from the garden

I’m not much of a gardener, it seems.

Oh, there have been valiant efforts to learn. Sweeping purchases of every start that caught my eye. Bags of natural fertilizers. Morning after morning of dutiful checking and weeding, waiting for the first seedling to turn into a green thing poking its head above the dirt. I’ve grown herbs successfully.

But people, I can’t even seem to grow lettuce properly. It always seems to bolt and turn to bitter flowers within a few days.

I have plenty of friends who are tremendous gardeners. They have coaxed me and coached me and come over to the garden to show me what to do. I have drawn diagrams based on their advice and become even more dutiful in the days afterwards.

And still I kill plants.


All right, the past few summers may not have been conducive to gardening. There was the summer Lu was born, and in the ICU, and then a newborn at home. I let the zucchini grow as big as baseball bats and heard the hollow confirmation that they were no longer edible. Last summer we were preparing for our book tour, plus there was no real sun. Even all the experienced gardeners on Vashon who seem to know how to turn baby plants into gigantic jungles were having problems. So I tried again.

Now, granted, this summer, the island had a deer problem. It was a cold spring. Not much grew, except for the deer population. There had been an island-wide deer-hunting ban. Suddenly deer darted before every car at twilight. We watched them jump our six-foot fence with grace and alacrity. And they were hungry.  They ate our chard. Our peppers. Our tomatoes. These beings were hungry. They even ate the potato leaves, which are purported to be poisonous. Okay, I thought, I give up. They’re yours.

Because really, this summer, there’s wasn’t much of a chance anyway. We were away more than we were home. Good gardening, it seems to me, requires a slow life. Steady work. Daily attention. No big occasions. Just being there, every morning, to water and weed and watch the plants grow incrementally.

This summer — oh hell, the last three years — have been about big leaps and celebrations, hitting milestones and getting on one more airplane. I’m ready to slow down, to be here, to watch and wait more than I talk.

Now, of course, it’s fall. Not much gardening going on soon. Could I still plant kale? Maybe one plant. And give it all my attention, every morning. And grow it without expectations. Just to see what happens.

Because, in spite of the fact I’m really a rotten gardener, I had a little thrill yesterday. Lu and I went outside in the one two-hour patch of time it wasn’t raining. And we picked all the remaining tomatoes from the vines and pulled all the carrots from the ground.

She had no expectations. She didn’t know that carrots are not supposed to be that stubby. She was entirely excited. “Carrots, Mama! We grew carrots!”

Spurred on by her excitement, I grabbed her green metal shovel and began digging. I exclaimed when the first rose-colored potato popped up in the black earth.

“Potatoes, Lu! We grew potatoes!”

So, early Saturday evening, Lu and I sat down to dinner made almost entirely from our garden. The fact that it was the entire fall harvest of our garden didn’t bother her at all. She had roasted carrots with a lemon-tahini-cream cheese dip we made up on the spot. (She threw a few grapes into the food processor as it was going. And actually, she was right. That slight sweetness made it even better.) And together we enjoyed a few small slices of fried green tomatoes. Throw in some sunlight coming in the window and the paper dolls her grandmother made for her that morning? We shared a good meal.

Later that night, Danny cooked up a lobster (they were on sale at the grocery store, a once-a-year event) while I roasted the handfuls of potatoes I had found in the dirt that afternoon. We sat down at the coffee table, watching Saturday Night Live and dipping lobster into lemon butter while laughing.

“Wow, honey,” he told me. “These potatoes are fantastic.”

Maybe there’s hope for me as a gardener yet.

37 comments on “from the garden

  1. Nicola @41feasts

    Oh Shauna, this story really struck a chord with me – we’ve had similar experiences over the past few years. It can’t all be bad summers can it? Its hard to summon up enthusiasm to plant vegetables in my postage stamp garden when you can eat everything you produce in one sitting!

    On a positive note I moved some herbs to the front of the house where they’re growing great guns. Sage, rosemary, thyme & parsley anytime we like. Now, if only I could get coriander (cilantro) and basil to do the same!

  2. Robin

    It took me 20 years to go from flower gardening to veg gardening. I had the same frustrations and fears. It’s easier now and even though my fennel is small and stumpy, it’s more delicious because I grew it myself. And every year I get better and better. I’m sending you all of my best veg growing vibes.

