The Weekend Garden

The inspiring Katrin of the blog Taking Notes posts frequent, envy-inducing photos of the things she grows out at her “big old house in the country.” Conveniently for the rest of us, she always separates her posts into indoors and outdoors, and then into areas like the deck, the walled garden (almost entirely flowers) and the kitchen garden (entirely things to eat). Maintaining a house and garden like hers, and making it look so effortless, she is quick to point out, is in fact very hard work. When I met up with her for lunch in Berlin a while ago (back when she was still working in the city and needed to make the commute of over an hour each way), I asked her what her secret was. My plan had been to commiserate over the trials and tribulations of owning such a property, and the relative difficulty of finding time and energy in one’s day to renovate the house while growing a real live, usable garden. I had been mistaken, it seemed, because Katrin did not appear the least bit stressed about the work that was surely ahead of her when she got home. “I do a little bit every day,” she explained. “My husband and I are the kind of people who have to.”

Indeed when asked, the inimitable Karin, partner of our local farmer Bauer Krause, whom I’ve no doubt made famous with my Berlin Stories recording, had much the same to say: “Ein Garten muss jeden Tag seinen Gärtner sehen” – “A garden must see its gardener every day.” In short, that means stepping out into the green at least once a day, even if only for a few minutes, trimming here, weeding there, squashing the inevitable slug, bug or harmful beetle. The only way to keep a garden in good shape is to make sure it sees you every day. The alternative is to leave it until the weekends, by which point there is so much to do you, don’t know where to start, eventually get discouraged, and very often don’t accomplish any of the tasks you set out for yourself. And yet, some people simply have to wait until the weekend.

So there’s the walled garden and the kitchen garden, the flower garden and the vegetable garden (known in German as a Nutzgarten because it grows things you can use, as opposed to things you can ooh and aah at). But what do you do if you can’t manage any of those? Allow me to introduce the weekend garden.

The weekend garden is made up of all the delicious, high-yield types of plants and trees that will produce regardless of whether you are there or not. It is a garden for those who love gardening, but cannot do it every day. For those who want to see the literal fruits of their labor, without having the time to set aside for labor every day. For those who cannot be there each and every night to tuck the plants into bed, but still want to see those plants grow up to be productive, high-functioning adults. We were lucky enough to have a weekend garden already half set up for us when we got here. The garden had four apple trees, a pear tree, a peach tree, two plum trees, a hazelnut tree, a raspberry patch, a strawberry patch, gooseberries, and some rhubarb already planted. J planted blackberries quite early on, and since then we have added a mulberry tree, a quince tree, an apricot tree, three black currant bushes and even more rhubarb. We have carved out an herb patch that we add to every year. Just on the other side of our property is a line of apple trees, two more pear trees (one with the creamiest, juiciest sort I’ve ever tasted), a towering walnut tree, a red currant bush, and a hidden sour cherry grove. If you want to plant anything else, though, it takes constant vigilance, work, and care, and you may find yourself getting a little manic as you try to fit it all in.

It goes something like this: Stay in the city for work until Friday night, at which point you’ll find yourself having a party or dinner to go to, or your husband will have a gig. Pack up the car beforehand, drive to said party or gig, finally leaving the city at around midnight or one in the morning, arriving in Brandenburg at around two (mercifully but not surprisingly, traffic is at its lightest after every normal person has gone to bed). Immediately switch out city shoes for work boots, grab a flashlight, and proceed to go through the garden plant by plant, tree by tree, checking that everything is still there, nothing has died, and nothing has been eaten up. Go to bed relatively satisfied, gathering strength for the workday ahead.

Wake up on Saturday morning and assess whatever damage may not have been visible by flashlight in the early morning hours. Mark which patches need to be weeded, which plants are in especially dire need of pruning or water, and be aware of the straggly new patches of stinging nettles that may have sprung up and will later need to be yanked. Good that you were wearing those work boots last night.

