Gardening: Survival of the fittest

It’s that time of year when I look at my vegetable garden and wonder how it all got away from me.

Every summer, I fall into the same cycle: initial anticipation that turns to endless watering and weeding,  giving way to despair and, ultimately, a sense of failure.

I never learn.

It’s not that I don’t know how to properly plant and maintain a garden. It’s that, in the heady month of May, I lose all sense of reality. I imagine that I can keep up with a bigger garden than I can. And, seeing a vast expanse of unplanted soil, I scoff at recommended plant spacings. I mean, how much can these little butternut squash seedlings really spread?

Seriously, I never learn.

It seems doable, at first. For a few weeks, I brag. “My lettuce is up,” I tell strangers, as though I invented germination. And in those early days when the plants are small, it’s easy to keep the weeds at bay. Each crop stays in its own neighborhood, and I can still stroll down the rows.

“I don’t know why I got so frustrated with the garden last year,” I tell myself in June, admiring my carefully labeled stakes, the orderly rows of ankle-high corn and the tidy tomato plants. “This year is looking good.”

That undeserved self-satisfaction often lasts right through late July.

But then it all hits — heat waves, rain (too much or too little), bugs, and, worst of all, rampant growth of everything, everywhere — and suddenly I am overwhelmed and defeated.

This year’s garden had its standard disappointments: The birds ate all my blueberries; something chewed my corn cobs right on the stalks; my green beans repeatedly overpowered the six-foot bamboo teepee I had made for them, flipping it over like drunken fans do to Toyotas after a Super Bowl.

And what the garden lacked this year in striped cucumber beetles, it made up for in tomato hornworms. (I’ll wait here while you shudder uncontrollably.)

If you aren’t familiar with these creatures, think of the main character in “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” only horror-movie sized. They’re so big that if you ran over one with a car you’d feel a bump.

I can hardly bear to look at them, much less touch their plump, finger-sized green bodies. So, upon finding seven of them enjoying a leisurely all-day buffet on my tomato plants, I put on gloves and brought out a set of barbecue tongs for plucking.

Unfortunately, hornworms’ many pairs of legs stick tightly to the plants, and the sensation of pulling hard and feeling them stretch and stretch until they finally let go made me gag. So I took scissors and snipped off the entire plant just below each hornworm.

But because I put in enough tomato plants to supply a Chef Boyardee plant, I still got a decent crop. And other parts of the garden did fine, too. Despite numerous topples, the green beans are producing heavily. I’ve also got plenty of basil, potatoes and pumpkins. And if you need kale, I’ll be harvesting about a bushel a week for the next two months.

Now we’ve reached the part of the summer where the things that did grow, grew too well, including the weeds. The pumpkins and the cantaloupes — which looked so cute in 2-inch pots this spring but are now choking out the rest of the garden and some of the lawn — have cut off all inbound travel routes. I’m going to need to rent a crane and have Mark lower me into the Roma tomato patch.

Overall, my garden is a disaster — not because it hasn’t grown, but because it’s grown too much. And no matter how much I actually end up harvesting, an exponentially larger amount will have gone eaten by pests, ruined by weather or left on the vine — either because I’m too lazy to pick any more or because I can’t penetrate the wall of foliage to get to it.

This past weekend, frowning at the sprawling, undefined tangle of plants and weeds, I made a decision.

“Next year,” I told myself, “I’m scaling way back. Three tomato plants, some basil, and  just one kale plant. That’s it.”

It was a bold statement. In fact, it was the same bold statement I’ve made every September for the past 12 years.

I’m a terrible gardener. But damn, I’m consistent.