From the rocking chair on the porch I can see every onion. The pole beans have reached the summit and the inquisitive tendrils are looking for something higher to climb on. At the other side of the patch, clusters of ripe tomatoes already need picking.
Friends who have come by to share an evening salad of sliced cucumbers and romaine say I must be proud of my accomplishments. Not having a garden of their own, they don't know the half of it: the sore back from turning over the dirt with a spading fork, the niggling business of sowing lettuce seeds, 25,000 of them in an ounce. They weren't down on their knees before the carrots, deciding which tiny seedlings to sacrifice. Fortunately, I've nearly forgotten it myself. Looking at how the cucumber vines threaten to engulf the summer squash, it's hard to remember that only a few months ago this ground was bare. Already, once again, there is a zucchini surplus.
"We're going to have a garden of our own next year," they announce, "one of our very own." I smile, not because I think it will be more work than they realize, but because I am amused by their notion of ownership. From a distance the garden looks very neat. Rows of beets, crrots and Swiss chard exactly where I planted them. Very neat, very straightforward, very predicted. Plant a radish, get a radish. That's the way it looks from a distance.
Spend a few hours weeding, however, and you'll notice that the vegetable garden isn't as simple as it looks. Some of the leaves of the yellow wax beans have been skeletonized, and several tomato leaves have been chewed down to the veins. By now, I recognize the partners I share the garden with. The tomatoes are being devoured by a fat green caterpillar that gets as big as my thumb. The beans are being consumed by Mexican bean beetles; there's no mistaking the coppery-colored adult with its 16 black spots.
The first time I found my beans being eaten, I rushed to a book and looked up "beans." What I found was more alarming that the skeletons in the garden. There was a list of 93 things that attack beans. But then 43 things attack carrots, the book said, and another 34 threaten lettuce. Yet my carrots and lettuce looked fine. In spite of this lexicon of catastrophes, so did everything else in the garden., I decided that either I was especially blessed, or that novice gardeners enjoyed the protection accorded fools and children. That was the first year.
Since then, I've discovered that all my vegetables, in fact, do have pests. Cut-worms, crawling about at night, chop down cabbage seedlings in the prime of youth. Onions are invaded by root maggots, the larvae of a tiny gray fly. Striped cucumber beetles infect the vines with bacterial wilt disease, while below ground their young devour the roots. Aphids and leafhoppers suck the juices out of almost everything.
What I have also learned is that it doesn't happen at once. No every tomato has blossom end rot. Some years the squash bugs kill some of the vines, Other years it's slugs in the lettuce. Most of the time, though, most ofthe crops are doing just fine. This has nothing to do with diligent use of pesticides. I don't. When I find seedlings cut down, I may poke around in the dirt nearby until I find the curled-up cutworm and squash it. I also pick off the tomato hornworms when I find them, but much of the time they already have white cocoons arranged along their backs, a sign that they have been attached by a parasitic wasp.
Parasitic wasps are just one reason the garden stays healthy. The shiny black ground beetles are another. At night they walk about killing slugs and caterpillars. The larvae of the green lacewings are such voracious feeders on aphids that they are nicknamed "aphid lions." Equally blookthirsty are ladybird beetles: Larvae and adults eat aphids, mealybugs, scale insects, white-flies and the eggs of other insects.
Some people believe that only these beneficial insects belong in a garden. But how do you enforce such a selective immigration policy? Fences won't keep out rabbits, let alone things that fly. Besides, where do you draw the line on "beneficial"? Assassin bugs kill Mexican bean beetles, Japanese beetles and assorted caperpillars by plunging their beaks into them, but they also kill honeybees whenever they get a chance. So do praying mantises, although they eat mostly grasshoppers. Are moles destructive because they make tunnels and eat earthworms, or beneficial because they also eat Japanese beetle grums and their tunnels drain and aerate the soil?
Ladybirds and bean beetles both belong in a vegetable garden. They are essential components of a very old community, to which I'm a relative newcomer. Each year I spake up the ground, plant the seeds and keep the garden watered and weeded, but these comparatively simple tasks. What goes on at night, underground and behind leaves, is far more elaborate. I respect it. I'm happy with the results. But I've stopped calling it my vegetable garden. I'm only the caretaker.