Sunday, June 25, 2017

Farmville IRL: The Final Game

I always wanted to plant a vegetable garden when I became a grown-up. My parents planted a garden every spring in the backyard at our house in Virginia Beach. Baby boomers both, Victory Gardens had been a thing in their childhood, a way to feed the family when rations were scarce that they had learned from their parents. My mother’s father, my Daddy Mac, planted acres of vegetables and fruits – asparagus and sugar snaps came in first, in time for Easter dinners that Grandmother would prepare for the family. Strawberries arrived next; Grandmother jammed those.

When we returned to Maryland for our annual, two-week, summer visit with my grandparents, tomatoes and cukes would be ready to pick, along with summer squash, green beans, and shelling peas (hardier than their sugary cousins in the hotter summer months). Blueberries, cherries, and blackberries – my favorite – hung ready for the picking. Sis and I ate as much as we harvested. Grandmother thumped cantaloupe on the vine, selecting the next morning’s breakfast. Corn usually tassled in time for us to pick several paper grocery bags of Silver Queen to take back home at the end of our visit, along with a Farmer’s Market worth of fresh tomatoes and squash (Mom’s favorites), and a dozen pints of strawberry jam.

I have wonderful memories of everything I ate that was harvested from that garden.

I attempted my first in-ground vegetable garden while I was still in grad school in the early 1990’s. (I had been gardening in pots on the patio with mixed success.) My Daddy Mac bought me a cultivator and showed me how to use it when he and my Grandmother visited. “You have to cultivate,” he demonstrated with short chopping motions of the long-handled, narrow digging blade. The plot I had selected for my salad patch lacked two essentials for success, though, good soil and ready access to a water source. That garden yielded nothing, but I held on to the cultivator.

Fast forward to 2009 when I opened my Facebook account. I also played my first game of Farmville. I liked the premise of the game, and I quickly planted a virtual garden that, now that I reflect on it, greatly resembled the garden my Daddy Mac used to plant. This garden thrived, and before long, the bounty of my virtual fields had allowed me to afford a fairy princess castle, which was guarded by frolicking doggies, strolling kitties, and a collection of Chinese ornaments that adorned the grounds of my guest pagoda. I played steadily for about ten months, amassing more virtual crap than I had free storage to house. Then I walked away. What a time suck! And I couldn’t eat any of it...

(I feel a bit guilty about all the virtual pets I quit feeding.)

My success in Farmville, and my more settled status as a home owner, emboldened me to try my hand once more at an in-ground vegetable garden, which I planted in the spring of 2010. I borrowed a friend’s tiller, augmented my already fertile loam with high-test garden soil, and planted two rows of tomatoes in several varieties. To my astonishment, the garden thrived. I weighed the yield each time I brought in a basket load of vine-ripened tomatoes, and the number hit the high 100’s before the first frost killed it all that October. I sauced and froze a winter’s worth of tomatoes. It was glorious.
This one was delicious.

Then, reality set in.

Farmville doesn’t address two critical realities about farming, and neither did my first season as a home gardener. The first is weather. Farmville doesn’t have droughts, hail, or late May frosts. The plant-to-harvest cycle in the virtual world is pretty straight-forward: you plant, you wait the allotted amount of time, and then you harvest, clicking with satisfaction on each square, or deploying the tractor (as any successful farmer does) and harvesting four contiguous fields with a single click. Miraculously, my first season, the weather didn’t mess with my IRL garden either.

The second reality, unaddressed by Farmville, is critters: varmints, rodents, mammals, and birds, slugs and stink bugs. The virtuality of Farmville has none of these creatures. Neither does a home garden—the first season – word takes time to get out on the critter telegraph, but one season appears to be sufficient.

My second season, the garden yield went down. Half of my hot house tomato plants failed to thrive in the unseasonably cool spring, and the local rabbits discovered the row of sugar snap seedlings before much growth could occur. I persisted, and eventually, I harvested enough tomatoes to sauce and freeze another winter’s worth (my spaghetti with fresh sauce is a signature dish).

My third season, the stink bugs hit. They bite the ripe tomatoes just once, but the result doesn’t look delicious. Stink bug bites turn the fruit a dark, diseased color, like bruises from an abuser, that extends to the tomato's core. Lovely slices of fresh tomato are not possible when stink bugs have infested your garden.

Farmville never tells you that.

In 2016, I had to rearrange the salad patch layout to account for the fact that my trees have gotten taller, shading the original garden plot. Maple, pine, dogwood, and crab apple trees do not appeal to stink bugs as a food source, so they thrive. Later that year, some developer broke ground on a new neighborhood of town houses in the field across the street that once sheltered deer, ground hogs, and bunnies. As a result, the critters have moved into the field behind my house.

They found my vegetable garden.

The Critters Did This to the Squash and Cukes
The Pot at the Bottom Once Had a Tomato Plant Larger Than the Pot at the Top 
I don’t mind feeding critters if the cost is a bag of bird seed and five minutes of my time. My salad patch exacts so much more from me, in both time and dollars, and as with Farmville, I don’t get to eat any of it.

It’s okay, though, in two more seasons, the trees will have thrown shade across my entire yard. I’m going back to pots on the patio.

Game over.