Louis ‘Eli’ Finkelman: ‘Tolerable Failure’

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If only our home gardens matched the seed catalogs! This colorful image was featured in a 1902 catalog and calendar for home gardeners in the U.S.

This column is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopfcelerygefilte fish and home-made cheese. Eli is a rabbi, scholar, teacher and freelance writer as well as a gardener, cook, home brewer and vintner. He calls this column …

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Tolerable Failure

I went fishing with a friend many long years ago. We dragged fishing lures back and forth in the lake for a long while. No fish were damaged in the course of our time together. We would not bring home any fish to fry for our dinner.

My friend observed that he felt happy that he did not depend on catching fish to earn his living; he still could fall back on his regular job as a psychologist.

Decades later—this morning, actually—I went out to inspect my backyard vegetable garden.

It looked sad.

Most years, some insect or other bores into the base of the stem of the zucchini plants. The plants get weak, and then they shrivel up. By the time they die, though, we have usually eaten our own fill of zucchini, and often given away baskets of the stuff. By that time, we have long lost our enthusiasm for harvesting zucchini, and willingly say goodbye to the season.

This year, most of the zucchini plants have detached stems, and will shrivel after producing only a few fruits.

An animal of some sort has discovered my pepper plants. This animal takes one fastidious bite out of each fruit, and then deposits the remains on the ground between plants, or it chews the fruits thoroughly, spitting out small fragments in neat little piles. I do not know what kind of animal likes the peppers. I have seen rabbits and squirrels around the vegetable bed; I would not have seen other possible pepper-eaters, shy, nocturnal animals such as raccoons, opossums, skunks or even deer.

From the pepper plant’s point-of-view, this might have been a successful season. With the help of the neighborhood forager, each plant gets to scatter its seeds all across the vegetable bed. Or maybe the plants would do better to please their human gardener, so that I decide to put in peppers again next year.

My neighbor shot a rabbit last summer, and reverently buried its carcass in the vegetable garden that it loved to haunt. I do not plan to do that.

I think next year I will have to go back to planting hot peppers.

My tomato plants stand festooned with beautiful green fruits. As each fruit turns red, though, I see that about half of have blossom-end rot, a condition just as disgusting as its name. I suppose I could still salvage one bite from most of these tomatoes, but in practice I throw them into the compost bin.

A farmer would not tolerate that level of failure. If I depended on those plants for my living, I would have to test the soil to find out what nutrient my tomatoes need. Dilettante that I am, I found on the Internet that eggshells in the soil may serve to prevent blossom-end rot, so I just may bury some eggshells before next season.   A serious farmer would have to find the right poison to protect the zucchini plants. I do not want to spread poison in my garden, even to protect the zucchini plants, so I do not bother to find out what kind of poison would work.

The garden has produced some successes this year. I collected all the scallions my wife could use for cooking, and then gave away baskets and baskets of scallions. The currant bushes produced a fine crop of jewel-like sweet-and-sour fruits, which I enjoyed juicing with the wine press. I have harvested a good collection of garlic bulbs. The kale looks sturdy. Whether these successes count as adequate recompense for the hours of work in the garden, I do not know, but then, I enjoy working in the garden.

In sum, my garden has produced some food; it will not win any awards.

Looking at my partially ruined, perhaps-good-enough garden, I remember that I am a couple of years short of my seventieth birthday. Perhaps I have many active years left to live. Perhaps few. I can, with effort, remember endeavors that I have undertaken which bore fruit, and others which did not. I can wonder about projects in which I never did invest much effort, which, predictably, stayed at might-have-been. Some acquaintances have devoted their lives to accomplishing great things; I can look up at them with admiration. Some never had a chance. Others have made messes of their lives in one way or another.

What future I have, I cannot guess. I can feel thankful for the quiet life I have led, and the good-enough harvest it continues to bring in.

It does not need any awards.

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