Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Experimental Gardner: Challenges

I've all ready mentioned before how I have no plant growing skills. Which might seem surprising, seeing as I grew up on a farm. Everyone else in the family has some talent in growing plants--flowers, bushes, vines, fruits, veggies, trees. But I had none. In fact, my only noticeable skill when it comes to plants was that I was very good at killing them. And that skill was put to good use eliminating weeds & harmful plants from the farm. I was very effective at my job. And I loved it.

And while I never did master the necessary skills to grow plants successfully, I did appreciate the hard work & challenges that went into growing produce. These past two months, I was reminded of the big challenges that every farmer growing produce has to face. The big three farming challenges that I dealt with growing up were: Weather, Disease, & Pests. Any one or combination could ruin the harvest & destroy months of hard work.

You can't control the weather--hurricanes & droughts happen. Sudden summer storms can flood the land or send lightning strikes that cause wildfires to burn & devour the parched, dying earth. You can only try to minimize the damages & salvage what you can. You try your best to shield the crops from the terrible weather & utilize best practices that manage resources efficiently, hoping to maximize production while minimizing costs. You hope for the best, & prepare for the worst. Sometimes, all you can do is pray. Sometimes, you learn to accept the hardships & losses that are inherent in farming.

But other times, you fight back against the challenges, because if you react fast enough & work hard enough, you can succeed, especially when it comes to disease & pests. Remove the problem early enough, & you can save most of your harvest. To overcome these challenges, you have to be vigilant, you have to assess the state of your crops & livestock daily, to constantly monitor for changes & intervene when necessary to ensure the health of your crops & livestock. These are the fundamentals of farming, lessons that every farm child lives & learns growing up.

And these past two months, I was reminded of these challenges & the hardships that are part of the nature of farming. As you may recall, I found two sweet potatoes germinating in the back of the lower cupboards when I was doing some cleaning. These two had rolled into the back of the cupboards from a sack of sweet potatoes that I had bought in the winter holiday season. So you can imagine my surprise at finding two spuds germinating in the dark cupboards about three months after I had bought them!

You can also imagine my conundrum trying to figure out what to do with the germinating spuds. Both were on the verge of dying. But by lucky coincidence & fortunate turn of events, I was inspired to try growing them in some mulch & large five gallon plastic containers that had recently come into my possession. Long story short: One sweet potato successful took root & grew. I named him Chip. The other sweet potato died, but it was incorporated into the mulch that would go on to support a bean--yes, a bean!--that I had left over from an empty sack. Out of curiosity, I planted the left over beans, & one took root & actually grew! I named him LL Bean.

I was actually quite stunned at the success of growing these two plants. I didn't think they'd last a week, much less a month, surviving & thriving under my care. Yes, my care! Me, the Grim Reaper of plants, actually managed to grow plants! My family would've been shocked, as I was at my unexpected success.

Two months in, & all was going well. Then came the end of July, when the weather took a turn for the worse. We were subjugated to high, dry, gusty winds that blew constantly every day for three weeks. The gusts were starting to cause my small plants' stalks to bend. I had to mound up the sweet potato, to strengthen the stalk. And I had to tie the beanstalk to a stake--improvised with an old wire hanger & twist ties. Then I had to MacGyver some wind barriers using some cardboard. And with careful water management & protection from the harsh winds, the plants began to recover their vibrancy & started to thrive.

I was so proud of my efforts & ingenuity to protect my young plants, confident that they would be all right. Then tragedy struck a week later at the beginning of August. I left town for two days. And two days was all that was needed for calamity to strike.

The morning I returned home, I went to check to see if my plants needed watering. Imagine my shock at discovering pests destroying my crops! Caterpillars! Caterpillars had devoured half the leaves of my sweet potato & consumed nearly three quarters of the leaves of my bean plant.

