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Confessions of a not-very-masterful gardener

I have two spindly cherry tomato plants gasping out their days on the west side of my house, the only area where they get enough sun, and where my sprinklers don’t sprinkle. I hand water them every day. Someone may say, “For cherry tomatoes? Why bother?”

I’ve harvested three so far.

I attended weeks of classes and earned a Master Gardener badge from the OSU Extension in the '80s. It has since ceased to represent any aptitude on my part. I should turn it in as a matter of ethics.

I descended from a family of farmers who still host gardens full of strapping plants — monster zucchini and lumbering squash and melon plants sprawl over their plots. Plant magic happens for them as a matter of course.

My last painful gardening memory was about three years ago. A tractor man came, tilled my area and spread before me a blank canvas soon to sprout neat rows of all the colorful veggies I loved. I bought seeds and organic fertilizer. I bought a trowel and garden gloves. I would pick fresh vegetables and feel a little smug about it.

I planned where everything would go. I poked seeds into the earth a couple inches apart and spooned in a little fertilizer.

My irrigation pump started it. The thing refused to work. I had a ditch full with cheap irrigation water and a recalcitrant pump. Pumps are expensive to fix when you can get someone to look at them, but no one would come. They were all too busy fixing other people’s pumps who knew how to garden. My non-garden was low priority and somehow they knew it. So I hauled out the hoses and hand watered every day where I thought the seeds were. It was hot while I did this. I might have forgotten a few times.

Each day I checked for signs of life, and one afternoon, tiny shoots appeared. I trusted they were radishes. Those radishes never grew. I waited the length of time the package with the bright, jolly radishes in the photo said to wait, and when I finally pulled them up, they looked like Red Hots with hair-like roots and none of the flavor. I tried one. For all there was, it could have been something my toothbrush missed.

I turned to my favorite fruit, strawberries. My grandparents were strawberry farmers in Washington. Surely I had enough residual gene pool power to raise a decent crop. After interminable days of waiting, I began to see small green berries. But at the first fleck of changing hue, birds descended. I bought netting, but the berries said no go. They took their cue from the radishes and called it quits.

I began wearing my Master Gardener badge in their presence. I put cages around scrawny tomato plants and remained optimistic there would be sumptuous red slicers one day. I’d planted corn, peppers and cantaloupe too, all kinds of potential food.

Then came hungry deer.

I’d lived in this house for over 20 years and had never seen hide nor tail of a deer in the neighborhood, let alone my backyard. How did they find out? These deer disturbed the netting and pushed a couple tomato cages at a tilt. I straightened everything, hand watered and began to have a sinking feeling that I was losing. Each day there would be more chaos, more chewed leaves, and no produce. By the time I gave in, it was as if the deer had put on combat boots and tromped around, making rude comments about my badge, smoking cigars, dragging the netting, and eating radish tops and strawberry leaves.

The corn was afraid to show, evidently.

I’m babying my two cherry tomatoes and yanking the lavender I planted between them. It’s dead — drowned — since it’s a semi-arid plant. Time to hit the farmer’s markets. I’ll definitely save money that way.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer who works from a 1900 farmhouse in Eagle Point. Reach her at pcdover@hotmail.com.