  3. Cindy @ Wheatless Foodie

    Isn’t it satisfying to eat produce you’ve grown yourself? We’re enjoying those last few carrots, a little lettuce and have the tomatos ripening in the garage (you pull the plants and hang upside down [] in a frost-free place). Our little backyard garden produce less than I had hoped for, as well, but as you said, there wasn’t much sunshine this summer.

    This is a great time to prepare your garden beds for next year. Working some dry leaves with grass clippings or other nitrogen source into the soil enriches the soil for next year’s garden.

  4. aseafish

    Thank you so much for the smile this brought to my face. It’s been a rough day or two, and I seriously needed it. It evoked memories our now 19-year-old granddaughter, Felicity, as a toddler discovering sugar snap peas in our hit-and-miss garden and stuffing as many as she could in her little mouth.

  5. Tamar@StarvingofftheLand

    I think we need a support group.

    Gardening is a black box. There are so many ways to do it, and so many of them seem to work — mine excepted. Everyone’s got different conditions (soil, light, varmints), and I’m coming to the conclusion that the best you can do is add good things to your soil, make sure your garden gets enough water, and hope for the best. When something works, try it again next year (although there are no guarantees). When it doesn’t work, try something else.

    And, if your island has lifted the deer-hunting ban, venison would be your best revenge.

    1. shauna

      They lifted the ban this year, to be sure. There’s a big protected forest right in the middle of the island, and for the past three weeks they have been allowing deer hunting there. However, I’m not participating, so no venison for me. Also, I think the deer are smart enough to not go there. But it makes me feel better to know that you struggle with your garden too!

      1. Donna Vieira

        Shauna, so glad you’re enjoying the bounty of your work. Here’s what I know about deer chasing. Deer can jump high and run far, but not at the same time. . so place two parallel rows of 5′ high fencing (about 3-4 feet apart) surrounding your beds. The fence doesn’t have to be a solid structure, just turkey wire on poles in the ground, this should protect you from the pesky critters. Happy gardening! and btw, Happy All Hallow’s Eve!

  6. Jen Oliver

    So familiar. I gave up on tomato plants after two summers of failure. Ditto on zucchini after forgetting to harvest for a week and finding zukes the length of my forearm and twice as big around. We grow only herbs and peppers now and have been richly rewarded. It’s such fun to make “Scarborough Fair” roast chicken with fresh kitchen-garden herbs.

  7. Ki

    You know what you can still plant and require very little work over the course of the year: SHALLOTS.

    Plant a bag of seed shallots and next August you will be rolling in shallots. All they take is a little weeding, a bit of fertilizer in the spring, and letting the ground around them get dry in August before you pull them out. Easy, peasy.

  8. Beth

    This further reinforces my belief that our gardening luck this past summer was due to magical northern California weather and soil. When I was living in Boston I could kill a basil plant faster than you could say “pesto.” Yet this summer we successfully grew zucchini, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and all sorts of other things. I was kind of in awe of the garden and would just go out and stare at it. Perhaps the amazement helped because I went outside every day to see what it was doing and was able to see when things started going awry. Nothing quite as cool as a meal made from food you’ve grown yourself.

  9. Mary @ Parenthood

    I basically grow tomatoes and beans because I can’t reliably grow anything else, but every year it gets easier. Last year we planted 4 potatoes and got 7 tiny (yummy) ones. This year we planted 30 and got a whole basket. Some were even potato sized 🙂

    For those lamenting the large zucchinis; too bad you don’t live close to me here in Ottawa, because those are our favourites. Cut them in half, scoop out seeds and stuff with lentils and rice and tomatoes. Or hamburger and cheese and rice. At that size the skin sometimes is too tough but we still eat the zucchini itself!

  10. caedmon


    grow garlic. its simple. plant it now. do nothing but wait. next summer you will have garlic. really. i am not a gardener at all, as much as id like to be. but we planted garlic last fall and waited. did nothing. and then in the spring and all summer long we had fresh garlic.
    also, i live on the island as well so share the same climate.
    (we’ve met before thru mutual island friends…but haven’t spent much time on here before.)

