Creating a vegetable garden is like starting a novel or building a pond or designing a house. You never know what it will demand of you or where it will take you. The prospect seems easy: a little hard work, some seeds, weeding, watering – nothing life-changing or dangerous. You don’t even have to leave home. You do have to care about vegetables, though – about how fresh they are and if they taste the way they should. This concern carries with it certain demands. Once you love something, you are no longer free to take it or leave it. A garden, in order to fulfill itself, needs care – your care. So, no long indolent trips to exotic spots during the growing season. An untended plot is a sad sight of neglect and failed promises. Far better to avoid the whole situation and go to the beach, stopping at the supermarket on the way home.  

I had flirted with vegetables during my years in upstate New York, but made no serious commitment except to a few tomatoes. When we moved to Martha’s Vineyard permanently, I decided I was ready. During the ten years we were seasonal residents, we had been regular customers of the Saturday morning West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. The vegetables were consistently fresh and beautiful – and expensive. For two months, for two people and a few guests, who cared? The weekly event was a pleasure; we loved the zinnias and sunflowers grouped in their quart-sized tin cans that multiplied as the summer wore on, until by September the market was a blaze of color. But all this seemed designed for the visitors: beautiful products created by Islanders to earn money in an Island way. We approved and were happy to participate, but when we became permanent residents, we thought with another part of the brain. It told us we needed plain, fresh vegetables at a reasonable price that did not come from Florida and California.

We picked out a likely spot within sight of the kitchen window and hired a tree service to cut down four or five trees. We bought topsoil, mixed it with lime and compost, and created ten beds. We put up a seven-foot fence made of nylon netting (sold by the name of Deer Fence), laid plastic pipe for water, and planted a lot of seeds. In April, I had bought some heirloom tomato seeds and started them under fluorescent lights on top of a heating pad in the basement. They germinated just fine and grew into healthy plants. In June, I transplanted them into one of the beds.

We solicited advice from anyone with vegetable experience and got an amazing assortment of suggestions. One experienced gardener friend recommended planting nothing but potatoes the first year. He said they fixed nitrogen in the soil. But who wanted 240 square feet of potatoes? We left the nitrogen-fixing to the plants and put in what we wanted to eat. We created one perennial bed for asparagus and rhubarb, not to be harvested for three years. Herbs and marigolds went in to discourage insects. While waiting for the vegetables, I read a lot of books on organic gardening, including How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back, by Ruth Stout (Cornerstone Library edition: Simon & Schuster, 1971, 160 pages). She advocates the use of mulch and compost instead of chemical fertilizers. Don’t expect too much the first year, was her advice. We tried to keep our expectations low, but secretly we believed in our soil, our seeds, and our high hopes.

The potatoes and lettuce and asparagus had sprouted and the English peas were making pods when we began to suspect something was wrong. The tomato plants were not living up to early promise. In fact, they seemed to be shrinking and turning yellow. The lettuce struggled up several inches then stopped. The rest of the seeds did the same or never came up at all. The tomatoes finally collapsed, thanks in part to the gorgeous tomato hornworms that stripped all the leaves within a few hours.

Then the deer came. We never actually saw any in the garden, but they left cloven-hoofed prints as they browsed through our sickly vegetables. A neighbor who went fishing at five every morning buttonholed my husband with an eyewitness report. “They’re always there,” he said cheerfully, “about five of them.” They simply leapt the fence, finally pushing it down to a more comfortable height. In the end, potatoes and peas were the only vegetables we ate.
After the shock and denial wore off, I started calling around to various pundits. First, I wanted to know why nothing grew. After much brow-scratching, commiseration, and Monday-morning quarterbacking, the answer seemed to be that the soil was not ready for plants, much less seeds. More time was needed for the soil to fix the available nitrogen for use by plants. Legumes and potatoes fix their own nitrogen and prepare the soil for other plants. It turned out that our friend was right about potatoes. We should have planted nothing but peas, potatoes, and beans (or clover) that first year.

By this time, the company that had provided our topsoil was overcome by remorse and whatever other feelings follow numerous telephone calls from a dissatisfied customer. They brought us bags of top-quality organic fertilizer and lime. Put it down, they urged, and let it work over the winter. So, we cleaned up the beds – I now thought of them as graves – spread fertilizer, lime, seaweed, compost, shredded leaves on top, and went inside to lick our wounds.

