My own back yard.

April 14, 2011 § 18 Comments

Peppers in the summer garden, 2010.

I wonder each week as I sit down to write a post for this blog, have I emptied the cupboard?

Is everything I know and feel already out there in black and white?

But week after week, like Dorothy Gale, I discover that to find what I’m searching for I need look no further than my own backyard.

When given more than a passing glance, the things I take for granted turn out to be the substance of my life, and far more nourishing than the wishful dreams my brain invents.

Take gardening.  In my family gardening has always been both ordinary and sustaining. When my dad was growing up the vegetable garden was necessary to the survival of his family.  That didn’t mean he liked working in it.

The chore he always mentioned was weeding the carrots.  For those of you who have never knelt on the cold ground and done this job, carrots are feathery little plants when they start out.  Pulling a hardy, tenacious weed out from among those weak sisters is tedious work.  My kid-dad swore he would never have a vegetable garden when he grew up.  Never.  Ever.

He always looked rather astonished when relating the next part of the story.  He grew up, got married, and bought his first house.  Winter had barely released its grip when he found himself in the yard, stepping on a shovel, breaking up the sod of his suburban lawn to put in a vegetable garden.

In my memory there was always a garden. The one in Pearl River, New York had tall rhubarb plants, propagated from a crown dug from the garden where my father weeded carrots as a kid.  When we moved to Princeton Junction, New Jersey he began again from scratch. The itch of spring never failed to get to him. “When I get too old to dig, I’ll grow a tomato on a windowsill,” he said.

And now it’s spring again here in north Florida, a season so fleeting a gardener has no time to mess around.  The get-ready work of seed starting had better be done if I don’t want to find myself at Wal-Mart buying those sorry-excuse flats of seedlings.  And I don’t.

During this long cold winter I started eight varieties of tomatoes, five varieties of peppers and four of eggplants.  Seed starting allows me to pick varieties out of that rainbow of catalogs that arrive just when winter is at its bleakest, vegetables with varietal names like Horn of Plenty, Slim Jim, Yellow Jubilee, and Taxicab.

Peppers for the summer garden, 2011.

The first thing to come up is the looped handle of the stem.

Then the pilot leaves, which all look the same no matter what the plant.

Next is the first pair of true leaves.  Only then can I tell without reading what I’ve scrawled on the container whether I’ve got a tomato or a pepper plant.

My seedlings sit under lights on the living room floor.  Sometimes I kneel beside the trays of tiny plants and watch them, like I used to watch my baby sleep.   The bright green of new young plants is so hopeful.

Survival of the fittest is a lesson I have never learned from nature.  Any seed that germinates will end up in the garden—although not necessarily mine.  With more than 150 tomato plants I was able to stock quite a few gardens this year.

By the end of the summer with work from me, my husband Ray, and our friend Nancy, the garden will yield baskets of produce—enough for the three of us with plenty to put up for the winter and share with neighbors.   But the abundance of food the garden produces isn’t the only, or even the main reason I garden.

The need for time alone runs strong in my family.  Each of us chooses activities that give the time we spend alone cover.  My mother closed her bedroom door and wrote novels.  My dad disappeared into the garden.  I do both, but while novel-writing is a pouring out, gardening is a pouring in.

In the garden I am flooded with sensations: sun on skin, the clean smell of earth, the chill of the sandy soil crumbling as I break up winter clods with my fingers, ant bites and wind lifting my hair off the back of my neck.  Time in the garden raises welts and freckles my arms and makes it plain that I am alive in a vividly alive world.

Right now is the season of digging and planting, the sound of gritty soil giving beneath the shovel blade.  Later will come the pungent smell of tomato leaves and the taste of a warm tomato picked right off the vine, the plink of blueberries falling into a colander.  As a gardener I take each as it comes.  I have no choice.  Plants pay no attention to our human clocks.  Plants grow and produce each in its own season.

The garden is a great lesson in what can be controlled, and what can’t.  With watering and feeding and weeding a gardener encourages, but the plants themselves thrive or fail.  And there is no stopping the collapse of a plant at the end of its life cycle.

Vegetable plants turn death into a drama of operatic proportions, they swoon and shrivel, they rot with gusto.  The last few beautiful fruits often hang on plants already dead.  By leaving fruit on the vine the plants cast their lives forward.

They die, but they come back again, different, but the same.

To me life makes sense in the garden.  Not just tomato life, but my own life as well.  Death with a guarantee of return seems not so scary.

So I will always garden.

And when I get too old to dig, I’ll grow a tomato on a windowsill.


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§ 18 Responses to My own back yard.

  • Robin Ecker says:

    And once again, our experiences are so similar. Except, I do not have a garden now. Hope that I will someday again.


    • I’m sure you will. Once you’ve had a garden they tend to recur!

      Thanks for reading my posts Robin. I hope that in addition to a garden you put the St. George retreat on your to-do list.


  • craig reeder says:

    i’ve never heard vegetables described so beautifully. almost makes me want to go and eat some :->


  • “By leaving fruit on the vine the plants cast their lives forward.”

    Beautiful! And true of human offspring also. I miss our vegetable garden. Our “new place” (which we built in ’89) lacks enough sun for vegetables. But there is enough for flowers and herbs and like you, I love the feel of warm sun on my shoulders as I plunge my hands into cool, dark earth.

