Tuesday, October 2, 2012


My one small eggplant with small tomatoes.

I grew up in West Charlton (a half hour south west of Saratoga Springs) with a vegetable garden the size of a gymnasium.  We had an asparagus bed, strawberry beds, rhubarb, potatoes, tomatoes, kohlrabi, cucumbers, and rows and rows of beans, peppers and corn.  I am certain that I left a number of things out, but suffice to say, we had plenty of vegetables.

My father turned over the soil every spring after we picked out the rocks, that somehow were not there last year, and added cow manure (from our small herd) to the soil.  Every Memorial Day morning, we headed over to a nearby greenhouse to pick up a few plants to supplement our planting of seeds.  Of course a few items, like asparagus, strawberries and rhubarb came back every year on their own.

It sounds idyllic, to be surrounded by all these natural, luscious vegetables and I did like to eat them, but to me the garden mostly represented work.  A lot of work.  Almost every summer morning, my brother and I could be found in the garden either weeding or picking. It was one of our summer chores. Picking strawberries is relatively easy as is picking tomatoes, but picking green beans off a green bush is slow and tedious.  My brother focused for a short period of time and was done fairly quickly.  I would procrastinate and linger, thereby increasing my lack of enthusiasm for the job and garden.

A number of afternoons every week were filled with canning and freezing.  We would peel and chop while my mom presided over the stove blanching beans, sterilizing bottles or ladling spaghetti sauce into jars to be sealed.  Our basement contained two cupboards of homemade canned goods and our two freezers held bag upon bag of frozen vegetables and beef from our herd.  Trips to the market were primarily for dry and canned goods.

The variety of cucumbers was impressive.  My mom made sweet chunk pickles, dill pickles and bread and butter pickles.  I would frequently come home from school and have a dill pickle or two with a glass of grape juice.  There was always at least one jar of pickles in the fridge at any given time.  With this basement of plenty, my brother and I used to calculate during the cold war, how long we could survive down in the basement between our freezer and two cupboards of canned goods.  Despite the hard work, it was something we were proud of.

Now, thirty years later, I am ready to face vegetable gardening again.  Not as the cheap labor this time, but as the designer, purchaser, chief laborer, waterer, harvester and consumer. The dread I experienced from my days of seeking out thousands of green beans hidden amongst thousands of green leaves has been conquered.

I lived in NYC from 1981 until 2005 and did not really have the opportunity to grow vegetables but now living in Saratoga Springs has ignited my interest in growing my own vegetables.  I was under the impression that my interest and enthusiasm would be enough to grow vegetables.  Not so.  I have spent the last couple of years trying to grow vegetables on my plot of land in town.  First we tried it in the back yard and the plants limped along, so I then moved it to the side yard but the ornamental plum tree nearby cast too much shade.  We took the tree down in 2011 and the plants improved but when the angle of the sun started to shift in August, the tomatoes remained green on the vine.

Apparently, I have one major factor against me; lack of sun.  Although we love our large, hundred year old maple tree in the backyard, its foliage does dominate what goes on and grows back there.  You can have a shade perennial flower garden but it is tough to have a shade vegetable garden.  To add to my shade issues, the opposite side of the street has about half a dozen tall pines that cast a wide berth of shade in the afternoon come mid-August.  I had briefly considered speaking to the property owner about taking them taking down the trees for the benefit of my garden but felt that my request was a little over the top.  People told me to forget vegetables, but I am determined and would even consider green beans.

Armed with the last four years of information and experience, I tried some new strategies this year.  I added even more nutrients to the soil, placed the eggplant and tomatoes in the most advantageous sun spot and planted earlier this year to capitalize on the angle of the sun.  It did not hurt that we enjoyed an abundance of sunny days this summer.

 AND – my results were quite exciting.  This year I have had real peppers, more tomatoes, bushy basil plants, cucumbers, lettuce that keeps coming back and finally some eggplants.   My younger son and I watched the promising purple blossoms on the plant magically turn into small eggplants.  We monitored its daily growth and anticipated the day we would pick it and eat it.  Life was good and going our way. Summer of 2012 would be the start of our garden legacy.

Alas, it was not to be. Tragedy came to our White St. garden; the eggplant was gone.  Plucked clean from its stem.  No tearing, no remnants, no clues.  I discovered the horror first, notified my son and he came running outside.  I gave voice to what we both were thinking,”Who’s been eating my eggplant?”  I made sure to say it loud enough for both my human and animal neighbors to hear. 

I do not want to minimize the attention that a full time farmer gives to each of their plants, but with our eggplant crop numbering four plants in total, our precious plants were watched over obsessively.  Each time we entered and exited the house, we passed by our beloved plants and cast an admiring glance its way.  So when our loving glance was met with an empty cruel space, our devastation was magnified.

