Joy of Gardening

Branka ValcicMy Journey6 Comments

When I was a little girl, I used to spend summers with my grandparents in a little cottage in the countryside of Croatia. The cottage, though nothing more than a room in which my sister, our grandparents and I slept toasty under down duvets for nights were chilly in the countryside, and a kitchen in the cellar, in which I sat watching my grandmother cook savory meals while earthly smell of wine barrels permeated its every corner, was a home away from home. The plumbing was in a form of an outhouse and a rainwater collector and it was an adventure in itself.

But the best part was the outdoors. From a large terrace and a small meadow just in front of the cottage to a large grassy field sloping down from it, adventure awaited on every corner. Scattered around the field were apple, pear, white plum, walnut and elderberry trees and red currant bushes. At the bottom of the field was a plum grove. In the fall, family and friends gathered to pick plums and make slivovitz. The big black barrel stood behind the cottage pouring its mysterious fumes over the secret circle of adults.

A little ways away from the plum grove my grandmother had a garden. Rich, dark brown soil nourished lettuce, carrots, peas, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, leek, onions, and strawberries. It was delicious! I loved helping grandma in the garden, pulling out tender grass blades to give our garden plants more breathing space and nourishment. The garden, together with eggs and dairy that grandma bought from a neighbor, provided much in the form of our sustenance.

Whether it is because of the childhood memory from grandma’s garden lodged deep in the recesses of my mind, or for some other reason, I have always wanted a garden of my own. But it never made the cut; my list of priorities was always too full. At first, there was the extended education. Then a full-time job in academia. Later, whatever little time I had in between being a mother and working full time, I spent on any of the other many things I love to do.

When I got off the hamster wheel six months ago, and my family and I moved to a little island in the Croatian Adriatic, having a garden became a possibility. Even before we rented our house, I made inquiries into the prospect of someone letting me use a piece of their land to have a garden. And then as a sign of providence, the only available house for rent came with plenty of gardening space around it. I could hardly contain my excitement. I was positively hopped-up with anticipation of this great gardening adventure lying ahead of me.

And then it turned out that gardening was still not my priority. After a glorious summer of living aboard a sailing boat, when September rolled around I wasn’t going to rush off to the island to get the garden planted. I needed more time on the boat! When I finally arrived to the island, while all the other gardens were already on their way to yielding succulent produce, I haven’t even got any seedlings. I had no tools and absolutely no idea what I was supposed to be doing.

Still, the childhood memory or whatever it was, this time seemed adamant not to finish in the gutter. So, with three weeks behind, I enlisted help from all who were willing, and as it turned out many were. The most helpful relative acquired seedlings for me, an astonishing feat in itself given that I was so late. He also gave me dry manure. And most importantly, he let me in on the secret of gardening – island style. Landlord lent me tools. A neighbor offered tips, her garden a sight of admiration by which I walked every day, spying on her plants to see what mine might some day look like; try as I might, I could not see how from the seedlings I got, I was supposed some day to harvest succulent broccoli, crispy cabbage, juicy kale, and bashful cauliflower. Still, I trusted that a miracle would occur.

And so it was that one early morning, I found myself finally digging in the garden. A hole after hole, seedlings went in the ground. Manure went around them. I had myself a garden, sort of pitifully looking, but still a garden. I was proud. I worked for several days until all the seedlings were in the ground.  I provided adequate nourishment to start them off in their new home. My son joined me often, enthusiastically digging quite large holes all over the garden. No matter, he was having fun and learning where food comes from. I was happy. I raked the soil between the rows of seedlings as the soil here gets notoriously hard and impossible to turn later on after being walked on for a bit. And by the time all this was done, my back was killing me and I had blisters all over my hands, but I could look out the window and see plants, no matter how pathetic-looking, that I have put into the ground.

“The lettuce is dead,” I told my garden-guru.

“Already? What happened?”

