LINCOLN SQUARE — Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.
I knew I was in the presence of a higher being when instead of shaking hands, Pete offered me a ground cherry in greeting — and had to instruct me to unwrap the fruit from its paper-like shell before eating it.
I drew him over to my plot and spent the better part of a half hour peppering him with questions that went something like "What's up with my carrots/onions/Brussels sprouts/tomatoes/broccoli?"
Then I spent the next half hour putting his advice into practice.
I thinned my carrots and onions, which Pete told me I had planted too close together.
"But the carrot seeds, they're so tiny, how can you not sow them in clumps," I said in my defense.
All-knowing Pete nodded his head — he'd heard this excuse before. One solution, he said, was to mix a little sand with the seeds to get them to separate. With more room to grow, the result should be larger carrots.
Also at his prompting, I whacked my chives down to the ground to spur a second round of sprouting and I pruned the heck out of a tomato plant that Pete pointed out was one-quarter healthy, three-quarters dead weight. He showed me how another tomato plant, which had overshot the height of its cage, could be trained to lean against the taller support of its neighbor.
I uprooted the peas, which had run their course for the season, and the arugula, which had gone to seed. The broccoli would continue producing side crowns but had also pretty much completed its service, Pete told me. They could all be yanked to make way for new crops — carrots, greens, radishes or beets, he recommended.
It felt strange to pull from the ground plants I've spent the past months nurturing, but this was no place for sentiment Pete's matter-of-fact counsel seemed to suggest.
Until I got to the strawberries.
I announced my intention of banishing the plants from my plot — my husband Dave has harbored a grudge against them all season for hogging valuable real estate — and Pete's reaction was one of stricken horror. I now know what a person's face looks like when they've witnessed a puppy killing.
He briefly walked away and returned with Shelley (or possibly Stacy or Sherry), who had previously expressed an interest in strawberries. She gladly took the plants off my hands and Pete could sleep at night with a clear conscience.
I was back in his good graces as he examined my Brussels sprouts, which showed no sign of a dreaded cabbage worm and were progressing nicely, though to be on the safe side, we could spray the plants with a diluted detergent solution to ward off the bugs.
Our main problem was our soil, Pete told us.
He dug his fingers an inch or so deep and came up dry. Even with the mild temperatures and a decent amount of rain this summer, the plots weren't holding water. Something about wind and compaction — basically the soil was repelling moisture at this point.
He suggested that we till the soil a bit and prescribed a dose of mulch in the form of straw or cocoa bean husks. Two guesses as to which option we'll be choosing.
His work done for the night, and ours just beginning, Pete disappeared into the mist.
Always two there are, a master and an apprentice.