Gardeners Paradise Regained

By Gregg Fedchak

My garage is an arsenal filled with Wall o' Waters and chicken wire, rolls of black plastic and Reemay. The enemies -- The climate here in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. My growing season is only three months long at best, and the nights are so cold that tomatoes never ripen properly.

I can live with that, and I have lived with that, but as I surveyed my rows of frost-blackened green beans last June, I thought, "Where can I move to make gardening easier?" Every gardener has dreamed of a better place to grow their plants. So is there a Garden of Eden somewhere in the U.S. where gardening is naturally easier and just about every vegetable grows well.

Yes. California. It has broad valleys with the best soil on earth, plenty -- but not too much -- heat, lots of sun and a long growing season. Everything from broccoli to melons thrives there. California is a gardener's paradise.

Or is it? A three-bedroom ranch home can cost more than $300,000 and might not include enough land to grow anything on. Much of the state lives only through the grace of massive irrigation systems. There are well-known pollution problems, population pressures and a prolonged recession. And then there are the earthquakes....

Maybe the Garden of Eden is a little farther north, then, in the Willamette Valley, or along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Everybody is aware of this region's plentiful rainfall. The soils are good, and the long growing seasons can't be beat. But what about the gloom factor -- Many parts of Oregon and Washington state not only get a lot of rain, they get clouds -- day in and day out. Nobody wants to go outside and garden in a place that even Scandinavians find forbidding.

What about the opposite corner of the country, the Southeast -- Is, say, South Carolina a heaven on earth for a gardener -- True to the South's reputation for hospitality, the Cooperative Extension folks down there sure are friendly and helpful. Real estate is cheap: The same ranchouse that goes for more than a quarter of a million dollars in California costs maybe $65,000 in Orangeburg and comes with enough land to grow pumpkins. There's plenty of rainfall. And the growing season is long and dynamic enough to grow both cool- and warm-season crops.

But it's also long enough to grow several generations of insects and a host of diseases. The heavy red clay that's endemic to much of the Southeast is almost impossible to work. The plentiful rainfall is unpredictable, sometimes disappearing for one month or three, sometimes washing the yard away, not to mention the hurricanes that rip through every few years. And who wants to garden in 90° F heat and 90% humidity -- What tomato wants to reliably set fruit in it. Now we're running out of possibilities. Iowa -- Nice soil, too many tornadoes and floods. The Finger Lakes region of New York -- A balmy climate, compared with Siberia.

It's late August as I write this, and every day the sun slants lower and lower over the Adirondack foothills that ring me inside my own little world. We've had about a dozen New Yorker tomatoes, odd-shaped little nuggets with little or no flavor, but red! That much can't be said for the Early Picks, weighted down with dark green fruit that will never mature. The cantaloupes are little better, with fingernail-sized globes that refuse to grow.

The last two nights here have been in the low 30s. Any day now, when the weather report down in Syracuse warns that frost is possible "in the normally colder valleys," my brief gardening year will be sharply curtailed.

But the Brussels sprouts and broccoli will thrive, and there will be a rich treasure of potatoes and carrots to dig all autumn. So there won't be any melons. There will be winter squash and marvelous 'Autumn Gold' pumpkins and decorative gourds.

There is a gardener's paradise, an infinite number of them, actually, as many as there are gardeners. It's the West Coast, where the bounty of the fall garden thrives through winter. It's down South, where gardeners are eating peas when some of us are still waiting for the last vestiges of snow to melt so we can think about planting something.

My own paradise is here in the North, in these foothills. Yours -- Most likely it is in your backyard, too.

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