MY MARBLEHEAD FIRST TIME: A more hospitable garden spot

Growing up on a farm back home, in addition to the commercial operation, we raised a garden. Not your typical garden, either, with a few tomato plants, a carrot patch, maybe some cucumbers. This garden was an operation, laid out with precision by my mom to encompass a good half-acre of food production. There were rows of sweet corn. Fields of tomatoes. Spreads of potatoes, sweet peas, green beans, bell peppers. There was even a pumpkin patch, which yielded so many that it became an annual tradition for a truckload of pumpkins to arrive in time for the school Halloween party. Jack-o-lanterns for all!

My mom rode herd on this effort, because my mom adhered to the creed — familiar to the Yankee ingenuity found in these parts — that homegrown and homemade is superior to store-bought in every instance save black licorice. (My mom has a thing for black licorice.)

That’s why I grew up eating nothing but homemade bread, sporting homemade shirts and trousers, gathering eggs from the henhouse, dining on steaks that came from cattle I’d fed myself and supping on produce straight from our own garden. That half-acre produced vastly more than we could eat in season, so my mom spent a couple weeks at the end of the summer in a hot kitchen, canning. All winter long, one of us kids would be sent scampering down to the cellar to fetch a can of tomatoes, or sweet corn, or sweet peas, to say nothing of raspberry jam, rhubarb jelly and chokecherry cordial. We ate well all year round thanks to her ceaseless efforts. We all should be so lucky!

It’s not particularly friendly dirt out there on the high plains. The tawny soil forms a rock-hard crust you must shatter with a shovel, after which the powder beneath up and blows away at the first hint of wind, which arrives daily. As summer progresses, the soil gives warm welcome to puncture vines (called stickers and goat heads) big enough to pop bike tires and tenacious sandburs, while only grudgingly supporting the vegetables you attempt to coax forth.

And, of course, nothing will grow at all without copious amounts of water. We kept a garden hose running constantly and even used to divert irrigation water from the surrounding fields to give the garden a drink. It was never enough. As in the farm fields, the water vanished into the soil and the dust would return the very next day. By midsummer, it was daily hand-to-hand combat with the weeds, my mom sending us kids down there armed with hoes and leather gloves. Out on the plains working the earth is, as they say, a tough row to hoe.

I thought of all this when my partner and I at our house here in Marblehead, decided it was time to wake the garden up from the long winter. “Gardening,” as I said, is a relative term. This was a far cry from the industrial-scale production of my raising. We cleared out last year’s dead growth and planted roses, mandevilla, begonia and impatiens. Making a lovely ornamental garden. Practical stock that we are, the produce of this garden will have its use for flower arrangements and centerpieces that my partner, among her many talents, will expertly craft.  

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, our area of Massachusetts is currently considered to be “Abnormally Dry.” Digging my fingers into the moist soil of our garden, I found this more than a little hard to believe. In the rainiest year I can ever remember, the soil back home was never as damp as the soil we planted roses into. In addition, this black soil is super rich and doesn’t require amendments like the tough soil out on the plains. My goodness, back home we could’ve fed an army out of this rich soil! Even the weeds are tamer here, timid green shoots with nary a prick nor a thorn to deter the avid plucker.

There were also ferns in the garden, a species of plant that looks positively primordial to my eye. It hasn’t rained enough on the plains to produce ferns since the brontosaurus roamed. I think I learned the reason ferns have survived these few hundred million years: they produce an impressive root system. Digging up the root ball was like uprooting a tree. And even if the fern has no stickers or prickers to deter attackers, they are tenacious. Just a few days after I pulled every fern root from the soil I could find, new fronds unfurled from the soil. I plucked those, too, but I suspect I have not seen the last of them.

In the days since we finished planting, I’ve dragged the garden hose out. My partner gently told me to cease and desist; the plants were fine. And then, it rained, and they got even more to drink. It all feels a bit like cheating, honestly, here in this small garden where Mother Nature doesn’t seem quite so bound and determined to keep you at bay. No, here in Marblehead, she saves her hard licks for the sea and the snow, as I’ve learned. So now I sit in the garden and simply enjoy it. A lovely sort of Marblehead homemade.

As always, if you’ve got an idea upon which I can embark for a Marblehead First Time, drop me a line at

Court Merrigan

Wyoming transplant Court Merrigan is a new Marblehead resident. His column “My Marblehead First Time” appears regularly in the Current.

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