After coffee and breakfast, commence a terrific amount of weed-wacking before the sun hits its highest point in the sky, making strenuous activity virtually impossible in the summer heat. The herb patch must be cleaned of stray grasses and clovers, the strawberry patch trimmed (since strawberry plants are the octomoms of the gardening world, reaching out their tendrils to make more and more babies almost faster than you can cut them), the beans checked on and gently directed up their metal stakes, and the pumpkins cleared of dried leaves and blossoms.

Oh yes, the pumpkins. For the first year ever we’ve decided to experiment with a pumpkin patch. One of the important things about having a weekend garden is knowing what not to plant. Gardens require constant maintenance, as stated earlier, and planting anything that needs water nearly every day, or is in danger of getting eating up by snails and slugs is a real no-no. We once planted cauliflower, only to result in the tiniest of tiny heads at the end of months of waiting. We planted Mangold (“Swiss chard,” but the German name is so much more appealing) only to have leaves and stalks half eaten up before we could harvest them. Beans have worked well in the past because it turns out “Jack and the Beanstalk” is nearly a true story: the plants grow like tropical pests, producing beans over more than a month until you are sick of them, all while stretching up to the sky. But all that time I had dreamed of a pumpkin patch, seeing how effortlessly they seemed to grow in every other garden.

We saved the seeds from a Hokkaido pumpkin Karin had given us the year before, planted them in pots, and then, when sprouts broke the surface, replanted them in buckets with the bottoms sawed off. This, we reasoned, would imitate the all-important Hochbette (high beds) that were most conducive to growing vegetables that would not be completely devoured. We placed our pumpkin buckets in five different locations around the garden where we wagered the soil and sunlight might be best, sprinkled Schneckenlinsen (slug pellets) around them to keep away the slimy little buggers, and waited to see which one sprouted blossoms first.

So far we’ve been overjoyed with the results (all five plants have flowers, three of them already have baby pumpkins), but I’m being “cautiously optimistic,” as I told J after checking them for the umpteenth (pumpteenth?) time. You see, if you’re not around every day to check, horrible things can happen, and sometimes that late-Friday-night flashlight excursion can yield nightmarish images: slugs piling on top of a favorite plant like American football players trying to keep the plant from making a touchdown. A cute new flower variation you had planted just one weekend earlier, now so eaten up it looks as if it never existed in the first place. Nasturtiums hit with an infestation of caterpillars, formerly so fuzzy and adorable, now turned harbingers of the apocalypse by the sheer menacing number of them.

This year our peach tree was struck with some kind of fungal illness that caused the sleek green leaves to blow up with bumpy, warty, red bubbles and then shrivel and drop off. We were in agony for an hour or two, until we went over to Karin for advice and discovered that her peach tree was suffering from the same thing. “Don’t worry,” she counseled us, “the fruit will be unharmed.” We waited about a month, until almost every leaf was gone, and then marveled as the hardy tree grew new leaves to replace the old, each one of them as perfect as if the tree had never been sick in the first place.

There is a lesson to be learned there, I suppose. The beauty of the weekend garden is that even when disaster has struck and the worst has already happened, you know you’ll always have another chance. You’ll feel less betrayed by nature because really, in comparison to the Katrins and the Karins of the world, you’ve probably put much less time and effort into the garden. After all, you’re only there to work on it from Saturday to Monday. If the peach tree is struck by disease one year (or your favorite apple tree nearly felled by a two-day storm, as in 2011, the year of your soaking wet wedding), there is always next year.

And with next year, of course, comes the promise that you’ll find a way to rearrange your life yet again for this garden, this patch of earth you love so much. You’ll find a way to transform the weekend garden into the real, true, daily garden you always envisioned. A garden where cauliflower grows to full size, where bulbous rows of lettuce are there for the picking, where pumpkins turn into carriages, and the beanstalk reaches all the way up to the kingdom of the giants.