Storybook Garden


This year I want to have a storybook garden. You know, the kind the neighbors and passersby look at (and envy). The perfect kind you see in stories. I’m well on my way. Yesterday, we bought and planted “Hansel and Gretel” eggplants—the varieties named on the plant markers. I thought they were an apt addition to a storybook garden.

But—here’s the thing—the reason we are planting the eggplants is that the spinach seeds failed. They didn’t come up. The truth is that we have bad luck with spinach. There was that stand back in Colorado when our kids were young, the one that’s become a legend, but that’s been a few years, and subsequent years we’ve not had good luck.

Spinach isn’t the only crop that disappointed. I just got in from replanting bean seeds. There were gaps between the small plants: seeds that didn’t germinate or seedlings that came up with deformed or missing leaves. I looked this up on Google. Chances are the corn seed maggots got to them, apparently. Maybe thrips, too.

Also, not to be picky, but the rows of plants aren’t totally straight. This bothers me (maybe a little too much). This is an ongoing topic of conversation between MEH (My Engineer Husband) and me every year—we’ve had a lot of gardens together. MEH has deep agricultural roots. His grandfather worked for the California Extension Office and he grew oranges. Not for fun or storybooks, but for real. There was an orange named after him, the Gillette Navel. MEH grew up cultivating and irrigating orange groves. He gained serious weeding skills, an even more serious work ethic when it comes to gardening.

On the other hand, I’m what you might call a fair weather, storybook gardener. If it gets too hot, if my crocs get dirt in them, if I get too many mosquito or black fly bites, or if I want to write a blog, I bolt. (MEH’s still out weeding.)

The beans had gaps...

The beans had gaps…

That’s not to say MEH is perfect in the gardening department. He doesn’t sow seeds uniformly (or in straight rows), he’s a reluctant waterer (too many California drought cycles, I’m guessing), and he is gung ho at the beginning of the gardening cycle, but by the end not so much. And MEH doesn’t like weeding. This was a surprise to me because I always thought he did. This morning was the first time I asked him if he liked weeding, and he laughed before answering quickly, “Of course not. I felt like that was my punishment as a child.”

We talked about it for a few minutes. Our memories of childhood gardening chores and how they might have impacted our adult views of gardening—how they might have impacted our life. My backyard was tended mostly by my mother and, later, by a gardener. We might have had a tomato plant or two, a fruit tree or two. Up until I graduated from high school, we had family gardening hours on the weekend when we cleaned up. But we focused on the beauty of the outdoor space. MEH’s experience was more utilitarian: weeding, watering, mowing. MEH had a lot more chores than I had. And because of his family’s dynamics, MEH was often solitary when doing his outside (and inside) chores—he was alone a lot in general.

I’ll admit that the garden has caused some tension over the years. Particularly during planting, we seem to have different approaches: form over function for me. The opposite for MEH. Probably not surprising considering our gardening roots. We’ve been known to argue when planting (those crooked rows) and for other reasons surrounding my storybook expectations. This morning we didn’t have any disagreements. We were both quiet and contemplative—we went out early to beat the bugs and heat—before we talked about our families of origin.

I left MEH in the garden shortly after—to write this blog. I had a pebble in one of my crocs, I had muddy hands, but I’d also finished weeding my half of the garden. I’m faster but less patient and less thorough, and I often leave the weeds’ roots—which drives MEH crazy. MEH’s slower and more methodical; he is more thorough. My beds look better after weeding; MEH’s last longer.

As I walked up the porch steps, I heard “the Tweedles”—dubbed by my daughter when she was home last month—a sweet House Finch family that’s nesting in the eaves. The baby birds were cheeping, and I watched as Mr. Tweedles emerged from the nest and perched briefly on the string of Christmas lights before flying out for more food. Mr. Tweedles might be the more persistent gatherer, I mused, but maybe Mrs. Tweedles is in the nest tending and sprucing. I wondered if the Tweedles chirped about this together. If they ever squabbled.

Last year we didn’t have a vegetable garden—a combination of the weather and lack of gardening gumption. It was our son’s last summer in Maine, and he missed it he said. This year we cleared and planted the garden shortly before he and his girlfriend moved to the southeast. He expressed disappointment when he realized he wouldn’t be around for the bounty, then he said he was thinking about planting a vegetable garden at their new place—“There’s a space,” he said. “I like my agricultural roots.”

I thought about that—what stories my son might tell in his garden.

After I finished my blog, I went out to check on MEH’s progress—he was almost done. I watched him carefully rake out the soil between the rows, and I realized something. Turns out we do have a storybook garden, but not in the way I thought I wanted. Not the glossy cover shot—the story goes much deeper than that.

What’s your gardening style? Are there parts of your life you’d like to be storybook?