  11. Archer

    Shauna! I loved this write-up about gardening. I consider myself decent when it comes to growing green things, especially since I grew up in the nursery business. But I grew up in Pennsylvania, not this crazy Seattle climate! I love your freedom in just saying, fine deer, you can have it! Its yours! I feel like I’m constantly battling the climate or the pests – living in more of an urban area, we’ve had a problem with rats. Gross, huh? One year, they mowed over an entire row of baby collard greens! Then the next night, it was the baby kale plants. We have to cover any sprouts in the garden every night, because oh, they love the little seedlings when they sprout. I’ve given up on growing lettuce and salad greens because they don’t sound too tasty after they’ve been meddled with rats. So yeah, all our organic gardening efforts one year went to the rats, literally. We’ve gotten a little smarter than dealing with them, and trying more tricks that are used to keep rabbits out. There isn’t a lot online about keeping rats out of your garden…if there is, I haven’t found it! I don’t feel as free as you are with the deer, its hard giving it to the rats!

    1. Archer

      I forgot to mention, too, our garden is even fenced in! And there are typos in my above comment…I’m bouncing a baby while I type this. 🙂

  12. Julia Sarver

    We had a tough year this year as well in Portland. But, here are a few things I’ve learned that might help:

    – Fertilize with mushroom compost. The people at the compost place will tell you it’s too acidic for starts but they are wrong! As long as you let the mushroom compost rest for a week before planting, you’ll have a fantastic vegetable garden. It really helps the clay soil we have here.
    – Plant your lettuce in a spot that gets some shade in the late afternoon.
    – Throw a packet of arugula seeds in your garden in late August and you will have crazy arugula growing right now. I have a field of arugula in my backyard.
    – If all else fails, just grow herbs. They’re so flavorful when you pick them right out of the garden and add them to your meals. Thyme, oregano and chives are super easy to grow and I completely ignore them once they are in the ground.

    Good luck!

  13. Laura

    Hi Shauna,

    Have you tried garlic? It loves our mild Northwest winters and takes very little attention. And now’s the time to plant it! It will be ready to harvest in July. The plants stay tucked in the soil all winter and spring—growing and multiplying. Come summer, that one clove you planted will be a whole bulb.

    I grew my first batch of garlic last winter (we like Russian Red) and braided my first lopsided plait of garlic this summer. Truly satisfying.


    1. Donna Vieira

      I grew my first crop of garlic this spring! Harvested 7 mature heads, tied them up in a bunch, and let them dry for 3 weeks, then brushed off the dirt, trimmed the “beards” and am still rolling in the heady stuff! Very satisfying!! Getting ready to order some fancy mail order bulbs this week *smile*!

  14. jeanelane

    Shauna, Since you are such a fabulous cook, can you be satisfied with that? And a great writer too! You have more talent in your pinky than I ever will. So if you can’t garden, big deal! I totally gave up the year the tomato worms took my tomatoes. Don’t ever want to be so grossed out.

    1. shauna

      you’re so sweet. thank you. yeah, I can be fine with that. actually, i find it liberating in life to admit you’re no good at something. but i’m still going to keep trying!

    2. Donna Vieira

      Tomato horn worms? Plant Marigolds and Parsely alternately in between each tomato plant. I’ve had great success with this! Year before last, you’d find me in the evening on a small chair “huntin” the pests, and gathering 10 or so each night…the next season with the above mentioned strategy, I found only FOUR the Whole season!!! Whoppee!

      1. Donna Vieira

        Though late in the summer if you see the tomato worms with little white “hitch-hikers” on their backs–leave those alone. They are being consumed by a helpful garden friend, the parasitic wasp.

  15. AmandaonMaui

    The deer are such a problem here as well. Our island has over 10,000 deer with a population that is doubling every year. They go from the highest areas of the mountain, to the wealthy beach side mansions. They ram cars in parking lots, cause car accidents, and have eaten 100% of the crops of many farmers on our island. My brother-in-law is working on a deer culling project in conjunction with the local government to help keep the deer population down, while finding a way to make the meat of the deer available for purchase by retailers, restaurants, and consumers. There are so many deer that it’d be nice if the meat could at least be donated to the food banks for distribution. Unfortunately, our food laws in this country prohibit these things at this time. *sigh*

    I have also had a very hard time growing anything this summer. I don’t understand why. I have never had a truly green thumb, but I did fairly well in the spring. Maybe my winter garden will fare better?

  16. kathyfannon

    What a precious memory you two now have of your special day in the garden!

    And even though I do have the time to garden, I still totally kill everything. My dad got all of the green-thumb genes!

