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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Spring Gardens I have Known

“And now that’s done,” as Blind Pew said to Billy Bones. No, I haven’t been distributing black spots. Today I got the garden planted, and it feels good, aching knees and all. One and a half planting beds of tomatoes, weighted heavily to Early Girls; half a bed of basil; and three rows of okra. For me, my annual garden is, as they say of second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience.

Not that I’m a terrible gardener. I have one every year, and it produces what I hope it will produce. It’s just that my yields are never going to win any ribbons in a county fair, and my soil is nothing to brag about. My experience is that to be an award-winning gardener you’ve got to invest a lot of time in it—no surprise there—and I always seem to have too many other irons in the fire, or maybe it’s simply a matter of not enough energy, after doing the bicycling and hiking and kayaking that seem vitally important to me.

But oh, the wonder of putting that first home-grown tomato in your mouth, fresh off the vine. There’s hardly anything better, to my mind, than that first tomato of the season. Or the next couple of dozen over the weeks, for that matter. It is surely one of the triumphs of the capitalistic system to be able to stroll into a supermarket any day of the year and buy tomatoes and bananas and so forth, but the pernicious corollary is that we tend to forget what a real tomato tastes like.

We bought some strawberries last Saturday at the local Farmers Market, and were reminded what real strawberries taste like (as opposed from those picked early and flown up from Central America, or worse, grown indoors under lights, those big, shiny, over-fertilized giants). We were also reminded of wonderful spring mornings long ago, when our kids had faces literally covered with strawberry juice after spirited feasting.

Right up there with strawberries and tomatoes, of course, are fresh cherries from the tree. Our backyard tree has limited output, and the birds get most of them, but when we get our share it’s heaven. No problem with the birds taking their share—that’s what Farmers Market are for, on those weekends when a plethora of cherries clog the stalls.

The apex of my gardening career was when I was in graduate school, and we lived on a farm in the North Carolina countryside. We had renovated a Civil-War-era farmhouse (little things, like installing indoor plumbing, and propane heating for (only) the central room, and stripping off a hundred years of wall paper to reveal old-growth White pine planks quarter-cut into 24 inch widths a century ago). Though the house was surrounded by hundreds of acres of tobacco, which the fellow up the road share-cropped, we had plenty of room for a sixty foot by forty foot garden, plus a side patch “only” forty feet by ten feet. The share-cropping neighbor kindly ploughed it up for me; we busted it up a bit more, then planted everything (corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, artichokes, cucumbers, watermelon, principally).

When my mom, dad, and three siblings visited our famous farm, I very proudly showed off the garden. They were impressed, though having grown up on farms in Oklahoma and Missouri, mom and dad were well aware of the art of gardening. When the new indoor plumbing in the house failed and they all had to use the old outhouse behind the garden, I will admit that some of the glow of our new-found country lifestyle dimmed a bit.

Dad appreciated the story of his oldest son picking insects off the potato leaves by hand for two weeks before giving up and resorting to Sevin dust to stem the tide. I lost my ecological purity in that garden, and discovered the tricky balance between honoring the earth and protecting your plants. I’ve since discovered there are other arrows in the quiver than harsh pesticides, but back then, in my ignorance, it was either them or me and a close call it was.

I do remember being amazed at how well-camouflaged tomato horn-worms are, and how devilishly difficult it was to find the critter that was contentedly munching its way through your tomato plants. Many a hot afternoon I crouched in the garden patiently doing battle with the horn-worms. I’ve never had any problem killing garden pests, either with hands or feet. I regard it as respectfully recycling their energy and molecules back into the earth (usually quite directly and literally), and that seems fair to me.

Speaking of pests, I usually am not too finicky at disposing of them, then eating the fruit or vegetable directly, but I will admit that I lost a healthy chunk of appetite when I picked my first batch of artichokes and saw the earwigs pouring out in droves from between the bracts as I shook and washed it. I really haven’t eaten a lot of artichokes since.

Because it’s so pleasureful, I water my small garden by hand, loving the sensation of the ritual. Yes, it’s a pain to find substitute waterers when we are in the high country on backpacking trips, but putting an array of irrigation pipes and timers on the garden just doesn’t seem right to me, tho I’ve done it occasionally in the past. I guess that makes me a hopelessly amateur and idealistic gardener, and I’m all right with that.

Here’s to home-grown tomatoes, strawberries, and cherries fresh off the plant! And the joy of reminding yourself that the earth is made of dirt as well as concrete. Enjoy immersing yourself in a slice of the old rhythms of growth on this beautiful planet. Cheers!

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