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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Off the Grid: Hard times make strong plants

By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

The first week after I put seeds in their little soil pots, I step into the greenhouse every morning in my bathrobe, cup of coffee in hand, to see if anything has grown. I crouch down so my eyes are level with the soil and stare intently as if one might sprout just as I am watching.

The tomatoes and the sunflowers won the race this year, quickly followed by basil, Brussels sprouts and Chinese cabbage. They stand like miniature trees – thin stalk, two leaves – and lean intrepidly toward the sun. They are fragile but brave, these seedlings.

I attribute this to their naivety. This year’s seeds are from the same packets as last year’s seeds or new packets I’ve acquired in one of those gardening frenzies that overcome me any time I pass a rack of seeds. In those moments, I forget that I cannot grow plants and that I am mostly despondent about the whole affair by September when it has been declared a donation to pests.

But in that moment at the store, I discover a new variety of tomato I haven’t killed yet and I must have it. I dream of abundance and carrying baskets of my bounty into the house for late-summer salads. I talk of rising food prices and how practical gardening is in these times. Then I march home with my rattling sachet of seeds and make them the same promises I made the others last year.

If they were seeds from plants I had somehow managed to grow a previous year, they wouldn’t bother emerging at all. In my defense, my gardening methods grow robust plants. I am doing my part for climate change research. Any seed that survives to plant stage has already suffered the hot parch of my greenhouse and unreliable watering routine (usually inspired by sagging or crisped plants, as this is a sure sign they do indeed need water).

These seedlings have to tolerate a drought-and-drown rhythm for weeks while my cats dig around in their soil. They are in pots that are too small and have nothing in common with their neighbors other than commiserating. One year I even tried companion planting only to discover the political divide between carrots and tomatoes was irreconcilable and neither thrived.

Not that the word “thrive” is ever used in reference to anything in my garden other than thimble berries and aphids. It isn’t that I don’t try or people haven’t given me excellent advice over the years.

When I am leaving the gardening store with my $65 of seeds (that I will have to replace with $87 of starts, which will later be replaced with $126 of farmer’s market vegetables), they make it sound really easy.

“Just add a dollop of this chicken manure when you put your seeds in the ground,” they say.

To be sure I understand I ask, “So, like a pinch or a tablespoon?”

“Whoa! You don’t want to burn the roots.”

“So a teaspoon?”

“What kind of teaspoon do you have?”

It matters because, obviously, when I am planting my seedlings in the ground as per instructed after the last frost before the new moon on a day when there are two suns and the song of the swallow was heard before the croak of the frog – because you can’t plant before then – a gardening teaspoon offers just the right amount of manure. That must have been my problem all these years.

I would recite spells, too, if they suggested it, but all I have is this book about how plants do well when we verbally appreciate them. So I just talk nice and remind them that effort is what matters, not results. I’ve accepted that I am raising an entitled and enabled garden, but I feel guilt and empathy about delivering them into this hot planet to struggle.

Though for now, everything is in the greenhouse because those packets say “plant after the last frost” and I am not clear on when the last frost happens until sometime in July when I start worrying about the first frost coming.

Still, this year I am actually reading the packets, which has provided more gardening information for me to forget than ever before.

Between that and my new gardening teaspoon, I’m sure to grow something this year. Perhaps just resentment, but I always forget that, too, by the time spring comes back around.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at

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