Select Page

1. Take your old hot tub that no longer works and for which you are not willing to spend more than a thousand dollars to fix because the 30 seconds that you’re cold upon getting out negates the previous two hours your wimpy self has spent luxuriating in the warm and swirling water.

2. Drill holes in the bottom and sides.

3. Fill with dirt. Yeah, that’s a lot of dirt. We put gravel in the foot well, drain cloth over that, and then dirt.

4. Plant with vegetables.

5. Keep the old hot-tub cover because it keeps the dirt nice and clean during the off- season

New gardens are so full of hope and promise. Hope that the lettuce will survive the transplant shock and unseasonably warm weather, promise that I won’t weed.

When I was growing up my dad would occasionally decide that we needed a garden. It would be a family project not because it was a wholesome family-like thing to do, but because it’s fun to eat your own lettuce and you have live-in laborers who depend on you for food and shelter and know better than to complain. Out loud, at least. But we didn’t have, and he never rented, the proper equipment (he had all the equipment he needed: a wife and three kids), so it always involved the whole family, on the first day, anyway, hand-digging in hard ground, hand-picking rocks, hand-doing everything in a day or two that could have been handled, with a better outcome, by the proper rototiller in an hour. He always said we spent more time figuring out how to make the work easier than it took to do the work. Not true: we always did a lot of work and we knew how to make it easier, and it always involved the use of something with an internal combustion engine, or someone else to do the work. I don’t like peas even if they’re a product of my own toil, so I was not especially motivated to create a garden, although that sentiment dared not be uttered.

On a weekend we’d start the project and usually manage to get things planted. There, all done! We’ll be harvesting our own carrots and radishes in no time! Then the workweek would start, and Dad’s contribution to maintaining the garden from that point forward consisted of leaving instructions with my mom that us kids were to weed the garden, and eating whatever my mom prepared that came out of the garden. There were no purchased soil amendments, of course, and why compost when you have a garbage disposal? Pulling weeds out of hard-pan enriched soil is tough work. Along with not renting equipment, they didn’t buy weedkiller (it used to be okay to kill weeds with lovely chemicals back then) or any border materials, so the weeds and grass, excited about the freshly turned – albeit still hard dirt, couldn’t wait to spread their roots faster than the tomatoes would grow.

For the last family-garden project, we were all out there scrambling to get things planted before Dad and Mom left later that morning for the hospital for what was hoped would be the removal of the malignant tumor on his thyroid. I was too young at the time to grasp what might have been the emotions going into that last-minute scramble. All I knew is that we were once again embarking on damn garden season, and that Grandma (not the fun grandma) was coming to stay with us while Mom stayed at their house to be close to the hospital where Dad would spend the week, and it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder if perhaps this might be the last family garden. I was hoping, as I did every year, that it would be. And it was, but not because he came home from the hospital with the same cancer he left with. He did die, but not until years later (and not from the cancer), when he was 49, long after the last garden.

When Dad died, John, the priest and family friend who presided over his funeral (even though Dad wasn’t Catholic), asked us for stories he might use at the funeral. He knew that building our house was a big deal, and a family project of much grander proportions than the gardens, although all of our family projects had the same theme: Free labor and lack of appropriate tools. I mentioned, only somewhat facetiously, that my fondest memory of building the house was of clearing the lot for six months before we bought a damn chainsaw (hardly bigger than a Barbie chainsaw, and the entire project could have been completed in two days with a bulldozer and an excavator). My brothers and I joke that one needs to replace a handsaw blade only once every 20 years, no matter that it would struggle to work its way through a cube of butter or how many trees it’s cut down. At the funeral, John wove my smart-ass whine into something good and wholesome: as a family, we banded together, in the singular pursuit of our common dream (the dream that came close to completion only after Dad died, when there was enough insurance money to have someone else almost finish the kitchen). Oh yeah, he might have mentioned that we soldiered on building the house (we did almost all of the work ourselves) even though Dad was going through recovery from surgery and chemotherapy that made him extremely sick for weeks (we lived in a very much unfinished house, and the lack of a commute made it easy to work on it constantly). Yeah, yeah, determination, purpose, hard work, blah, blah, blah; but what about us having to cut down alder trees with a butter knife instead of watching Saturday morning cartoons or Happy Days (never mind – Happy Days was off limits)? As I sat in the audience at the funeral, one of my dad’s handkerchiefs mopping up my tears, I wanted to scream, “No, you got that wrong! Even though I was kidding, that is not a feel-good story!” Wasting so much time and a good portion of your children’s childhoods for lack of appropriate tools is not reason to celebrate. The rest of the audience, however, bought it. What a plucky family we were! Years later I went to John’s dad’s funeral (another truly good and kind man), where he told a similar story: “Every year Dad’s love of nature would awaken in the spring and our family would carefully prepare and plant our garden. And then Dad would never step foot in it again that year, leaving the business of maintenance to his kids.”

The do-it-yourselfness that was modeled when I was growing up is one reason we’ve been able to do so much to this old house and so many other little projects (like making a garden out of a hot tub). It’s the reason why I knew I could build my own computer (Dad was a Heathkit fan) or teach myself to knit, and why our son didn’t think twice about rebuilding a car motor when he was 13. I’m grateful for that, even if I’d rather not re-side the house by myself, because if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. It’s an excellent skill and mindset to have, and our kids have the same sensibility. But tools? I’m never happier than when I get the latest, biggest cordless drill for Mother’s Day. I have tools by the bucket-load.

All of this is a round-about lame justification for why I established at the beginning of the garden-season frenzy that the most I will do is eat the products of it, and make strawberry-rhubarb freezer jam (adequate trade-off as far as I’m concerned, because I don’t like jam and, therefore, don’t eat it). Planting a garden was not my idea (I would never plant a garden and then expect someone else to take care of it), but putting that garden in the hot tub, that was my idea.