A Garden Story
Recently, I interviewed for a head gardener position and the best question I was asked was if there was a favorite garden story I would like to share. That was not one of the many standard questions I had prepared for, so it caught me off guard, and impulsively I decided to tell them about my failure as a vegetable gardener last year. Odd choice of a story to tell in an interview for a horticulture position I really wanted, but I could not help myself. I like the story, so I went ahead with it.
I described how I had rearranged all my planting boxes to align with the path of the sun. How instead of winging it like I usually do, I made elaborate charts and graph paper diagrams. I chitted my organic potatoes. I cleared a space in our basement and started tomatoes and lettuces from seed under grow-lights. I planned everything out so it would be my best vegetable garden ever. When spring came, I planted interesting beets and kale. And heirloom beans. I made my own clever bamboo trellises. It was all going so well. But something happened by late spring and overnight it seemed, my vegetable garden quietly went off the rails and chaos crept in.
“I don’t know what happened exactly,” I told them. “Let’s just blame it on the weather” one of my interviewers conspired helpfully. Truth be told, I had been working long hours and been distracted by other projects and the vegetable garden simply had gotten away from me. Much earlier than usual. The other truth is, it always gets away from me sooner or later. But I left that bit out.
I was reminded of my failure twice a day on my way to and from work, as the path to my vehicle goes past my vegetable garden. I was humiliated by the fact the lettuces I had grown indoors could not compare with the robust and colorful volunteers that had sprouted outdoors all on their own. The wild lettuces laughed at my grow-light seedlings who were struggling to catch up. Meantime, the cabbage worms were decimating my kale leaving behind pathetic green ribs. And it rained too much. And it was too cold. But, I had spread in a bed that had remained empty, a little paper bag full of milkweed seeds that I had collected the previous fall. Just to see what might happen.
Milkweed is the sole food a Monarch butterfly larva will eat. No milkweed- no Monarchs. It’s that simple.
In a matter of days a 1000 seeds or more sprouted and I now had this 4’ square bed of milkweed seedlings. A virtual Monarch Magnet I thought. Things were looking up! I stepped over my crowded and falling over worm-eaten crops daily to check for eggs or little caterpillars, but for weeks there was nothing. I contemplated cheating and importing a few from the local forest preserve. Would that be legal? Maybe not, so I dropped that angle. And then I went on vacation.
When I came back, I was delighted to find my milkweed patch had grown much taller and now hosted a dozen or more tiny Monarch larvae. What a thrill! I had always wished for Monarchs in my garden, and now I had some. I counted them daily but was frequently discouraged to find many missing in the morning… then, another batch would hatch to my relief.
One morning, I discovered a celadon green chrysalis hanging gracefully from a slender branch of dill from which a single drop of dew dangled in the sun. A natural mobile, I thought. It was SO perfectly perfect. I said to myself “I’m going to photograph this every single day until it becomes a butterfly and it’s going be just incredible!” But, on about day seven, I awoke to find that a skunk or raccoon had had it for dinner. It was such a let down that I decided that the next time I found one- if I were to find one- I would intervene and rescue it.
A couple of days later, I did find one of my caterpillars far across the yard stiffly hanging upside down in the shape of a “J” patiently waiting to pupate- that’s when in two blinks of an eye it would wriggle off its yellow, black and white skin for the last time and reveal the chrysalis hidden underneath. It had chosen to do this right on the footpath of the neighborhood raccoon family. I knew it would not last one night in that spot, so I brought it indoors and carefully set it in a box. By the following morning it had transformed itself into a tiny green chrysalis and the two-week waiting period had begun.
Some days I would get worried because I would forget to check it before I went to work. I pictured the butterfly emerging in my absence only to have the cat get it. After all that. As it turned out though, I was home on the day that it was ready. I could see the black and orange of the wings clearly now, so I knew the time was getting close. I took the chrysalis and the scrap of leaf it was attached to back outdoors into the garden and gently attached it to a rusty rebar arch that was supposed to have been for beans. I then pulled up a garden chair to watch. When lunchtime came, I darted inside to make a quick sandwich. Alas! My timing was off and by the time I returned my butterfly had already hatched. I had missed the very moment- the big reveal- I had been waiting for.
The disappointment was momentary, however. ”Never mind,” I thought- and anyway, it was a girl! I am outnumbered by males in my family, so the appearance of a female- even a female butterfly- is exciting. (Female Monarch wings do not have scent glands so they are easily identified.)
Please click on the link below to see the video
For the remainder of the day I watched her unfurl her wings and pump them full of blood and then open and close them over and over and over as she prepared to fly… It was a process I had never before witnessed up close and it was mesmerizing. She- my Monarch- was absolutely the most exquisite butterfly I felt like I had ever seen. She was a Super Monarch- it being the end of the season- so she was extra large and extra beautiful. And strong enough, certainly, to make the 2000 mile journey to Mexico. I was sure if it.
As the day wore on, she was having trouble gripping the rebar I had put her on. It was too slippery. Once again, I intervened and I let her crawl up my sleeve instead. Slowly she scaled my arm flexing her wings more quickly as she went. Picking up speed she made her way up to my shoulder and over my ear touching my cheek with her wing. Then, into my hair to the top of my head where finally she launched herself into the air and fluttered across the yard to my birch tree- right above where she had made herself into a little “J” just two weeks prior. There she promptly folded up her wings for a good night’s rest. She had earned it.
She was still there in the morning, unharmed, but when I got home from work that evening she was gone and I was happy. I like to picture her hibernating on an Oyamel fir tree high in the mountains of central Mexico waiting for the moment in a month or two when she will wake up and flutter north again in a cloud of other Monarchs to begin the cycle anew.
My little female Monarch was a lovely reminder that sometimes what we plant in our gardens is not what comes up, and sometimes what comes up is better that what we planned. I’ll be back to winging it again this year in my veggie garden, except for one thing: I will definitely be planting more milkweed. I can hardly wait to see what grows!
I did end up getting the job.
© Charlotte Blome 1/20/2020