We consoled ourselves with the hope of the other two growing eggplants.  There would be more. Other eggplants would soon be on the horizon.   But it was not to be.  Two more eggplants were taken from us.  Unplucked, unappreciated and uneaten by us but picked precisely and carted away by an unknown fan. 

 Interestingly enough, the eggplants were taken from two different gardens.  One was taken from a potted eggplant in the back garden and two were taken from the side garden with sidewalk access.   I called a garden friend and put forth the question, “Who’s been eating my eggplant?”  His thoughts were that it was a human criminal due to the detail that they were picked so precisely without harm to the plant or surrounding plants. He suggested that my son (Joe.tech) set up a camera to catch the thief. (My suggestion was not taken.) Certainly the side garden was accessible to both animal and human but would a human passerby dare to enter my gate and pick an eggplant.  I hope not. 

Over the next couple of days a couple of suspects were seen near or heading toward the garden.  One morning, I walked out of our back door and a woodchuck was headed down the path towards me and possibly in the direction of the side garden and tempting eggplants.  Without a word, but a stern look from me, he turned around his squat body and headed back from whence he came. His actions were suspicious. I guess I showed him.
The next day my husband saw a squirrel make off with a tomato rather handedly. Apparently he was casually walking away and did not seem concerned.   Do squirrels eat eggplants?  I cannot imagine that woodchuck maneuvering that ample round body amongst the other vegetables to procure an eggplant without damage.  The squirrels, with their size, dexterity, rather large population, and overly confident manner, had jumped to the top of our suspect list.  No humans had been seen lurking near the garden or acting suspicious.

At this point, it must appear that whining is the only action that we took.  Not so.  My mother (gardener extraordinaire) offered her unused plastic, lifelike owl.  We placed the owl right next to our largest eggplant hoping that he looked impressive.  I also set up a little series of sticks in a cross hatching pattern to limit access to my eggplants.  This protection worked for a number of days and passed the test of us being out of town for four days over Labor Day weekend.  However, the next weekend, when we went to NYC, two smaller eggplants were swiped.  In a rush to save our remaining eggplant, we picked it before it’s time, but…. we have an eggplant at last.  We should have about ten eggplants, but we have only one.

Now. I am not the over protective type with my possessions and property nor do I feel that I should have dominion over all animals on our lot.  My neighbor Jane and I share a fence line where we both enjoy the plants that appear to grow on both sides.  I have saved two squirrels from death in my back yard in recent years.  One was trapped in the light-post glass and the other had fallen into a barrel of rain water.  We rescued them both with oven mitts and without hesitation.  When a bug is found in our home, anything from an ant to a centipede, we gently capture it and escort it outside.  (We are less warm to any mice that wander in)  Our household upholds a welcoming policy.

BUT eating my eggplant is where I draw the line.  As we speak, the eggplants are featuring five more purple blossoms with hopes of maturity.  This week, I am heading over to a gardening store to secure some chicken wire to surround my plants.  Depending on who the eggplant lover is, it may or may not help.  My husband added another owl to the garden and quite frankly, I prefer this more natural approach to protection but I have been driven to use unsightly chicken wire to protect my eggplants.  

Useless owl presiding over the eggplants.
As each eggplant begins to emerge from the purple blossoms, I imagine the dishes I will make with my aubergine vegetables; the parmesans, the fried eggplant with lemon and the eggplant sandwiches.  I am headed out of town for an overnight and hope that in my absence, my two owls and chicken wire do their job and protect my highly popular eggplant.  I will keep you posted on the survival of my veggies and if the mystery is solved as to, “Who’s eating my eggplant?”

Update – Monday 10/1 – Well I never made it to the hardware store before departing to purchase the chicken wire and construct my protective structure.  So when I returned Sunday evening, one of the small eggplants was gone.  Disgusted with myself, I headed over to Allerdice hardware  Monday morning, and as I am discussing my eggplant dilemma with one of the male clerks, the person to my left taps my arm.  I turn and it is a friend of mine who is an avid gardener.  We all discuss the animal possibilities and decide that it is either squirrels or bunnies and she recommends cayenne pepper.  Kim suggests that I sprinkle it around the ground, and plant.  No harm will come to the animals and as they nibble the plant or lick their paws they will experience the cayenne’s peppers spicy heat that will send a message not to come back.  Sounds safe and easier and less unsightly than the chicken wire.

Upon arrival at my home, I head into the kitchen, snatch the cayenne pepper and start sprinkling away. Inventory reveals that I have three blooms left and one small, lonely eggplant holding on in the fridge waiting for others to join it and make a meal.  At this rate, I may have to cave and make one serving of whatever – either one parmesan, one sandwich or one serving of fried eggplant.  This story is not over yet.  Even if my remaining eggplants survive, I still want to know, “Who’s eating my eggplant?”

Diane Lachtrupp Martinez