Catching the gardening bug

Posted June 11, 2010, at 10:20 p.m.

My friend Ted is the kind of gardener that won’t take no for an answer. Where others shy away from the prospect of growing anything on a 5-by-20-foot lawn directly adjacent to a busy road, Ted finds the idea enticing. His small but tasty crop of beans, peas, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, beets, onions, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini and herbs, in addition to the more than 20 varieties of flowers he cares for, prove his enthusiasm is well-founded. Which is why I blame Ted, in part, for my recent descent into what may be the most addictive of all hobbies: gardening.

Ted studied botany at the University of Maine where we met nearly 10 years ago. Though he doesn’t work in the field, he does maintain a lifelong passion for growing things. When he lived in rural Dixmont, he grew flowers and vegetables; now that he lives in urban Bangor, like me, he makes do with the land he has and grows on his front lawn, in beds and boxes around the house, and in containers. I always was secretly jealous of his green thumb.

My move to the green side started last March. In a fit of spring cleaning, Ted bequeathed me an aloe plant, an apple-scented geranium, and a sad-looking potato plant in a huge ceramic pot, telling me he needed to get rid of some plants or else he feared he would become one of them.

I brought them home, treating them like abandoned kittens. I watered them, tossed in some plant food, and set them in the large picture windows in our living room to accompany my Japanese money tree and my golden pothos, two hardy plants I’ve had for years. Soon after, I brought them some friends, picking up an ivy plant and a bromeliad from Home Depot. Our living room felt much more cheery and comfortable.

But houseplants are only a gateway drug. As if guided by the will of some ancient agricultural goddess, I found myself in late March at Ocean State Job Lot purchasing a large starter tray already filled with soil, and then snagging packages of nasturtium, impatiens and Roma tomato seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Aside from a few science projects in middle school, I’ve never grown anything from scratch. Hey, go big or go home, right? If I can teach myself to skateboard and play guitar, I can do this. And when my plants sprouted in mid-April, I was thrilled.

I also was hooked. In early May, when I transplanted my seedlings to the containers I bought at Marden’s, I found myself wandering over to Sprague’s Nursery in Bangor and buying some snapdragons to accompany the flowers. I bought a bag of Miracle-Gro potting soil, a big bag of topsoil with peat moss in it, and a bucket of manure. I mixed them all together and planted everything during the last weekend in April.

Our apartment has access to the large, flat roof on the south side of our building, which receives near constant sun from late morning until evening. In the summer, my fiance Zach and I enjoy the beautiful view of the sunset from folding chairs, while making dinner on our tiny Coleman grill. Why I didn’t start a container garden last summer was probably because of laziness; this year, there are more plants than chairs. The juxtaposition of traffic, voices from the street and the tops of other buildings with my growing oasis of plants is quite pleasing.

I’ve spent way, way too much money on my garden. One weekend it was a pepper plant, an impulse buy while at (gasp) Wal-Mart; then it was basil, oregano, cilantro, parsley and rosemary from an array of places. Try putting goat cheese and fresh rosemary on your burgers. It rules. At the Orono Farmer’s Market a few weekends ago, I bought some absolutely gorgeous pink and red dianthus and yellow and red dahlias from Evermay Nursery, based in Old Town, as well as a spearmint plant from Snakeroot Farm in Pittsfield. Visions of mojitos and Moroccan food danced through my head.

I’m trying to keep things as local and chemical-free as possible, but then again, it’s easy to get distracted by rows and rows of plants at big box stores. The plants I grew from seed are doing remarkably well, and, like children, I’m terribly proud of their success — but I won’t lie, I bought some more impatiens from Sprague’s to add a bit more color. I’m awaiting the arrival of my tomatoes and nasturtiums, though I realize neither will produce flowers or fruit until, at the earliest, July.

The biggest challenge thus far has been keeping all my plants watered, while not over-watering them. We don’t have a hose on our roof, so Zach and I have been forming a bucket brigade (one person fills the can from the sink, the other waters the plants) to get the job done. It also is a bit of a task to lug bags of soil and increasingly heavy containers up the stairs to our second-floor apartment, through the living room and kitchen, out the big back window and onto the roof. So far, that hasn’t stopped me.

My inspiration is partly my freelance botanist buddy Ted, and the urban garden that he tirelessly maintains all season. My other inspiration is my grandfather, Joshua, who passed away last year. For decades he kept a large vegetable garden at his house in Belfast, as well as a greenhouse for growing, among many other things, his famous New Guinea impatiens — a nod, perhaps, to where he was stationed during World War II. Growing up, we always had fresh lettuce, tomatoes, beans and carrots on the dinner table. If there’s a genetic element to a green thumb, I have him to thank.

As the season rolls along, I’ll undoubtedly add more plants. Just this week I purchased eggplant and cucumber seedlings at Sprague’s. I’m thinking some late season peas may factor into the equation soon, as well. When we go to the Common Ground Fair in Unity this September, we’ll probably pick up Ted and snack on carrots from his garden all the way there.

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