veggies, I argued. But not even five years worth of veggies cost this much, Kirk countered. We hemmed, we hawed, we both negotiated and haggled, and in the end, well let’s just say I had to adjust my expectations.

A lot.

A whole lot.


Gone were the carrots and onions and sage.
No more room for my beans or all the planned greens on my page.
The oregano was out, as were the snap peas,
And not one piece of gravel to keep out the weeds.
The visions of salsa and spaghetti sauces aplenty
Soon vanished like smoke as we downed the ante
Gathering our load of precious few lumber
We headed for home, our moods rather somber

Alright, so, I was bummed. I tried to rally when Kirk built the one beautiful, perfectly-made, infinitely lonely raised bed. It would be okay. I could still raise a few lovely things, and just think how many cucumbers a single plant produced! Not to mention the three tomato plants we had. Yes, we had a reduced variety, but we should be swimming in the veggies we still had.
Or so I thought.
Turns out … not so much. Apparently, no matter how much you will something to be a productive member of your garden, it has the final say. And I am here to tell you, they didn’t say much.
Within a month, we had our very first harvest. It was a very exciting day in my household, as you can imagine. After four months of planning, nurturing the babies every day, building them a (very expensive) home, planting them with love, tending to them once, sometimes even twice a day, we finally reaped the rewards.

Are you ready?

Excited yet?


Ahem. Yeah, my husband wasn’t too impressed either. But I knew it was only the beginning. My fantastically genius plans may have been down-sized, but the fruits of our labor would be plentiful, I was sure.
Soon, we had our first hint of tomato:
Next came a baby jalapeno:
Little did we know, that would be our ONLY jalapeno. Sigh.
But at least the tomatoes were on their way. We had the little jellybean tomatoes, plus a better bush and an heirloom plant. The jellybean tomatoes came first. We watched, rapt, as every day they got a liiitle bit bigger. We waited, with baited breath, when they got their first hint of color. Soon, the little fruits were yellow, then a bright orange, then, well, still orange.
Turns out my packet of red and yellow jellybean tomatoes actually meant red or yellow. Who knew?
Kirk was disappointed—apparently he thinks anything but red tomatoes just isn't right—but we still had 2 more tomato plants. So we waited and waited and waited until one day, we got a little cluster of heirlooms. Hooray! Every day I checked their progress, waiting for the moment they could be harvested. Alas, it stayed stubbornly, mockingly green. Just a little longer, I knew, and it would have to ripen. FINALLY, almost three months after we planted the seedlings, we saw the first blush of red. The red slowly started pushing out the green. Almost there. We waited….

And waited…

And waited… until one day…

And they didn’t even eat the whole thing – each tomato was eaten about a third of the way before they tossed it aside like so much rabble and went on to the next. Oh, the carnage! Red, gnawed flesh, littering the un-graveled ground, mocking all of the hard work I had done over the past 6 months just to get to the is point. *shaking fist to the heavens* DARN YOU SQUIRRELS!!
The worst of it was, that was it. The heirloom plant never gave us a single other tomato. While the jellybean tomato plant continued to cough up a handful of its yellow fruits a day, the better bush mocked us utterly, giving up one single fruit … while we were on vacation. At least my neighbor sent us a picture…
Sigh. Of the three cucumber plants we planted, we harvested a total of 5 or 6 decent cucumbers … and one dreadfully rotten one. Just this week, almost 9 months after we started the project, we also started getting a handful of tiny, underdeveloped green peppers. Yay.
So, was the garden a success? Ha-yal no. Did I enjoy it? In the beginning—back when I still had hope—yes. We’re not going to speak on the time after the tomato massacre. Will I do it again next year? You bet I will ;) Hope springs eternal, after all. Guess I better ask for that canning stuff for Christmas, ‘cause I have a feeling next year is going to be a bumper crop!
Books on Gardening: $45
Organic Seeds and potting soil: $85
Lumber and supplies for special raised beds: $150
The realization that I was born in exactly the right era: Priceless

Have you ever given gardening a try? Did it work for you? Are you glad to be a modern girl, or do you wish you were born in a different era?

For todays recipe, I thought I would provide a super simple, garden fave – one of the only meals to actually come from my garden… sort of :)
Caprese Salad!
Sliced tomatoes
Sliced Mozzarella
Basil leaves
Balsamic Vinegar
Olive Oil
In a small saucepan, heat balsamic over medium low heat. Simmer until reduced to desired thickness, set aside to cool (Keep in mind that it continues to thicken as it cools). Stack the basil and tomato atop the mozzarella, drizzle with balsamic reduction and a bit of olive oil. Enjoy!


  1. At our old house, yes I had a garden. My husband nixed the garden at the new house having put too much labor of adding soil and having built the sucker (2 4x2 by 1 4 x2) with rebar inserts to hold it in place.

    Filled with more soil, grass clippings, and fertilizer than our yard ever saw. What I planted:

    Green Peppers
    snap peas
    Spring Onions
    Yellow Squash

    Okra was my big grower.

    I miss it sometimes but enjoy the roses I've replaced my need to grow something. Although I still want an herb garden....haven't figured that out yet.

  2. I do not garden, but as you know my husband does. I do, however, participate in the whole canning, freezing and making of sauces.

    I'm with you on the hats. I adore them and when winter comes or even cold weather I find myself shoving knitted caps on my head.

    Great job and I thought your garden was very nice indeed!

  3. Part of the reason for putting my townhouse on the market has to do with having plenty of room to start my own garden. The other--bigger--reason has to do with safety concerns for the 10-month old. Anyway, every time I walk through the veggie section, a little voice in my head says, "These things are so overpriced. Come on, Marcia, you can grow your own vegetables, too. Just do it."

