My Dirt-y Little Secret by Ellen Notbohm

It always surfaces this time of year and, like any dirty secret, it causes me guilt. The source of my guilt is my large sunny backyard. As the weather warms and the seed packets spill from the stores and the nurseries come back to life, I sit mute and miserable because I . . . well . . . okay, I’ll just say it: I loathe gardening. It bores me to distraction. No ‘I Dig Gardening’ t-shirt, no smell-the-soil serotonin high for me.

With a yard like mine, I know this is heresy. So, every summer I have grudgingly coaxed forth a few tomatoes and some half-hearted petunia beds. I refused to face my aversion until only a couple of years ago. Truth be known: eight full hours of sun or no, I resented spending those sun-drenched mornings watering, watering, watering and weeding, weeding, weeding. Hated the incessant slug-baiting and aphid-slaying. Grew weary of raccoons flicking their miniature thumbs across their wee feral noses at me as they took down every last ear of our corn.

But I’m weak-willed. I lacked the conviction to give up gardening completely, so I did what many people do with their guilt. I squashed it. Literally.

Squash is a brown thumb’s best friend. You can’t kill it, critters leave it alone and it spreads like an oil spill. Just six squash plants and a handful of pumpkin seeds cover my entire garden and yield enough produce to disguise my dyspeptic attitude toward gardening. Two-way camouflage!

Serious gardeners and gourmands, of course, can scarcely heap enough contempt on the ubiquitous zucchini. It’s a vegetable, as one writer put it, “so fecund as to be sluttish”. Well, excuuuse me! I love the amiable indestructibility of zucchini. But I did have to learn to corral it. The first year of my low-effort garden plan, I put in four zucchini plants. They’re so cute when you buy them for a dollar in May, when they’re about three inches high. By July they will have each spread to a six-foot radius and are pumping out zukes like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Our Midwest-born neighbor took one look and told me, “My daddy always said that the only reason anyone would put in four zucchini plants is if you wanted to feed the entire state of Nebraska.”

Growing zucchini isn’t real gardening, you know. Oh, how I have been ridiculed, pitied and patronized, and by the very people who are gobbling my Mocha Zucchini Cake at the picnic, never dreaming they’re eating a vegetable for dessert. Heh, heh.

Next came the acorn squash. Same wonderful spreading foliage, far less fruit. In fact, so much less that I calculated I had poured about $100 worth of water into producing less than a dozen squash, which were retailing at the supermarket for 50 cents each. All so we could say “squash pie from our yard” at Thanksgiving.

On to the Atlantic Giant pumpkins, my heroes. My champion topped out at 44 pounds, vines swamping the scarecrow. At Halloween I carved that Cucurbita maxima into a portrait of my school-age son. And just so he wouldn’t feel lonely on the porch, I grew a ten-pound zucchini and carved it into an Oh no! face for company. We may have scared away a few toddlers along with the goblins that year. See? I’m plenty creative, just not with a trowel.

Squash are fun; they seem to have a mind of their own, and you can’t say that for every vegetable. One year we had our very own ET squash. It was long, pear-shaped, and pale yellow, with warts. We didn’t plant it; it had somehow arrived and put down roots, growing quite contentedly right in the middle of our pumpkin patch. We trotted it around to various farmers’ markets trying to get an ID on it. It took a while, but we finally found a squash farmer who asked us if we were growing pickling cucumbers nearby. We were. “Squash love to cross-pollinate,” he told us. “You’ve got a hybrid pumpkin/cucumber here.” We eventually discovered that it was an airhead squash, and had nothing going for it other than looks. Upon opening it at the end of the season, we found it all but empty beneath the skin. But we almost named it ‘Linus’ and gave it a blanket, so at-home did it look there among the pumpkins.

So spring is underway again and here I sit, glaring at the garden and hoping for the inspiration that never comes. The kids outgrew jack-o-lanterns decades ago, and I really, really only need one zucchini plant. But wait! If I squint just this way, maybe . . . . I rush to the Internet. Yessss! Right in front of me are the magic words: “Cutting Garden Seed Mix—just rake, sprinkle and water. Three-season blooms!”

The perfect solution to my dirt-y little secret. Can you dig it?

Ellen Notbohm’s internationally renowned work has touched millions in more than twenty-five languages. She is author of the award-winning novel The River by Starlight, the nonfiction classic Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, and numerous short prose pieces appearing in literary journals, anthologies, and other publications.