I was filled with rage! My plants! My poor, defenseless plants! I could barely resist the urge to snatch those caterpillars from the leaves & crush them with my fingers! But as I reached out to snuff the lives of those caterpillars, I was suddenly reminded of my Mom, working in her garden, me helping her, though I was more of a useless burden & pest as a small child. It was only when I was older that my plant killing skills were applied to eliminating weeds from the flower garden.

I remember being grossed out yet fascinated by the caterpillars my mother was removing from her flowers. I admit, a small part of me wanted to squish them in the small container my mother was collecting them in. I didn't fully understand why Mom was picking out the caterpillars & putting them into the container instead of just crushing the little buggers. I didn't say anything, but somehow, Mom picked up on my confusion. And she proceeded to teach me one of the first life lessons that I have ever learned.

She said that all life is connected. And every living thing & how we treat them affects all other life in ways we don't always understand. She surprised me, when she told me that ugly, gross, squishy caterpillars turned into beautiful, colorful, floating  butterflies. I didn't believe her at first, to think that something as disgusting as a caterpillar can turn into a gorgeous butterfly. I thought she might be joking with me, but she looked serious, so I had to take her word & try to make sense of the fantastical & nonsensical things that I was being told.

I still had that puzzled look on my face as Mom & I left the garden & headed out to the woods just a stone's throw away. There she found a flowering bush & emptied her container of caterpillars. Then she pointed out a leaf with a large brown bump on it. She surprised me further when she explained that in that brown bump--a cocoon--a caterpillar was turing into a butterfly. And in a week or two, a butterfly would emerge from that cocoon. And that butterfly would would go eat the sweet nectar, food from the flower, & in return, it'll spread the pollens from that flower to other flowers, helping the flowers make seeds for new flowering plants.

To say I was fascinated was an understatement. I was obsessed! Every day, I'd check up on that cocoon at least three times a day. I told my two brothers about it, so it became a part of our daily routine for the next week to check on that cocoon a few times a day. By then, we noticed two caterpillars actually beginning building their cocoons. We were so excited! Maybe a butterfly would hatch soon!

Five days in, we saw that there was a change in the cocoon one morning. It had changed colors from brown to shiny black! We called excitedly for Mom, & she came to see what the yelling was all about. She was very patient & understanding. We could hardly stand still, eagerly waiting for our butterfly to emerge. Mom warned us it would take about three to four hours for the butterfly to emerge, spread its wings, then fly. She warned us not to touch the butterfly nor interfere with it in anyway, lest we hurt it or cause it to die.

Mom left us alone for a few hours as we watched the cocoon patiently, fascinated when the butterfly first emerged, then waited expectantly, marveling at how the butterfly wings were slowly opening. And soon enough, the wings were fully opened, & when they were set, the butterfly took off & we followed it as it landed on a nearby flower & started feeding just as Mom had said. It was quite a revelation, as if we were witnesses to some magic behind the scenes; we had glimpsed a hidden, amazing world that was full of wonder & amusement.

Why I was suddenly thinking about those childhood memories, I didn't know. But the thought of that butterfly, the excitement my brothers & I felt, & the lessons from my mother was enough to stay my hand, to keep me from crushing those caterpillars.

I picked up a stick, got one caterpillar to crawl on it, then relocated the caterpillar to a nearby flowering bush. I repeated the same with the other two caterpillars. Yes, just three small caterpillars. But those three were more than enough to cause serious damage. When I had set up my cardboard wind barriers, it created a safe, calm place for the caterpillars to live & eat without getting blown away. And they ate a lot! In two nights, they had decimated my two small plants. Those two days & two nights I was away & left the plants untended was more than enough for three caterpillars to infiltrate & infest my small fragile plants, causing serious damage.

I tried my best the next two weeks, carefully nurturing my plants. But the damage was severe. The leaves were full of holes & started dying, turning yellow & brown, then die & fall off. My poor beanstalk wasn't able to generate new leaves. It turned brown, dull, & died. I was very sad to see the once thriving green plant savaged, shrivel, & then die. LL Bean did not survive the pest infestation.

