Wednesday, July 29, 2015


I grew up mainly in the country and entirely in what my father called the United States, meaning somewhere certainly west of Pittsburgh and preferably west of the Mississippi.  When for college I went all the way to Tennessee I considered that I was doing a bold and contrarian thing.  That I ended up spending most of my life on the East coast is one of those ironies through which Life punishes bigotry and redresses ignorance.

I know all the New Jersey jokes—what exit?, only state with a state smell, etc.—and am known to dust them off myself.  But while it is true that our state is not entirely free of problems, generally only one of our senators is under indictment at any particular moment.  I have long since become a great booster of the Garden State, beginning with the garden part.  The topsoil of Middlesex County is so scrumptious-looking that when you see a pile of it you want to reach for a spoon.  God obviously intended it for vegetables, but a square foot of it is worth so much to the real estate developers that God is no longer frequently consulted.  There is a smallish building lot in central Princeton currently on the market at one million dollars.

So the pressure is on us suburban farmers.  Central Jersey remains a paradise for the amateur squash and tomato crowd, whose numbers I have this year expanded.  My own horticultural efforts have been pretty lame for years, but I always had the excuse that I was away from Princeton for several crucial weeks of the growing season.  This year, as I knew in advance that my absence would be shorter and earlier than usual, I decided to go all out.

Going all out meant some serious manual labor.  I have had a small tomato patch at the front of the house where it is fairly easy to put up temporary fencing and where the road traffic, though light, has some inhibiting influence on the deer.  But this year I constructed a more ambitious garden, in full sun, on the south side of the stone wall at the end of my property.  This had to be wrested from heavily sodded turf, which I sieved, shovelful by shovelful through a tough steel mesh, enriching the crumbled remains with several years’ worth of compost and leaf mold.   It is about seven yards by six, which is not exactly the south forty, but still plenty big enough to keep me busy.

This back garden is seriously overplanted.  Of tomatoes alone there are about twenty vines--Ramapo, Krim, Big Boy, Cherokee Purples, the odd grape and cherry, and two or three as yet unidentified volunteers found in odd places, one odd place being the buildup of gutter silt along Hartley Avenue.  In addition I have luxurious patches of sweet basil, some sturdy eggplant, reasonable bell and sweet peppers, and several exuberant patches of zucchini squash, which behave as though in a try-out for a science fiction flic.  One out-of-control Concord grape vine, which I allowed to remain on the site, gives some kind of punctuation to this jungle.  

 compost offerings to distract the groundhogs

There are natural enemies galore.  In previous years I have never grown anything here that has not shown signs of mysterious blights, blotches, or vegetable eczemas; but this year, so far—knock on wood...  Animal critters are another matter.  I think I have bought off the resident groundhog colony with the opulence of the vegetable compost on offer, and I have made it pretty difficult to get into the garden at ground level.  Still, we live by faith.  The deer are another matter.  The casual fences I have constructed must be regarded, from a deer’s perspective, as merely symbolic.  If I expand the garden yet further, as I am tempted to do, I shall perhaps get serious and go to ten feet.  But so far this year I have lost only one plant, swallowed nearly whole by a rubbernecking white-tail browsing over the fence. I am happy to report that the lost plant was a jalapeño pepper planted by mistake.  I can but hope that the marauding deer had a few dyspeptic moments.

I was somewhat late in getting the plants in, and the crop is only now appearing.  We are drowning in zucchini, which has the unfortunate tendency to grow large and woody overnight, before I even spot it.  We have had the first delicious peppers and eggplant, and loads of small, succulent salad tomatoes.  The first of the big tomatoes are now turning red, and all indications suggest a bumper crop in tidal wave form.  It is never a good idea to count unhatched chickens, but I think I am being prudent readying my Mason jars to do up a batch of spaghetti sauce for the bleak midwinter.

 agricultural photography by Joan Fleming