Pandemic Reflections – Gardens revisited, a year later – Portland Press Herald – pressherald.com

pandemic-reflections-–-gardens-revisited,-a-year-later-–-portland-press-herald-–-pressherald.com

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Just before the first frost is when Mainers ask each other, “How were your gardens this year?” The response always has to be weighed, whether you’re going to tell the truth, stretch it, or outright lie.
Last year, our first COVID summer, was a drought year which hammered lawns and gardens. The flowers said their “thank you” when they received their daily aqua relief. Vegetable plants wilted in the heat. At season’s end, I thought I’d need a pick-axe to break up the sunbaked earth.
The lawns had gone August brown in early June and then to dead, huge patches death-rayed. Some rural Mainers went into the 2020-21 winter with low or dry wells. Bottled water — all sizes — became just as scarce as toilet paper and Lysol products. It was a snow drought winter with mostly bare ground from January on. Snow plow drovers had a tough winter paying their truck and plow loans.
This early spring, the first order of outdoors business was repairing last year’s damaged lawns. Almost every driveway in the three towns had a mound of recently delivered loam. The burnt patches were sterile with no hope of repair or resurrection. They had to be dug out and the loam wheel-barrowed to the hole. Constant watering was needed.
Nature’s spring curve ball was the continuing drought through April, May and June. Early spring temperatures were well above average, so everything — bushes, plants, forsythia, and lilacs were two weeks ahead of schedule. Water sprinklers were kept busy.
Vegetable gardeners took notice of the early season — a fluke early growing miracle or global warning? Many Maine gardeners start their plants from seeds indoors, nursing them along with Gro-lights. Was it too early to transplant their little tenders? Sleepless nights, but after being cooped up during a pandemic winter, they took the gamble.
The old Maine saying, “Don’t plant until Memorial Day,” was ignored. Nurseries were swamped by desperate-to-be-in-the-dirt gardeners. They gambled and won, but the drought now brought record June heat, the air-conditioner kind.
Flower beds loved July’s almost daily precipitation, cooler temperatures and rationed sunshine. Photo courtesy of University of Maine Cooperative Extension
Ahead of schedule, flower beds and vegetable gardens required daily watering. If our local water district was a private, for-profit company, fat dividend checks would have been in the mail to the stockholders.
The stars were in alignment: a record early-planting season, pandemic-cocooned home dwellers were re-emerging from isolation, and COVID appeared to be on the ropes with the daily new case numbers dropping down into the teens. It was a welcome whiff of hope.
By mid-June, a blizzard of veggie blossoms brought great expectations. The sunny days, heat, humidity and constant watering had explosive results. The flowers and plants were huge, looking like they were fed a steady diet of steroids instead of Miracle-Gro.
Then, after three straight months of rainfall totals below 20 percent of normal, July and the monsoon season arrived. Portland recorded 9.53 inches of rain, making it our wettest July since 1915. It was also the coolest July since 1962.
My wife’s flower beds loved the almost daily precipitation, cooler temperatures and rationed sunshine. Her plants ballooned in size. The vegetable plants took off like Jack’s famous bean stalk, merging into one giant green monster, but the abnormal weather conditions delayed the fruit development. The veggie pots in the driveway were 12 inches taller than normal.
Early August, normal growing conditions returned, but the oversized veggie plants made it difficult to spot and pick. If you missed a couple of days, you’d have a two-foot long zucchini to toss into the woods. We had vegetables on our plates, bread-and-butter pickles in the cupboard and zucchini bread on the counter.
Word soon spread through the Kennebunk Landing’s animal kingdom and the free-loaders began dropping by for their evening meals. These were the usual suspects — field mice, raccoons, chipmunks and fifth-generation woodchucks. Their in and out tunnels made the ground look like brown Swiss cheese. The out tunnels were easy to identify. They were twice the size, so they could drag their full, fat-bellies back home.
They were soon joined by first-time deer, who in the past had occasionally dined in my wife’s flower beds. The Bambis stretched their necks out over my puny fence. They stripped my 10 sunflower plants, leaving me with only three of the bright yellow, morale-lifting smiling faces.
They easily jumped the 3½-foot fence and went up and down my pole beans like they were freshly-buttered ears of corn. They teamed up with the chipmunks and field mice to leave eight carrots out of a 12-foot row. The beet greens made a lovely dessert.
We’re fans of PBS’s nature shows and we expected the vaulted food chain to now kick in. Surely, the neighborhood coyotes, who had been picking off chickens and turkeys just up the street, wouldn’t be able to resist those little veggie-fattened and slowed down varmints.
We realized that these little munchers had been feeding on so many neighborhood gardens, they had morphed into walking, waddling vegetable bins. We remembered that coyotes are carnivores, not vegans, so these veggie-stuffed, now organic garden raiders had no appeal.
There’d be no coyote cavalry riding to the rescue of our besieged vegetable gardens.
The fall frost is soon here, and it’s time to start planning next year’s main garden, which will only have deer-proof plants — zucchini and cukes. The beleaguered beans, carrots and beets will enter early retirement. The number of driveway pots will expand, since that niche area seems to be a veggie sanctuary from marauding varmints.
We hope, because that’s what our lives and gardening is all about.

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