And things weren't looking good for my poor Sweet Potato Chip. Every day, the few surviving leaves, full of holes & missing large chunks from ravenous caterpillars, were turning yellow, then brown, then die & fall off. For two weeks, I kept watch, I nurtured, I hoped. But it all seemed futile. I was resigned to accept the inevitable, my sweet potato would also die.

Two days & two nights was all it took. It was just enough time away from the plants that enabled a caterpillar infestation that devastated the plants. I tried to console myself that it was nature. That it wasn't my fault. I didn't kill the plants by drowning them, as was the usual way that I've killed plants over the years, by overwatering them. And I didn't smother them with too much soil or nutrients or starved them of sunlight. This was nature at work. And though I tried, nature had won. Survival of the fittest, & I wasn't fit to raise plants. They died under my care.

There was some guilt in knowing that my negligence, my time away, was what had led to this wanton destruction of my fragile, nascent garden. Maybe I really can't grow plants, & I shouldn't stray outside my long established & accepted role as the Grim Reaper of plants. Some things cannot be changed. It is what it is. It is nature.

But some things can change! It is inevitable. Change is nature! Three weeks after the plague of caterpillars, two weeks after the destruction of my beanstalk & devastation of my sweet potato, when I was ready to accept my losses, I found hope.  And hope was in the form of a second chance, a second stalk had started to emerge from the sweet potato mound. I have carefully nurtured it over the past two weeks, & I am thrilled to report that new leaves have emerged!

As the last leaf is dying & falling off the original sweet potato stalk, the new stalk is growing & thriving. It's put out a lot more leaves, & I am happy to report that for now, my experimental garden is still alive! Hope still reigns, & this new thriving stalk is such a joy for me to behold! It is a reward, a reminder that all my hard work wasn't in vain. And that in spite of all the challenges, I may still yet see my efforts pay off, when my sweet potato plant grows larger & perhaps even productive.

For now, it is more than enough to see my lone sweet potato plant grow. And I will continue to nurture it & protect it & help it grow bigger, stronger, & help it survive & thrive for as long it can. It may have started out as an experiment but that sweet potato has become a symbol of hope & resilience to me. It is my reminder that all life is connected, that we may not understand all of it, but we should cherish it & make the most of it. Never give up hope, for where there's a will, there is a way. And be brave. Make the most of second chances & seize every opportunity. For with perseverance & hard work & caring, you can overcome the challenges, no matter how big or impossible they may seem.

Related Links
The Experimental Gardener


  1. Best wishes to Chip! Sad that LL did not make it.

    If you like peppers, they are really hardy and grow very well in pots with little care. It's nice to harvest a few fresh peppers for cooking.

    1. LX, Thank you for the tip about chilies! We actually did grow some bird chilies back on the farm. My family loved those! I hated spicy foods when I was a child, but I loved the sweet & mild spicy stir fries my parents used to make with those tiny little firebombs of flavor! My plate was always the mildest, but it was so sweet, savory, & spicy, with a hint of heat wrapped in lots of delicious flavor!

      When I worked up in Houston, I had easy access to bird chilis--a lot of Asian & Mexican stores carried them. And I used a lot of it in my own stir fries & chilis. People loved it, because the heat & flavors are totally different from jalapenos. A little bit goes a long way, & the bright red, orange, & yellow colors are festive!

      Now I'm living in jalapeno country, & I don't have access to bird chilies--the fresh ones. You've given me a great idea to pick some up the next time I'm in Houston & try to grow them myself. The only peppers that I like more than chili peppers are the sweet bell peppers, the reds, yellows, & orange ones for flavor. They're not hot, but they are very tasty & I wonder if I can grow them or the baby varieties in containers. But first, I have to make sure that Chip makes it to the fall. When it gets cold, I'm moving him indoors. I'm curious just how long I can keep him growing.

