Gardening is Not for Control Freaks


Susie ErdeyIt’s early September, and the summer harvest is nearly over here at Fallengutter Farm. (Yes, our home is called “Fallengutter.” I’ll explain later.*) There are still a few ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes on the vine. The hot Hungarian peppers are reddening up nicely. And the volunteer collards are still going strong — amazing, since they’re holdovers from last year — so we’ll have plenty to cook down and freeze before the frost nips them too hard. I’ve ripped the bolted lettuce out of the raised beds — well, what was left after Luci (one of our two Alaskan malamute rescue dogs) got behind the fence and helped herself, emerging with her white face dusted yellow with pollen.

This year’s garden has been an education in “managing expectations.” Mine, mostly. Our daily schedules are quite full, as I commute daily into Manhattan by train for my job, and my spouse is an Episcopal priest serving a local congregation. But I resolved that this would be the year when our 22-by-40 foot organic, critter-proofed, designed-on-permaculture-principles, seriously over-engineered garden enclosure would come together beautifully. (Our neighbors call it “the Garden Gulag.” They’re kidding. Or, we think they are.) I had to watch from the porch for the last two summers because of a serious illness, surgeries, and an exhausting schedule of treatments and follow-up appointments. This year I’m healthy.

Fallengutter Garden

We spent January and February poring over catalogs from Baker Creek, Johnny’s, and Territorial Seed. We ordered ‘Mister Stripey’ and ‘Paul Robeson’ tomato plants for mid-May delivery. We sketched out this year’s planting plan on graph paper, taking care to rotate vegetables to different beds. We counted the days until we might start putting our tender seedlings on the porch to harden off.

Our first indication that this year might be challenging was the poor sap output from the maple trees in this part of the lower Hudson Valley. We tapped our lone maple for the first time two years ago, just for fun, and could scarcely keep up with the flow. We emptied the sap pail into 5-gallon buckets and buried them in snow piles until I could spend my Saturdays boiling down sap into syrup. But the winter of 2015-2016 was warmer, with little snow, and we barely got a bucketful.

Then came an unusually warm late March, and the forsythia, magnolias, and flowering crabapples gave in to irrational exuberance and bloomed — and got totally destroyed when early April brought snow and three consecutive nights of temperatures plummeting into the low teens. We hoped the fruit trees would be resilient enough to overcome the shock, but neither our apples nor our neighbors’ pear trees put out any fruit to speak of this year. (Our apple trees also developed cedar-apple rust, and although we applied copper spray, the results were disappointing.)

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