  1. Micky Wolf says:

    Love your take on a ‘storybook’ garden–especially with the Hansel and Gretel eggplants. 🙂

    My beloved and I have gardened for years. He grew up in the city and didn’t have much hands on experience but was eager to learn; I was the-little-bit-o-country girl who had a trowel or hoe in hand as soon as I could wield them without endangering others, myself, OR the tender plants!

    Our style and approach is not unlike yours and MEH, although I’m the more intentional weeder. Having said that, both of us like to get in and get out before the heat and bugs of the day are in full force. Also, we converted to raised, wood-box beds a number of years ago which makes tending the veggies less labor intensive.

    Here’s to goin’ and growin’, storybook gardens, where ever you are buddin’, bloomin’ and burstin’ forth! 🙂

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Micky! I have to tell you that after a week of cool rainy weather, our storybook garden is pretty out of control…lots and lots of weeds and the vegetables need sun…

  2. Living in the city, I don’t have a garden, so I don’t know much about the ins and outs of the process. It seems fraught with uncertainty. You can follow all the rules and still corn seed maggots get your spinach, but sometimes you get a wonderful bounty of eggplant.

    I think it’s a bit like writing a novel. You set out at the beginning, unsure, working on it a bit every day, trying to keep your rows even. Maybe you follow the rules, and maybe you break them. Sometimes you just don’t know until the very end if it’s all going to come together.

    Have a great week, Julia!

    • Yes, it truly is fraught with uncertainty (definitely many similarities to novel writing and marketing!). Here’s hoping despite the cool rainy weather, we’ll have a wonderful crop of veggies. Conversely, the writing is doing VERY well in because of the cool weather, lots of inside time 🙂

  3. Cherry says:

    Julia , my C/J H ( my carpenter/ joiner husband ) would say I live in a storybook ( his way of saying always away with fairies )
    I am equally a fair weather gardener, and yet , I grew up with a father , that used evert spare space there was , for growing food . He came from a time when the slogan was ‘Dig For England ‘ war time and all that …bless . Mum would never need to go shopping for fresh produce there was always a bowl of it on kitchen table .
    Me. I grow the odd tomato, runner bean etc . Having just moved to this newly built house I have a blank canvas … Any ideas ? I think I’ll consult my story book more fun .

    • Here’s to storybook life… it can often seem the best kind… at least for us writers, right? I love the story about your father. I love the idea of every inch being used for food, too. It sounds lovely. As for your blank canvas… I’m a fan of the storybook English gardens, too. Such lovely images I’ve seen! I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

  4. Kristen says:

    I loved this post, mostly because I relate to both you AND MEH!! I would be a good gardening mediator between the two of you, should this service ever be needed. Ahem. Anyway, I think my storybook garden happens more temporally than anything else. Right now? Looks awesome, things are growing (spinach too…I wonder why I had better luck!? Isn’t that always the way with gardening??). But come late July and essentially all of August, and I’m not a happy camper out there. I won’t weed when it’s humid/too hot/blazing sun/too many bees…so basically never. That’s when it all goes to crap and I have to search around the lamb’s quarters (which are my first nemesis, even though I know they can be eaten) to find the cukes/tomatoes hiding in their midst. I could talk about gardening all day long, and just maybe we can do that one day in person! 🙂 Here’s to a good growing season!

    • I love that you’re a hybrid between MEH and me. I’ll keep the mediator services in mind. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but…ahem 😉 As for your garden, I’ve seen it on Instagram and it is amazing!! I’m with you, July and August are much too hot (customarily)… although I hope this year is different, in some ways, then I’m afraid we’ll have no tomatoes. Funny, I get no lamb’s quarters at all. Most of our weeds are maple seedlings, bamboo, and forget me nots!! here’s to a lovely growing season!

  5. Julia–
    “Fair weather gardener” struck me to the quick. But then I decided I wasn’t exactly that, but more like a short-ball-hitter gardener. I plant things, but soon call it quits. I do this when critters eat what I plant, or blights attack, leaving my initial efforts in a shredded or collapsed state. “No more!” I tell the never-to-be garden, and abandon all hope. In other words, I tend to take reversals of gardening fortune personally. It’s me and not the plants that have been attacked.
    Some of us have what it takes, and some don’t. Of course you and your husband have a serious history with gardening. Mine stems mostly from carefully edited nature shows on plant life. Not a solid background for the long game that actual gardening requires. I am confident you and MEH will stay the course again this year!

    • Believe me, I can truly relate to the short-ball-hitter gardening. We’ve had those years (plenty) where we plant and abandon. Not so much critters as weeds or lack of water. Like you, I often wonder if I have the right stuff. One of the advantages of a having a partner like MEH is we bolster each other — here’s hoping we stay the course. I’ll keep you posted. And by the way, if you ever take it up again, I’m all for believing we can overcome our past gardening transgressions! 🙂