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Oh, to Pick the Perfect Pepper!

There is something so elemental about vegetable gardening, putting a simple seed in the ground, watering and watching over it until one day a tiny green sprout appears.

flower garden

Vegetable plants sit between blooming flowers in this eye-pleasing but functional garden. Photo by Susan Dewey

I can still remember the excitement I felt when I planted a row of radishes in my first vegetable garden. One of the easiest, quickest vegetables to grow, the sprouts popped up, flourished in no time at all and soon plump red radishes formed, perfect for salads.

I planted that first vegetable garden when I was around 30, in a small space beside our house on the Mount Hope Bay. I was lucky enough to inherit the garden from a previous organic gardener who had prepared the soil really well, removing all the sod and New England stones, digging down several feet, and adding lots of well-rotted manure and organic matter to the soil.

Gardening by the salt water is a gift—vegetable plants seem to love the warm moist air. That first year, besides the radishes, I grew several different kinds of lettuce, fat Early Girl and Better Boy tomatoes, sturdy basil—I even had some pretty good peppers. With our two small children, I used to spend hours in the garden. I was hooked, as were my children, who used to love helping me weed, rake, plant, and especially water, the garden. I thought vegetable gardening was a breeze.

flower garden

Bright red flowers add a pop of color to the green landscape. Photo by Susan Dewey

I soon learned that in addition to patience, gardening can teach you humility. My next vegetable garden was in a field behind our new home in Central Massachusetts. As soon as we moved in, I started dreaming of my huge new garden, even envisioning perfect swaying rows of corn.

Perhaps I should have listened to the man in his 80s, a devoted gardener, who had grown up in our house, tilled gardens there for decades, and who had a 1930s degree from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMASS Amherst.

“Well, you can try,” said Fred, a lean New Englander with a strong handshake. “I never had much luck getting anything to grow there—except gourds. Everyone loved my gourds for their Thanksgiving tables. It’s pretty wet back there and you really can’t plant to August, but give it a try.”

Still in my early 30s, I believed I could get anything to grow anywhere if I tried hard enough, so I forged ahead. Our helpful neighbor plowed and tilled the field with his tractor, my small son seated beside him, watching the dark earth appear in beautiful orderly rows like magic. The garden looked so fertile, as if anything could grow there. We excitedly planted row after row of corn, tomatoes, peppers, and squash.

vegetable

Radishes are a great vegetable for beginner gardeners to try their hand in growing. Photo by Susan Dewey

It was a disaster. The corn plants were spindly and collapsed. The tomato plants rotted. I think we had a few puny zucchini, most of which got eaten by a huge healthy woodchuck that lived in the woods behind us. Sick at heart, I faced the fact that Fred was right. The soil in the field was very wet, full of clay, and terrible for growing anything but gourds that only flourished because by August, the soil had dried out enough for germination.

After that, I kind of gave up on vegetable gardening, except for a few planters of patio tomatoes and some pots of basil and parsley. Instead, I tackled the old perennial gardens around our yard, planted with drifts of iris, peonies, wildflowers, and daylilies, which thrived and bloomed happily year after year. But every summer, I longed for the taste of my own fresh vegetables.

When we moved to Cape Cod several years ago, my son decided that we should have a vegetable garden. Something about gardening as a toddler must have taken root in him and he is a landscape contractor now.

With his knowledge from a Stockbridge degree, he prepared the soil carefully in a somewhat neglected plot on the other side of our driveway, piling dark rich compost from a local supplier into sandy Cape soil.

tomato

Fresh, ripe tomatoes glisten in the sunlight. Photo by Susan Dewey

At the center of the garden, he made a small decorative flower out of paving stones, brought back from a stay in New Orleans, when he helped the city replant its parks after Hurricane Katrina. In neat rows we planted some old standbys—tomatoes, lettuce, basil, and carrots. A more adventuresome gardener than I, he planted things like cilantro and arugula.

Our first garden, planted in 2008, was pretty successful. In 2009, we were devastated by the tomato blight that hit gardens all over New England, but we had arugula and cilantro galore. Last summer, the garden began to really take hold. The kale and zucchini plants exploded, taking over the beds. The Better Boy tomatoes were so plentiful I had enough to share with friends and co-workers and ended up freezing container after container, great for winter spaghetti dinners.

We had colorful “Rainbow Lights” swiss chard, tasty fat brussels sprouts, sweet cucumbers—and lots of basil and arugula, which I have discovered I cannot live without. I am still struggling with peppers and my broccoli was a disaster, but all in all, my latest vegetable garden was the most successful ever.

I hope that if I live a few more decades—say to 80 or so—I will figure out how to grow a perfect pepper. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Although I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.” Or who knows? Maybe by then I’ll have learned that it’s okay to settle for nothing more than a harvest of gorgeous gourds for our Thanksgiving table.



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