Thank Goodness for Grocery Store Produce

 ChicagoSkylineThough I am now a suburban home owner, I lived in the city in apartments for decades. It was always a dream of mine to have a garden. During my last ten years in Chicago, I was determined to make this happen, if only indoors. Early one spring I did some research and found that strawberry plants are good candidates for indoor window sills or even hanging baskets.

We had a penthouse apartment with two complete walls of ceiling to floor windows facing the east and south. There was plenty of sunshine and I was ready to go. I ran right out to the home improvement store and purchased a bunch of window boxes and the right mixture of dirt. I got on the computer and ordered some strawberry plants and some fun dwarf snapdragon seeds online.

I was thrilled when they arrived. I opened the packages and ran through the instructions with the same speed and enthusiasm I use on Christmas morning opening my favorite toy. Strawberry plants come packaged in big clumps held together with a rubber band. All the roots are mixed together at one end, and the leafy plants at the other. My first task was to fill a large metal mixing bowl with water, gently separate the roots of the strawberry plants, and place them in the bowl to soak for a couple of hours. While they soaked, I filled a couple of pots with dirt and planted the snapdragon seeds. Once watered, they were done.

After glancing anxiously at my watch every five minutes during the required soaking time, I went back to the strawberries. I carefully laid the roots deep and straight out, not bunched up. I eyeballed each plant’s crown, lovingly positioning it level with the dirt.

StrawberriesAfter about a week of sunshine, I could see a fuzz of green carpet in the snapdragon pots, and a couple of small white flowers in the strawberry bins. I was off and running toward a bumper crop.

It was all downhill from there. It was spring, and it was rainy. We didn’t have another sunny day for two weeks. While the snapdragons continued well, I began to notice a fuzz of green carpet in the strawberry bins too. It was mold. Plants that had begun to come to life began to wilt. The green leaves were atrophying with black curly edges. Within a month, all of the strawberries died. My only peace came from the bright, colorful snapdragons, now in full bloom.

I don’t give up easily. The next year I tried again. I added small rocks to the bottom of the strawberry bins to increase drainage. No success. The following year, I changed to cactus dirt to avoid root rot. No success. Every year for a decade I tried something new and failed. I did produce five strawberries in my best year. I savored sweet succulent success over several bowls of cereal.

When we moved to a house with a yard in Pittsburgh I was very excited. I knew my days of gardening strife were gone. The house is surrounded by huge spruce trees that rain a perfect bed of acidic soil. I bought strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, and even asparagus that first spring. I planted everywhere.  My neighbors and family were first in line to praise my gardening efforts. The local wildlife was second. 

They lined up from the chipmunk to the deer and all partook in a feast of fruit. One day I went out to survey my strawberry subdivision, and gasped. It looked like a scene from Groundhog Day. The chipmunks came up from below and pulled every single strawberry plant underground. I was looking at a series of neatly spaced holes. How can it be that a gal who makes a living writing ways to successfully navigate an apocalypse can’t outsmart a family of chipmunks?

I used a divide and conquer strategy with the blueberries. The ones that I could see outside my kitchen window seemed fine, but the ones to the left of the property seemed to be shrinking. Every day they looked shorter. I started to keep a close eye on them and one morning spotted a bunny having his morning munch. By that time there was only one bush left and he was more than half way through it.

I was panic stricken as I ran over the hill only find my worst fears had come true. TheBerryBunker raspberries and cranberries were almost gone too. All that remained was the asparagus and the half of the blueberry bushes that the bunny didn’t seem to see. After that first winter, the asparagus was gone too.

I knew then what I had to do. I marched back to the home improvement store and bought materials to build a bunker. This was war. After two years of construction, I built, assembled, and moved into position four nine by three foot raised beds. Last summer I carried over two tons of dirt from the store to the beds. I moved the only survivors, four blueberry bushes, into one of the beds. Though the plants survived, birds have eaten every blueberry for the past two years.

BerriesLast year I was able to place bird netting around my fruit bunker before the berries ripened. When I picked my first blueberries of the year, the smile was ear to ear as I enjoyed the blueberries on my cereal. My little wiener dog Theodore enjoyed some with breakfast too. He seems to like them. To me they taste sweet. Like victory.

It is spring again and it is war. I am preparing the soil and planting will begin once the evening frosts ebb. Follow along to see if the bunkers prevail or if the score is wildlife two, Les zero.

Les Denton

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