    Um...I can hit you for pointers when I'm ready, right? :-)

  4. You know, Beth, I never thought to grow okra. Maybe I'll give that a shot next year. If you have to give up your veggie garden, I'd say roses are a rather lovely consolation prize :)

  5. Marquita, you guys have the magic touch with that salsa of yours! My husband mused aloud last time if we could buy it by the gallon :)
    We'll have to have an outing with our hats this winter, lol!

  6. Marcia, I have that saaame little voice in my head, lol. You can certainly ask me for gardening advice, but after reading this, are you sure you want to? ;) Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I think I'm most saddened by the jalapeƱos. I was really looking forward to tasting fresh off the plant kick.

    Next year :)

  8. Sadly, Ginny, that lone jalapeno had very little kick at all! I *will* figure out what went wrong before next year! Then we'll have you over for jalapeno burgers :)

  9. Erin ~ You are hilarious!! I can so see you doing each of those things.

    I think I was born in the wrong era, AND the wrong class too. I need someone else to do my gardening, and my cooking, and my cleaning, and dress me and my hair. *sigh* But here I am in 2010. ;)

  10. Lol, thanks Lydia :) I can clearly see you as a lady of the manor in 19th century England - with servants and noblemen aplenty ;) Thank goodness for the books we can live vicariously through!

  11. This was too funny. I have gardens all over the place - veggie, herb, and flowers for each season. I've sometimes dried my own herbs for the winter. The one thing I don't do is start from seed. Like Lydia, I think I was born in the wrong century and I have a sneaking suspicion that if we had come from the same era, I would have been her gardener :). Love being in the sun and my hands in the dirt.

  12. HAHAHA! This post made me laugh so hard...why oh why can't the outcome ever meet our expectations?? Cucumbers were definitely our biggest grower...we called them the bullies of our garden because they try and take up ALL the space. We've gotten some nice Brandywine tomatoes, but the Mortgage Busters were a bust. Also we have some cute little yellow peppers, they don't get very big, but they are good. The funny thing is, the best crop I've ever gotten was after I bought some tomatoes from the farmers market, squeezed all the gelatinous seeds out on the dirt, barely covered them and boom -- 3 of the strongest, most productive tomato plants I've ever seen. No cajoling, no working my fingers to the bone. So I guess the point is that gardening is alot like life -- you never know what you're going to get (forget that box of chocolates!) I applaud your effort and I join in your hope -- next year will be better!

  13. P.s. I am so envious of your hat-wearing ability...I've never found ONE that I look cute in:(

  14. Ha - Amy, Lydia's gonna get a kick out of that scenario! I'm glad you have managed success in the garden ... now if only some of it would wear off on me :)

  15. Kara, I can't believe your tiny little garden was more productive than mine! Well, good for you (grumble, grumble). Next year, it is *on*!

    Of course, maybe next year you will have a whole yard to plant :)

  16. Hey there :) I've just discovered your blog, it's delightful! It's so awesome that you write full time :)

    I've always had a vague fantasy of plonking seeds in the ground, going inside to check my email, and coming out ten minutes later to find a fully matured, flowering salad-and-pasta-sauce tree. It'll be awesome. xD

  17. Welcome, Das, I'm so glad you found me :) You know, I rather like your fantasy. If it ever works out for you, I do believe you could make your millions, lol! Thanks for stopping by, I hope to see you again next week :)

  18. My mother bought me a garden stone a couple of years back that, when I read it, made me laugh very hard for it's sheer truth in my life.

    It said:

    "I tried, but it died."

    Pretty much sums up my gardening abilities :)

  19. Oh, Erin! I just got sick to my stomach when I read about the squirrels. All that work!

    I used to grow herbs and tomatoes, but I haven't had the time in the last few years. I love to go to the farmer's market for fresh veggies, and toward the end of the season, I buy 1/2 priced herb plants and grow them in my kitchen window. Unfortunately, I still haven't mastered the rosemary bush. It's too cold in the winter even indoors, but maybe if I'd spring for a grow light...

    Good luck with your garden next year. :)

  20. Ahahaha! Heather - I think I need one of those stones too! Although, I think mine should say "I keep trying, it keeps dying" lol ;)

  21. Samantha, I too have discovered the joy of growing veggies vicariously through the farmers at the market, lol! They always have such better luck! Funny about the rosemary - my neighbor has an enormous bush of it that they have to hack at with a machete to keep from taking over their yard! I guess rosemary is a southerner at heart ;)
    Thanks for dropping by! Next year, squirrel proofing will go into the plans...

  22. Well at least you had a gardening adventure. My parents have fruit trees in Florida. When you were talking about waiting for the ripening of the tomatoes, I was SHOCKED the squirrels hadn't reached them. My dad sighs every time he loses a mango to those rascals.

  23. SC, I'll be interested to hear if you dad ever came up with an anti-squirrel solution. The best tip I could find online was just to plant enough for both of you, lol! As if I would feed the little buggers on purpose *scoff*
    Thanks for dropping by :)

  24. Funny post, reminds me of our garden last year, which I planted in the shade beside the shed and responded in turn by producing the world's smallest vegetables. "Step right up folks, view the world's tiniest green pepper!"

  25. Erin, I loved reading your gardening adventure. I have tried container gardening several times and had some modest success, but I'm not always very good with plants--all that feeding and watering stuff--it's why I never had kids. LOL

  26. Andy, I think our peppers may have given yours a run for their money, lol. I still have no idea what we were doing wrong - at least I thought far enough ahead to plant them in the sun!

  27. Ha! Donna, that's hilarious. Kids and plants, such bothersome creatures ;) I'm glad you enjoyed the story; thanks for stopping by!