by Maria Ruiz
When I lived in Tracy, California for a few years, I had a lovely vegetable garden sprinkled with fruit trees, perched on top of one of the many hills that make up the county. The garden angled down the back yard, ending at a fence overlooking the whole dry, brown canyon.
At first, the ground had been hard, dry and filled with rocks. Through the years, I added several tons of manure, along with equal amounts of labor, and ended up with beds of lettuce, bushes of tomatoes, beans, chard, asparagus — and numerous insects.
I fought the insects with every conceivable means that didn’t include chemical poisons. I ordered a supply of Ladybugs. I hung the little round balls of eggs on the fruit trees, and waited for them to hatch and eat the insects. They hatched, flew around my garden and headed down the canyon in search of better feeding grounds.
I sprinkled a noxious mixture of old cigarette butts soaked in water. The instructions assured me that insects hate nicotine. Maybe my bugs were more modern than most, but they stayed. I planted marigolds and nasturtiums among my vegetables, I sprayed mixtures of soap and water, and, finally, I resorted to “safe to use on vegetables” store-bought sprays. That seemed to work.
Once, a hundred years ago, an immigrant Frenchman imported snails to be used as Escargot. The snails escaped and found California to be delicious. A close cousin of the snail is the slug. These are little, sometimes big, snails without shells. They love lettuce and chard, choosing to come out in the early morning, eat and nap, attached to the undersides of the leaves.
For these pests, I couldn’t use poison because I had dogs and cats and small children. There is nothing as stomach-churning as fishing a half eaten snail out of a two-year-old’s mouth. One tried and true method is to place shallow dishes of beer around the garden. Snails and slugs love beer and will crawl into the bowl, drink until drunk, then drown in the liquid. Two-year-olds also love beer, especially dotted with slimy gumdrops. Dogs like the mixture too.
That left me with hand picking any slithering critters off the vegetables.
New neighbors moved in across the street with six children. Both the husband and wife had never been out of a large city and were delighted to see real vegetable gardens among the lush yards and beautiful flowers in California landscaping.
They ooh’d and ah’d over my garden, and I shared figs, plumbs and apricots from my trees. Once in a while I gave them some beets or tomatoes …
I needed to pick the leaves from the leafy lettuce and chard every day and found I had enough to feed half the block.
In a good neighborly mood, I took a large grocery bag down to my garden and added some of the fresher produce. I took it across the street and gave it to Lila, the new neighbor.
Several days later, her husband, Doug, waved at me from his front door. “Thanks for the wonderful vegetables,” he called. I smiled and waved back.
He yelled again. “Say, how do you get the anchovies on the lettuce?”
It took a second for his remark to penetrate my brain. I yelled back. “It’s a special type of seed. Italian.”