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Is it me, or does it seem like gardening just isn’t as easy as it used to be? There was a time when you put the seeds in the ground, you watered them, and a few days later they germinated and popped their embryonic first leaves, or cotyledons, through the crumbly, loamy garden soil.

Or perhaps to get a jump on things, you began with a six-pack of veggie starts, determined and standing at attention like alert soldiers in their cell packs or four-inch containers. Regardless of what size you started with, in no time you were plucking sun-warmed tomatoes right off the vine and eating them out there in the garden. With seeds and sticky juiciness dripping down your chin, you longed for those lazy and languid New Jersey summers of your youth — even if you weren’t from New Jersey.

These days, you optimistically buy stout and leafy tomato plants from the nursery or perhaps you live on the edge and get some exotic purple or striped heirloom varieties with back-to-nature names from the farmers’ market. You take them home and you amend and you inoculate and you take off their lower leaves and plant them extra deep like you’ve been told.

And in the beginning, the sun shines, your tomatoes grow tall, and soon delicate yellow flowers appear. But before long June gloom sets in, and the honeymoon phase comes to an end. You notice brown, sunken lesions on your leaves before they yellow and begin to fall off the plants. How could tomatoes be so difficult to grow?

And although gophers have always been a part of the gardening experience, it was a rare occurrence to encounter a mole in the garden. Very occasionally you’d discover that one had snaked his way through your lawn or so close to the edge of the sidewalk that trapping or clobbering him over the head with a spade were not even options. Eventually he disappeared,—,either someone’s cat got him or he ran off to a neighbor’s yard with a girl mole. Years would pass before you’d see another one of those mink-coated critters.

Today, moles seem to be as common as houseflies. Being an environmentally friendly and water-conserving sort of fellow, some months ago I replanted a section of a garden with some droughty ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’. The next day the entire landscape was a zigzagged maze of mole activity. I stomped. I flooded. I adopted a cat. Months have passed, and the moles continue to undermine my plants that are somehow smaller now than when I planted them.

A wise gardener friend once advised me to “never plant a ten-dollar plant in a five-dollar hole.” Meaning, if you’re going to plant something, take the time to do it properly. Taking these words to heart and considering the hoards of destructive varmints at large, this past spring I spent the greater part of a day planting a mere 12 dahlia tubers.

With wire snips in hand I painstakingly fashioned 24 perfectly uniform wire baskets out of aviary wire. To thwart the moles and gophers, I lined each planting hole with a basket. I then drove a redwood stake into each hole that would eventually support the “wanna be” dahlia. I learned early on that if you pound the stake in after the dahlia has broken ground there is the danger of harpooning your tuber. (And you certainly don’t want to do that.) I then backfilled each hole with some compost-amended garden soil and buried a dahlia tuber in each hole under a four- to six-inch snuggly blanket of soil.

A second wire basket was secured over each planted dahlia to ward off the rabbits, birds, and slimy mollusks that could easily make a meal of the emerging tender new dahlia shoots. When I finally finished and glanced at my muddy watch, it occurred to me that my wise gardener friend would’ve been proud.

Nowadays, when it comes to gardening, the chips are not stacked in our favor. Pests, diseases, and even erratic weather don’t help our gardens grow. And, aside from the fact that you would be hard pressed to even find a decent plant for 10 bucks, it seems even unlikelier that any gardener worth his fish emulsion would be lucky enough to get away with planting anything in less than a 50-dollar hole.


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