“Well, I re-planted the seedlings making sure I got their roots too. And I watered them. But they are just laying the there with no sign of ever getting up again,” I wailed.

“When did you re-plant them?”

“Yesterday.”

“Oh.”

“What? What?” I was nervous.

“Don’t worry,” he laughed, “just give them time. They’ll be fine.”

And sure enough, they did get better. And the rains finally started falling, which meant that I was off the hook – no more daily watering of the seedlings! I had no idea this gardening stuff is SO much work. I rejoiced in the rain, if only for a little while. Because with the rain, blissfully unbeknownst to me until then, my real woes began! I have but two words: weeds and snails.

For the most part, I let the weeds do their thing, which, of course, just exacerbated my snail problem, but, honestly, I could really only tackle one of my newly materialized afflictions. Soon, a war was raging in the garden. Branka versus a battalion after battalion of snails! They gorged. I despaired. They multiplied. I pulled my hair out. The plants have lost their leaves in the battle, looking more like some giant green fish skeletons than future nourishment for my family and me that they were supposed to be. Neighbors suggested pesticide. With a child who takes such delight in digging around the garden and a puppy who shares the idea with many people that snails are a first class delicacy? No way.

Online forums suggested various solutions, many of which I tried. I sprinkled the snails with salt at dusk. They sizzled, as promised, but then I was left with the gruesome job of getting them off the plants in their now oozing state. I scattered ash around the plants and re-applied after every rain. To no avail. The snails continued their decimation of my plants undeterred. In the end, I gave up on about half the garden and let the snails have their feast. The other half, I plowed every morning removing snails one by one and tossing them as far away as I could from the garden (mortal enemies or not, I had no heart to kill them after the salt fiasco). Slowly, the plants recovered. New, most beautiful, fresh out of the nature’s oven leaves came into life. I marveled. My garden! Well, half of it at least. The other half still positively belonged to the snails.

And then one day, I noticed a small broccoli head rising amidst the dark green, almost purple leaves. It looked like the most sacred and precious of flowers. What joy! I rushed home yelling,

“We have broccoli!!!”

My husband, son, and puppy looked at me quizzically. But they did go out and, with due excitement, inspected this brand new garden treasure. Especially the puppy, who could still find a few snails somewhere around my cherished broccoli plants.

Other gifts arrive from all sides. A neighbor gives me a couple of lemons off his tree; their deliciously fresh aroma fills the entire house. A relative offers us to harvest for ourselves his baby potatoes; red soil still hugs them when my husband and son bring them home. And then the gift of gifts – this year’s olive oil is ready for consumption! I can already taste steamed broccoli, hugged by baby potatoes, with gentle hints of fresh lemon, and a generous helping of the golden olive oil.

I think grandma would have liked this too.

6 Comments on “Joy of Gardening”

  1. Well done Branka – you are now initiated into the joy and heartache that is gardening.There really is nothing quite as rewarding as eating food you have grown yourself. When you taste the reward of all your hard work then the backache and dirty, broken fingernails seem but a distant memory. I ended up digging a pond in my garden and the toads now keep the snails and slugs at bay. A topped up pond is one of the few benefits of living in a wet climate – but maybe that won’t be an option for you in such a dry country. I look forward to reading more about your attempts to tame nature, which is essentially what gardening is all about.

    1. Thanks! Your pond sounds really neat. At some point I thought about the whole predator-prey balance, or an apparent lack of it in my garden, but no obvious solution for this climate springs to mind. I’ll have to ask around. I did see a snake skin in the garden once, and there are song birds, and lizards, so there natural predators around here, but it seems that there aren’t enough of them. Hmm… I need to learn more about this ecosystem 🙂

      1. my parents used to bury some small plastic cups around the vegetable pot (or cut half a small plastic bottle) and fill the bottom with beer. Apparently snails adore beer, go into the cup, and can’t come out again…. give it a try with Croatian beer…

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