Whodunit

by Sarah West

Perhaps you have an outdoor table, a place to sit amidst the symphony of your unfolding garden: peas move to beans, lettuce to kale, beets and turnips to tomatoes and peppers, peonies to lilies. Gorgeous meals will come from this, maybe a summer party among the flowers. If nothing else, you will have months of good food and respite in your own impeccable utopia.

Sitting there with your cup of tea, casually surveying the fruits of your hard labor—expectation floating through the air like pollen—you might (oh, you will!) see a hole, a tattered leaf, something ratty looking, suspect.

Curious, you set your cup down (it will be cold before you return) to inspect. Who would dare? Why did they come now? Where have they gone? You look closer and find more. Something has eaten the lettuce you planted two days ago! The tomato leaves are speckled with dead spots. The cabbage starts have been transformed into skeletons. The beet leaves look like they have been torched.

Since you and your garden are under attack, you turn up your defense: a trip to the garden store begets a bottle of this, a dumping of that. You watch the plants more carefully now, squishing, trapping, spraying all the horrid things that seek only to destroy. And they outsmart you still.

All is not lost.

My first vegetable garden felt like an apocalyptic wasteland—it seemed the whole universe wanted to annihilate my precious plants when I had naively hoped that something with the will to grow would only get encouragement from the world around it. Magically, I expected, they would transform from small to big to delicious food, with me smiling down on them. I was completely unprepared for the realities of an ecosystem.

Not much has changed, really. Slugs still leave holes in the tender young leaves of my vegetables and flowers. Aphid patches bloom into infestations. Leaf miners tunnel their destructive trails through the leaves of my Swiss chard and beets. Mysterious insects I have never seen before appear all the time, inhabiting my garden at their will. And despite all this, I still enjoy year round vegetables from just outside my door.

When I go looking now, it is not on the defense. These things are part of the dance: some percentage of my harvest will go to other creatures, some years are worse than others, some tactics work. Mostly, the garden does grow without my help. And most of the insects that travel through do no harm. I sit back and enjoy it, despite its imperfections. When a glaring imbalance occurs, I put on my detective’s cap. Nothing beats a good mystery.

Each impasse is a clue, holding within it the explanation of why it occurred and how it can be curtailed. Each year, each garden will teach you more. And lettuce still tastes like lettuce, even with holes.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, June 14, 2012)

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