  17. Theresa

    Your post struck a chord with me. We are preparing for summer here in the southern hemisphere and on Sunday one of my children announced that we need a vege garden. We have talked about it for 3 years but all sorts of things stopped us (drought, divorce, sick kids, etc). So, two hours later, she and I had dug and weeded and planted. Now if even a few of the plants survive I will be amazed – our threats to plants are native possums and kangaroos, and cockatoos and rosellas that will strip the young shoots and fruit. I have sorted the kangaroos with fences, but the possums climb everything, and birds are voracious! Some netting may help. But if I can serve even one meal to my kids from our own garden, I will be thrilled. (And if my dreams come true and I have enough to preserve, I will dance a happy dance!!) While urban sustainability is appealing, it is bloody hard work!

  18. Haley

    I’m the same way with gardening… somehow plants + I can’t communicate well.

    The other day I took my 3 year old niece outside to pick a carrot from our tiny garden… I told her that in the dirt under the greens there was a carrot growing, and she said, “just like bunnies eat?” So I said, “just like that” and she was so excited! But I pulled it out of the ground and she took a huge step back and said, “Eww Auntie. That’s yucky”.. lol. She totally didn’t appreciate the dirt on her carrot.

  19. InTolerantChef

    How nice to find some buried treasure! I love gardening, but some years it really gets away from you. This year I’m off work, so with plenty of time and no excuses, I’m looking forward to a bumper crop. Everything homegrown tastes so much better when eaten with the relish of smug satisfaction 🙂

  20. Christine

    My husband teases my gardening efforts…I guess after you kill a number of houseplants and an mini Alberta spruce I can’t blame him. Last year I had a pretty nice potted garden going (we live in the city). I have to say that even though my scarlet runners never took off, the tomatoes, jalapenos and mini yellow peppers did wonderfully (as did the basil, thyme, sage, and oregano). That is until we had to be away from the house due to a family emergency and then everything started dying and looking pathetic, and so we tore it out and put in the forementioned Alberta spruces (two, one survives still!). The lettuces were a failure but I think it was lack of sun in the back yard, and then too much rain. The cilantro bolted too quickly to make it worth it.

    Next year I hope to try again if our summer schedules will allow it. If you have space and don’t mind some flowers that aren’t edible, but pretty and easy it’s time to plant any bulbs. I always had luck with tulips.

    I have to say though, that my biggest achievement is so far not killing an indoor orchid that we have that looks like it may even send off a shoot for buds. And if that mofo blooms it may be my greatest achievement yet. (She says this as the supposedly unkillable bromeliad is withering in her kitchen.) 😉

  21. KCatGU

    Sometime the act of trying is a therapeutic as the occasional success.

    Thanks for the reminder any who.

  22. Kimmy

    I yearn for a garden. Unfortunately I can’t even keep a bouquet of flowers alive for more than a couple days! I think it’s mostly due to neglect. I’m so absent-minded, I just forget about the poor things.

    Congrats on the carrots and potatoes! That meal sounds delicious.

  23. Jen @ My Kitchen Addiction

    Such a beautiful piece about gardening… I can relate 100%! Every year I think it will be better than the next, but I usually lose my steam come July when I can barely stand to be outside in the heat. I have been successful in growing jalapeño peppers, though… And, I have enjoyed every spicy bite!

  24. Ceri

    Don’t give up! I have a feeling most gardeners in the area really have muddy thumbs and are really suborn. Growing a garden west side of the PNW is tricky. The best advice I got was to get the book “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades: The Complete Guide to Natural Gardening” by Steve Solomon. I have found some of his advice excellent, such as when to plant stuff and ignored what I couldn’t implement (how to make really great compost). I also try to buy seed produced as close to home as possible or save my own since the plants have somewhat adapted to the climate. I have found that chard and beets grow fairly reliably even though favored by deer they aren’t as well liked as lettuce by the snails and slugs that are the bane of my garden. I let a plant or two go to seed and enjoy the serendipitous discovery of new plants all over the garden. The other thing I have noticed is that once things get going they take-off but the get going thing sometimes takes forever and the slugs and snails eat most of the seedlings so I plant many more seeds then I would otherwise. Hence the seed saving. Maybe you can go in on a seed order with some of the local market gardeners or small farmers to get less expensive seed.
    Heat hours and hours of sun are a great challenge for me since I did all my previous gardening in San Diego or Upstate New York where neither are scares in the summer. I have found in the Southern Willamette valley on a somewhat shady lot I can grow tomatoes but don’t get enough hours of sunlight to support eggplant.

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