I spent a lot time recently kneeling in the dirt, glaring at two eggplants. Their leaves were peppered with holes, evidence of visits from the ravenous flea beetles. Were the eggplants dead, I wondered, or in recovery?
Similarly, the pepper plants looked grim. Instead of adding leaves, they had been dropping them. The perpetrator of this condition remained unknown and at large.
The leeks, which I had brought to life weeks earlier on a sunny window ledge, seemed to have disappeared shortly after I planted them in the garden ground. In retrospect, I think I might have been the culprit, cutting the thin, green leeks down with a hoe in a frenzy of "weed" clearing.
Death is a big part of gardening, at least in my experience. I never handle it well. I have a deep, some might say irrational, belief in resurrection. I anoint the ailing with seaweed extract. I sprinkle the bug-afflicted with pyrethrin. I swaddle the young in agricultural fleece.
When they die, and usually they do, I feel that they have let me down. Gardening psychiatrists, if there were such people, would probably refer to this as "transference." I call it "shifting the blame." The eggplant did it; not I. It refused to thrive. I gave it every opportunity, and that ungrateful piece of protoplasm turned on me.
Such rationalization might work if I gardened in isolation. But like many myths, once this one is exposed to public view, it withers. I toil in a community garden in Druid Hill Park. That means I am surrounded by other cultivated plots, most of them much more successful than mine.
It is hard to blame the eggplant for failing when a mere 20 feet away, several eggplants prosper in another's garden. The excuse that it has been a bad year for peppers might fly had I not seen lush pepper plants, some laden with green fruit, while watering a vacationing neighbor's plot this week.
I suppose it is human nature to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill. But my taste tests prove that the peas growing 30 paces away from my plot are much sweeter than those struggling in my soil.
Growing vegetables in a community garden is like having your grade-school essay posted on the classroom bulletin board. You think you are doing well until you compare your efforts to the soaring accomplishments of those around you.
Gardening success and its familiar companion, failure, seem to revolve around time and timing.
You have to put in the time, hours preparing the soil, many more hours weeding, and some hours planning and fetching.
More important, you have to work when it matters, and when nature calls, you have to be ready to give a quick response.
You have to plant the peas on those spring days when the soil is dry and warm, not soggy and cold. Then you have to give the peas water during their formative youth, not when it fits your schedule.
You have to put the fleece on the eggplants immediately after you put them in the soil, not a week or so later, when you have finally bought a roll of it in a garden shop. By then the flea beetle hordes have descended and done their worst.
You root for rain, which has been in short supply this year. But you have to haul your haunches out to the garden and pull out the hose when the forecasted showers don't materialize.
I don't know if gardening has taught me how to cope with disappointment, but it certainly has reminded me it is a part of life.
A vegetable garden is, I think, like a big city. There are spots that prosper and parts that shrink.
You minister to the dwindling, trying to learn from your mistakes. But to keep your spirits buoyed, you also search for signs of triumph.
This week, looking up from the shriveling eggplants and peppers, my eyes caught sight of a flourishing row of tomato plants. Two had baseball-size fruit. My heart gladdened.
That meant that despite my disenchantment in the dirt this spring, my fantasy of harvesting a ripe tomato by the Fourth of July - every vegetable gardener's fantasy - might be fulfilled.