Downtime

Whither the Vines?

Checking in on all those pandemic gardens that ought to be in full bloom right about now …

A small plant dying in a pot.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by DNY59/E+ via Getty Images Plus.

Remember March and April, when we rushed the hardware stores for shovels and the internet for seeds, read up on victory gardening, and poured all of our anxieties into researching mulch and compost? Pandemic gardening, with its wholesome hominess and its promise of food independence, was the thing to do, in those weird early days.

But now that we’ve made it to Labor Day, and (in many parts of the country) it’s almost time to put everything to bed for the winter, how’d that work out for everyone? For me, the answer is “just about as poorly as you can imagine.” Downgraded expectations, persistent garden pests—it’s a tale as old as time.

Below, a few of my colleagues agreed to share their own gardening failures, which made me feel a teensy bit better about mine. Maybe it will do the same for you.

Three neat rows of buds in a flower bed
Susan Matthews
A flourishing basil plant next to flower bushes
Susan Matthews

We always wanted to make use of the little flower bed that was in front of our house. For us newly transplanted former New Yorkers, having an actual place to garden felt like a thrill! And honestly, what went wrong doesn’t even have anything to do with the pandemic. What happened is that twice over the summer, I got horrifying cases of poison ivy, and now I am absolutely paranoid of touching leaves of any kind. So I have given up on weeding, and the purple flowers have won. The basil is doing great, though. —Susan Matthews

Prior to the pandemic, I had given up on plants. I have managed to kill everything from cacti to bamboo, and it didn’t seem worth the heartache. But as everyone else planted their victory gardens and started collecting early harvests, I thought the least I could manage was a mint plant. I remembered that it had a reputation as very easygoing, and that my parents’ next-door neighbor had grown a very large one, seemingly without much tending.

I got instructions on how to care for the mint from the woman at the farmers market: I was simply to wait until the soil at the bottom of the plant dried out, and then soak it. I tried my best to not be overattentive, which I believe has been my downfall in the past. But within a few days all the leaves had withered.

Dead mint plant
Cleo Levin

Unfortunately, I had to leave my apartment for a few weeks after this dispiriting development, so I entrusted my plant to my roommate, who is similarly new to gardening. About a week in, I requested a picture of the mint. “Don’t be alarmed,” she said, and sent me this photo of a little sprig, completely stripped of all its leaves. She had heard that you needed to cut back the dead parts to encourage new growth. I told her that I admired her optimism, but that it may not leave space for a little thing called photosynthesis. —Cleo Levin

Three potted plants on steps
Molly Olmstead

I decided to do an herb garden (and tomatoes!) in late spring, as sort of an outgrowth of my puzzle phase. I am not a projects person—I’m lazy and would rather just read a book—but the dopamine hit from small accomplishments felt really important at that depressing time. I have this memory of being really excited about going to the hardware store to get pots and soil, and being unable to wait, in that way children can’t wait for things. Maybe I thought this would fix my anxiety? It makes no sense, looking back on it.

It only took a few days for me to find my basil, cilantro, thyme, and … some other herb I forget … totally stripped. My roommate says it’s the birds living in our roof and that he saw them going at the herbs. I was really determined to grow basil, so a few days later I planted two more basil plants, at the same time, thinking somehow sheer volume would help. It didn’t. Then I got another basil plant, moved it to the back of the house, and it died quickly from the minimal sunlight.

But for whatever reason, the birds never went for the parsley. It was a bummer that my herb garden didn’t happen and that I never got any tomatoes out of the situation, but I still get some delight picking parsley for meals, so it’s not a total loss. At least it kept me temporarily occupied on something dumb and low-stakes. —Molly Olmstead

Dead sage plant in a pot next to a window
Bryan Lowder

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, when it became clear we’d be stuck in our apartment for quite some time, I determined to revive my perennial dream of having fresh herbs available for cooking. I found an irresistibly twee seed kit on Amazon (burlap containers, etched wooden markers, etc.), but, like so much yeast and exercise equipment in those days, it was sold out. So I waited. When I finally did get one, I planted the seeds with a quasi-pagan reverence, hoping their germination would bring an air of health and growth into the house. Four months later, all of the newborn plants have withered save the sage, which … it’s OK to go, my friend. It’s not really the timeline I want to be in either! —Bryan Lowder

Small garden plot
Rebecca Onion

I signed up for a 20-foot-by-20-foot community garden plot in early April, imagining that my preschooler and I would spend our pandemic weekend days there, safely interacting with neighbors at a distance and picking bushel after bushel of produce, some of which we’d donate to food banks.

At first, it seemed like it would work. My daughter would spring out of the car and run around the garden plots giddily, shouting, “I’m FREE!!!!” But there was a lot of mugwort in our plot, which I had trouble concentrating on ripping out while my daughter (finished with her own 2.5 minutes of “weeding”) was always on the verge of getting too close to the other kids who came to the garden with their own parents. Worse, we spent so much time at the garden that we never got to go to the woods or the creek, and she started to moan and groan when I suggested that we go. Eventually, I surrendered my plot, leaving the person who runs the garden with a half-weeded plot and my small membership fee. No hard feelings.

I started a small vegetable garden on our lawn, which isn’t an ideal place (shady, steep). It only held about 10 plants, but everything was fine—until the deer found it. I’m not unaware of their presence in our neighborhood—they are everywhere—but I had been careful to plant things I didn’t think they’d like, so thought I might be safe. Nope! They ate tomato plants, cucumber vines, even (this shocked me) my jalapeños.

Finally, I got so sad looking at the chewed-up remains I pulled everything out except this one Sungold tomato plant (which has yet to yield a fruit) and a single basil plant that survived the deer army. Next year? Hope springs eternal. —Rebecca Onion