The new next door neighbor
I called him “Pop.” While twirling and hanging from my blue and yellow metal swing set, I would look over our fence to see his towering frame hunched over his rows of vegetables. Worn-in overalls covered his bulging belly, and thick black-rimmed glasses only slightly obscured his gentle eyes.
Many a summer night I found my mom talking with Pop across the fence — her garden on our side and his garden on his. Everyone had a backyard garden in those days. It wasn’t an uncommon sight for other neighbors to walk over and join the conversation as the cicadas hummed in the background.
Though as a child I hadn’t the patience for this grown-up conversation, I can only imagine now the garden talk crossing the fence line.
Mom, decades later when I began my own garden, recounted a story of a spring day when Pop peered over the fence while she poked seeds in the ground.
“Those won’t grow well,” Pop gently chided. “It’s not the right time.”
Pop planted strictly by the moon phases and the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Root crops go in when the moon wanes, and above-ground crops are planted as it’s waxing. Planting during a full moon is always good, and nothing grows well when planted during a new moon. Though the Old Farmer’s Almanac is still followed by many, it’s not talked about much in gardening circles nowadays.
“But,” Mom recalled, “as crazy as it sounded, he was always right. And his garden grew the best of any in the neighborhood.”
Fast forward three decades to my own home. No fence surrounds my backyard, and my neighbors aren’t close enough to see and talk to on a daily basis. I observe a few gardens as I drive down my street, but my garden community with a few exceptions doesn’t share the same zip code.
But as I’ve come to learn and appreciate, gardeners usually find community in one way or the other.
Last month while preparing my indoor-sown tomato plants for the garden, I hauled those eighty plants outside in the sun during the day and inside during the cold nights — a process called “hardening off.”
My peppers, which wouldn’t begin this hardening off process for a few more weeks, sat cozily under the warm grow lights. One day I noticed several of the pepper plants infested with aphids. It didn’t take long for me to realize the insects hitched a ride on the tomato plants and made their home on my peppers.
Because I do not use pesticides and my garden boasts a healthy population of beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings, and syrphid flies that prey on aphids, I have never had to treat aphids in my garden. But inside this infestation presented a problem. With no beneficial insects to speak of, I had to intervene.
I took to Instagram, sharing my attempts to dislodge the aphids from the peppers leaves with a stream of water and then crushing the remaining ones with my hands. Immediately, gardeners from across the country suggested organic control methods like homemade soap spray and neem oil. In all of my garden reading I’ve heard of most of these methods. But one took me by surprise.
Joey Baird, host of a gardening radio show in Wisconsin, on whose program I’ve been a guest and thus have connected with off Instagram, commented, “You can put worm castings on the soil and water them in. Worm castings have a beneficial item in it that when the plant uptakes it and the aphids suck the juice out of the plant, that beneficial item in the worm castings causes the aphids to begin to dissolve inside of themselves and they die off.”
Now this was a new one. But since I knew Joey had much more gardening experience than me, I wanted to try this method out. And to make it fun — and because I’ve always loved science experiments — I tested this worm casting method against the homemade castile soap spray and neem oil.
You know what? It worked! Within a day the aphids began dying on my peppers that had had no treatment with the exception of one tablespoon of organic worm castings added to the pot. Still a bit perplexed at how this worked, I researched this “beneficial item” in worm castings and found it to be “chitinase.”
Of course, the other two methods worked, too, but I was thrilled to find a way to control this common pest without sprays.
I learned this new-to-me way of treating aphids because of this new way of sharing gardening knowledge “over the fence.” In this case, the fence looks more like a web — the world wide web.
Sure, I may long for the sweet community my mom shared with Pop and with the other families in our neighborhood. And I hope I can continue to connect more with local gardeners as I meet them.
But whether it’s over the literal fence or a figurative one, I’m coming to understand this special bond between gardeners. We don’t have to be next door neighbors anymore to learn from one another. Sometimes it’s as easy as uploading a photo and starting a conversation — a conversation that’s even closer than your backyard.