Last winter, I looked out the window and saw those ten snow-covered graves of my first seedlings. I couldn’t wait for spring. We put up a real deer fence anchored by sturdy wooden posts and a seven-foot gate. The beds were loaded with mulch, fertilizer, and seaweed. I planned to buy as many seedlings as I could and, once again, start my tomatoes under lights. We are an amazing species, I thought – not only adaptive but optimistic as well. I settled back with my seed catalogues to wait out the winter.

In early April, I bought peat pellets and planted tomato seeds, including some given me five years before by a friend in upstate New York who got them from an Italian neighbor. Of course, they won’t germinate, I thought, but I planted a few, along with some other vegetables, just to get a jump on our rather late growing season. The result was more seeded peat pots than fluorescent light space. Soon all my sunny windowsills and ledges were covered with trays.
Most of the seeds germinated, including the five-year-old pear tomatoes from Italy. No wonder Italy’s tomato sauce is one of its gifts to the world. By Memorial Day, I had snipped off the weaker seedlings and provided stakes for some of the more robust plants. I moved everything onto the deck to harden up. They loved it and didn’t even mind the unfiltered sunlight. I couldn’t wait to get them into those beds inside the new deer fence.

Meanwhile, we had turned over the soil, after removing a top layer of mulch (there was too much to dig through). I had sent away a soil sample for testing. Without waiting for the results, being eager to plant my seedlings, I added a small amount of fertilizer and lime to each bed. Most of the seedlings went into the same beds they had the year before, since I had not yet absorbed the idea of crop rotation. I thought of the first disastrous year as a wipeout. This year would become our first real year of vegetable gardening.

The soil was the same soil, of course.

After it was planted, our garden consisted of one bed of tomatoes, one of corn, two of potatoes – one had reseeded itself – and the others a mixture of peas, beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, radish, peppers, cabbage, eggplant, carrots, beets, and turnips. One perennial bed held asparagus and rhubarb, and another, raspberry canes. I inter-planted annual and perennial herbs and marigolds. Does that sound like too much for ten four-by-six beds? Well, it was. But it didn’t matter because many of the seeds did not germinate. The seedling plants did better until the cabbage worms and corn earworms hatched and the flea beetles ate up the broccoli.

At the end of Year Two, we counted our successes and failures. Tomatoes were a plus, even though there was bottom-end rot caused by lack of calcium. Also, I didn’t heed the advice of Karan Davis Cutler in Tantalizing Tomatoes (Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, 1971, 111 pages) to toss all my crushed eggshells on the plants. But no hornworms! We ate lots of beans and early peas. Three eggplant plants produced three eggplants – not a bumper crop, but something. Peppers and cucumbers were moderate producers, zucchini less so, but we ate lettuce for a long time, and harvested a lot of potatoes. We will see how well they keep in our cool basement. Crop rotation is definitely part of next year’s plan.

The corn grew tall enough and produced tassels, which soon developed black specks: the fasse, or excrement, of the earworm, I learned from The Practical Gardener’s Encyclopedia (Fog City Press, 2001, 320 pages) and obediently dropped in mineral oil. Later, small ears formed that did not grow beyond a few inches. When we cut into one, there was a large earworm; so much for the mineral oil. Our other failures were the root crops: lots of leaves but skinny roots. Too much nitrogen, say the experts, not enough potassium. Probably. The soil test had come back with the recommendation: “Do not lime the soil. Also, adequate nitrogen.” The super-organic fertilizer had produced gorgeous leaves but small fruit. The cabbage worms and flea beetles ate the broccoli and Brussels sprouts. I learned about BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), a natural pesticide, too late to save them. Next year I will skip the corn: too complicated. And who can do it better than Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown? I plan to spread all my available compost on the beds and use little fertilizer to encourage more fruit and fewer leaves.

Not too bad for Year Two. I learned a lot, such as the use of collars to head off the cabbage worms. Insecticidal soap works pretty well on flea beetles if you catch them early. Timing is everything. Marigolds and herbs keep away aphids and other undesirables. Next year, we will rotate the crops and definitely plant less. We can look forward to harvesting our first asparagus in their third year, as well as rhubarb.

Finally, we would not have come close to filling our vegetable needs if it were not for Whippoorwill Farm in West Tisbury, where we bought half a share for $300. This gets you enough vegetables to feed a family of two from June to November. You also get flowers. Yes, we hedged our bets. Perhaps in a year or two we will be self-reliant, but next summer we are looking forward again to collecting fresh vegetables every Thursday at the farm to supplement our own third-year garden.