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Embracing the realities of gardening shortcomings and deer [Commentary]

It's the time of year when I probably ought to be thinking about gardening, but this year I'm thinking about not gardening.

Gardening has never been among my strong abilities. I can dig a hole and plant something. I have a lot of success with trees, shrubs and flowers. I've even managed a rosebush that has flowers from late April or early May well into the autumn, sometimes as late as Thanksgiving.

Gardening, the kind of gardening that bears fruit or vegetables for the table, is a skill where I lack any meaningful degree of proficiency.

It's not for lack of trying. I've invested a lot in gardening tools, good seed, starter plants, books and natural fertilizers like blood meal, bone meal and manure. Then there's the year instead of tying tomato plants to stakes, I invested a lot of time and a few dollars to build cages for the tomato plants to grow up into without having to be tied in place.

Over a span of two years, I committed to a nice plot of asparagus. Non-gardeners may not realize all that goes into cultivating asparagus, but the expectation is that vegetables won't be available for at least two years and more likely three years after the initial planting. The initial planting is a rather involved process unto itself. I made the commitment and one late spring three years later I was able to harvest enough stalks for one meal for one person; I supplemented with store-bought so there would be enough for a family meal. Since then, an occasional stalk has shown itself, but by and large, it was a bust.

As for the aforementioned tomato plants in their custom cages, I'll preface the latest in my gardening failure stories with a tale of success. More than a dozen years ago, before my 12-year-old son, Nick, was born, we had a small yard in Abingdon and I bought a half whiskey barrel and filled it with top soil. It was large enough for three tomato plants, and for a span of three or four summers, the half barrel garden produced tomatoes fairly consistently, and in numbers substantial enough that they were available for salads a few times a week.

When we got a larger yard in Forest Hill, my plan was to increase production, hence the tomato cages and the fertilizer. My hope was to become one of those people who harvests so many tomatoes there are enough left over for a winter's worth of tomato sauce plus some to give away.

Many years later, after seasonal plantings of a dozen to as many as 25 tomato plants, the result has been a multi-year harvest total equal to or less than a single season of barrel cultivation in the old days.

Similarly, I've got two grape vines. I tend them and keep them cut to something approximating a production profile. By early summer there will be many clusters of young, hard, sour grapes hanging from the vines. Then, it seems like the second they turn ripe, they're gone.

The problem, it seems, is my garden has been feeding the wild creatures that live in the wood lots around my neighborhood. Directly behind my house is a groundhog that started out small and cute and is now about twice the size of a big dachshund. I suspect it gets into some of my produce, but he's not tall enough to reach the grapes.

The main culprits, I strongly suspect, are deer. I'm continuously surprised by how often I see them in my yard at night, year-round. They leave hoof prints and little piles of what hunters call "deer sign" fairly regularly. Their scent drives the dog crazy.

And I'm convinced they've chewed any green thumb I might have right down to the palm. My tomato plants look healthy. Plenty of leaves. Plenty of little yellow flowers. Plenty of little green tomatoes that never seem to make it quite to being red.

I've tried a few half-hearted tricks to try to frighten the deer, but I kind of like that they show up in my suburban yard, even if it usually happens when I'm asleep. The grape vines will be staying, and I plan to keep them in good production cut, but that's about all the deer feeding I'll be doing this year.

Instead, I think I'll turn my attention to roses, so I can stop to smell them from time to time when the desire for a garden-grown tomato gets my vegetable gardening shortcomings gnawing at me.

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