I had described in April how planning a new garden could get a cabin-fevered Mainer safely through the winter doldrums.

Through the many steps — garden sketch, seed purchase, garden nursery trips and hands in the soil, it’s been a welcome diversion during this COVID-19 pandemic, though you’re never sure what Mother Nature and the critters will throw your way.

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Our short growing season means late August for first tomatoes, so this season, I pushed the clock ahead by buying two patio tomato plants, complete with little green tomatoes. Huge, deep holes were necessary, and as I dug, I expected to see help from Chinese spies digging from the other end. A backhoe should have been used to drop the plants into their holes. The extra $6 a plant paid off, because we’ve been eating ripe tomatoes a month earlier.

I’ve also been planting peppers, cukes, and eggplants in 3 and 5 gallon containers out in the driveway. They require more watering, but they produce earlier and yield more pickings.

March 16, our small Maine farms lost the restaurant trade when COVID-19 shut down for four months the lucrative farm-to-table market — greens, beans, strawberries, eggs, early potatoes, radishes, mushrooms, peas, dandelions, herbs, beef and spring lambs.

This gardening season can be summarized in biblical terms: plague, weather calamities (frost, drought and hail) and pestilence (chipmunks).

Don’t have to explain the plague reference. The weather calamities started with late May frosts, requiring tarps and over-turned buckets to protect the tenders. The major weather crusher has been our moderate drought. After the five driest weeks since the 1880s, three more weeks followed with rain passing to the north or south of us. Add in a long stretch of unusually hot days, including a three-day heat wave, the first in nine years, temperatures 90 degrees or higher, and non-stop swampy humidity. It seemed we couldn’t buy more than 15 drops of rain.

The usually brown lawns of August arrived in early June. When you walk across them, it sounds like you’re stepping on Rice Krispies. It’s been great beach weather, but our gardens have demanded more watering and our local water utility bills are soaring. Our greatest concern has been the impact on our rural families who are dependent on wells for their household needs. Our devastating fall forest fires have been caused by similar conditions.

During July, a freak hail storm formed up in Sanford, denting hundreds of cars at a local dealership. A local pick-your-own strawberries farm described their crop as pounded to red mush. In Arundel, a young couple with time on their hands because of Maine’s shut-down and wanting to share an outdoors pandemic project, planted their first vegetable garden. The hail pulverized their plants right into the ground, leaving nothing.

On the pestilence side, one word — chipmunks. They’re little cuties, but around here we’re up to our ears in them. The little buggers are destructive, wrecking havoc on flowers and vegetables alike. There’s been a local run on Havahart traps.

Chipmunks are notorious for taking sampling bites out of strawberries, zucchini, and tomatoes, but this season several of my chippies made it into the Rodent Hall of Fame. They burrowed under my fence and went on a tear. When the carrot tops were up an inch, they moved down the rows, munching away like it was us eating corn on the cob. Twelve feet of carrot rows and they left me with one measly meal.

This pandemic had made everything so gloomy, so I had planted first-time sunflowers, because I wanted their big, happy yellow faces greeting me every time I entered the garden. I planted two 10-foot rows, three times, because every time a sprout emerged, the chippies would scratch the surrounding dirt, dig the seed out, and eat it. Twenty feet planted and my sunflower survivors are one 10-footer and four 8-footers.

The other critters, usually lining up for their share of our harvest, appear to have backed off because they’re terrified of the aggressive chipmunks. I haven’t had any deer poking their heads over the fence, dining on green beans. The woodchucks seem content with just grazing on the plentiful lawn clover. Previously, they’d drag their fat, stuffed-with-our-vegetables bellies across the lawn as they attempted to waddle away.

Disappointing so far have been the pole beans and zucchini. By now, we’re usually blanching and freezing the beans for the off-season. Zucchini is one of the first to arrive by late June, but we’ve just moved beyond the blossoms stage. Mid-August and I’m usually searching for unlocked cars, so I can leave surplus bags of zucchini. My wife is usually baking zucchini bread — one for breakfast, one for the freezer.

I predicted back in April, because of the worries about our food supply chains, there’d be a surge in vegetable gardening, like the Victory Gardens of World War II. Folks are now searching for canning jars. Even if you discover a treasure trove of grandma’s old jars up in the attic, you’ll still have to shop around for new lids.

At this mid-point, a gardener has to begin grading the growing season. Despite spring’s great expectations, I’d have to rank my fenced garden as a C, a middling grade. The driveway pots earn an A, and you can expect to see more of them next year in our driveway. I do know that I’ll cheat again with those humongous patio tomato plants.

Despite the hot and humid days and fighting off mosquitoes, I’ll always be thankful that this garden and the optimism it first brought enticed me outside, away from the isolation and loneliness this pandemic has brought.

I’ll remember the smells of the earth coming alive again, the spring breeze in the hair, and the warming sun on my face. The joy of the first sprouts pushing up and through. Overhead on branches, the birds were scouting the garden for worms and seeds they could take back to their young ones secure in their nests. Closer to the ground, the hard-working bees were making their rounds, pollinating the blossoms.

Come December, a few days after the Christmas tree comes down, I’ll be getting out the garden catalogs and start sketching out next season’s garden.

Tom Murphy is a former history teacher and state representative. He is a Kennebunk Landing resident and can be reached at [email protected]

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