  2. A similar thing happened to me the other month with a couple of cyclamens - I hadn't quite given up hope, but I put them outside, and 'lo after a couple of months they came back to life and are now flourishing. Things tend to improve if I ignore!

    1. Scarlet, I'm like you! If I leave the plants be, they usually do pretty well without my interference. But these plants, esp. my Chip, needed some extra attention to survive the severe weather & devastating pest infestation. I'm so relieved & happy that my sweet potato is still alive & thriving. And I check the plant every day to make sure no pests are back to harm it!

  3. I'm sorry to hear tha LL Bean didn't make it, but Chip is proving to be very stalwart! I love his new leaves.
    After you first told us about Chip, I bought a couple of sweet potatoes and left them in the back of a kitchen cupboard here at Castlette DeVice in the hopes of replicating your success. Unfortunately, they both just shrivelled up, so no sweet potato vines here this year. I'm going to give it another try next year, though!

    P.S. Glad to see you're back. I gather you've bee having trouble with that Frogbot, too?

    1. IDV, Yes, I was having problems with that dang frogbot! But I've learned that as long as I don't click on its nefarious link back, it doesn't do any harm. It'll mess up blogger stats, because it counts all hits/visits & fake hits from bots. But if I wanted an accurate count of visitors & stats, then I should just get Google Analytics & keep the bots out.

      Thank you for the compliment. Those sweet potato leaves are very unique. And I'm so relieved they're thriving again. Sorry about the shriveled sweet potatoes. I've learned from a farmer friend that sweet potatoes sold in stores have a growth retardant sprayed on them so they won't spurt in the store & storage. That's why they tell us not to wash sweet potatoes (& regular potatoes) until we're ready to eat them. I remember washing those last few spuds, planning to cook them, but a last minute change in dining plans made me put them back in the bag & store them in the cupboard, when the two sweet potatoes probably rolled away, escaping the fate of the rest that I ate a few days later. My farmer friend grows sweet potatoes, & he washes his spuds, then leaves them out on the counter to sprout. If you want faster sprouts, he suggests treating them like potatoes or avocadoes, piercing them with tooth picks & setting them a third of the way deep in a jar/bowl of water. Leave on a sunny windowsill & wait for the roots & stems to grow. Then start cutting the individual root with stems & set them in well watered soil/containers. Water as needed, every four to five days for the first two weeks, then reduce to weekly once the leaves are fully sprouted. That's his method of growing sweet potatoes. They prefer dry soil & warm to humid hot air. He said sweet potatoes hate cold weather, so either bring the containers indoors for winter or harvest your spuds before the first frost. He's one of those people who grows sweet potatoes vines in glass/fish bowls for ornamentation, too!

  4. We have 5 plants inside and that's the limit here! Any more than 5 and what comes next are goners as soon as they come inside! I had some gorgeous Boston ferns, but they died a very unnatural death inside. I put the pots outside thinking I'd just toss them, but of course I totally forgot about them. Guess what happened? They sprang back to life and are now flourishing next to my front entry! (Bushes hid the pots from the street, so I didn't totally look like a serial plant killer! All the best with Chip!! xoxoxo

  5. Savannah, I'm so glad to hear your Boston ferns survived, revived, & thrive once more! It's amazing how resilient some plants are! I'm in awe of true gardeners who have the talent to grow a variety of plants indoors & outdoors. I'm still shocked that Chip is still alive, but I'm doing my best to help him survive & grow bigger & stronger.

  6. If it is any consolation, most of my flowers died from the 3-month long heatwave this summer. Sometimes all the care you can muster isn't enough. Keep trying!

    1. MJ, Thanks for the wise words. It's been a challenging growing season. Now I know why people have greenhouses--to protect plants from rough weather & pests! And I'm going to keep trying. As hard as it is to try to keep Chip alive, it's also rewarding at the same time to see that I do have an impact on how Chip grows & thrives against all the odds.