    I’ll spend two weeks outside this spring planting and tidying up the yard, and I will love every moment of it. It will take another two weeks for my hands to recover from their brier scratches, torn nails, and blackened creases, but I’d never wear gloves. In gardening and in life, I want to experience each and every sensation. I plunge in with both hands and take whatever comes.


    • You have dark earth! I’m so jealous. I have very light earth because it is 95% sand.

      As for gloves, I never wear them either. Feeling the soil is worth the cracked fingers.


      • Sand makes gardening difficult; your persistence is showing! You must add a lot of nutrients.

        We were thrilled to discover the rich soil on this lot. Our last one was red clay: good for nutrients, bad for drainage, and Jim literally took a rail spike and a mallet to carve out the holes for the 14 dogwood trees we planted on the circumference.


  • When Tom and I had settled into our new house in New Jersey (January 1990) we found a wonderfully prepared small garden plot on the south side of the garage – the sunny side! Hooray! As February dawned – cold, but sunny – we hit the trail for bedding plants, not having had time to grow them ourselves. But the first nursery we found was bare and most were closed, with the exception of the last.

    “You want what?” the owner said incredulously.
    “Tomatoes and peppers and squash,” we replied. “And maybe some cucumbers,” I added. I like putting up pickles!
    “Not until May 15,” the owner replied.
    Now it was our turn to be incredulous. He explained that since we could have blizzards in April, no body planted anything until May – just to be sure!

    When we finally got to May 15 we were ready. Tom bought 8 tomato plants, and multiples of all the other veggies we wanted – hoping at least half would survive. You see, Tom is a west Texas boy and I’m from Waco, TX. We always planted in February and planned for “death in the garden” during our hot summers.

    Much to our surprise every plant flourished and multiplied. I’ve never seen so many tomatoes or squash that grew so fast. New Jersy isn’t called the Garden State for nothing!

    Thanks for the memories, Adrian.



    • You are right about New Jersey–ain’t nothin’ like a Jersey tomato.

      Here in North Florida we have the same summer “death in the garden” as Texas. As soon as the night time temperatures get high those tomatoes that do so well in Jersey quit setting fruit and shortly therafter cash in their chips.

      That’s why that it is worth the gamble of a few starter plants to get some of the garden in very early. Frost may happen. Killer heat is guaranteed.


  • Tgumster says:

    “They die, but they come back again, different, but the same” seems to be my thought-of-this-week. Perhaps it’s because I recently read a Shirley MacLaine book or maybe it’s because of Oprah Winfrey.

    The MacLaine book was “Out on a Leash” in which her dog also contributes. In particular, Terry the rat terrier reminds there is there is no death just a change of form and yes, we all come back, “different but the same.”

    Ms. MacLaine was a guest on Oprah’s show this past week. Once again, “no death” was a topic of interest.

    “Find out why Shirley MacLaine does not cry at funerals” was the program teaser but what Oprah said was, “I hear you no longer attend funerals.”

    “Well, why would I?” Shirley asks. There’s no death, just a change of form.”

    Oprah laughs, uneasily, and the topic changes.

    I suspect they would appreciate knowing about “growing a tomato on a windowsill.”

    Thank you, Adrian.


    • The evidence that nothing is destroyed, but merely changes form is all around us. Think of the myriad forms of water: river, ocean, mist, ice, cloud, snow, rain, steam. Why wouldn’t we who are presently human be just as changeable?


  • craig reeder says:

    here’s a poetic passage from A Course in Miracles that seems apropos:
    “There is a light in you which cannot die; whose presence is so holy that the world is sanctified because of you. All things that live bring gifts to you, and offer them in gratitude and gladness at your feet. The scent of flowers is their gift to you. The waves bow down before you, and the trees extend their arms to shield you from the heat, and lay their leaves before you on the ground that you may walk in softness, while the wind sinks to a whisper round your holy head.”


    • Tgumster says:

      Oh, Craig, you know how I, too, love “A Course in Miracles,” such an eternal flame in its own right. A lovely way to start my day and thank you.


    • I love the first sentence especially. It makes me glad to think the world notices and celebrates my presence–but then I think much of this life is celebratory.

      I’m not sure I want the world to go to so much trouble on my behalf though. I feel easiest being part of the big chorus in which no single voice is important but to which all contribute.

      But I know I can get things wrong when interpreting the wisdom of other humans. Craig, Karen, what did I miss?


      • Tgumster says:

        I don’t know about the wisdom of humans–you are always more generous than I in that regard–and the world is a better place because you do, and I mean that sincerely. I learn so much from you and everyone who stops by this blog. Perhaps, therein lies your answer.

        I don’t think you’re missing anything. I read it as the universal “you,” meaning no one individual is the center of the universe but together we all are the center of the universe, just as you say.

        We must remember what an incredible light each one of us is and how integral we are to everything we see and don’t see, know and don’t know. We must make sure our light shines because “so much depends upon…” us as in William Carlos Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

        All this said, please note I have never made a formal study of “A Course in Miracles” but it’s on my bucket list.


  • If “you” is all of us then I’m in. I mean, we’re in. The big US. I have a great affection for the big US.

    Thanks Karen.


  • G.H. Edwards says:

    Adrian, thank you for your contribution to our garden this year. It is the first we have had in awhile aside from a pot or two of tomatoes on the deck so I’m anxious for the yield but thoroughly enjoying the journey there.


    • Ray and I are headed to the garden in a few minutes. The last of the peppers and all of the eggplants go in this week. I have summer squash started in Dixie cups… It’s the busy season in the garden.

      Tell my kids I say hi, and GROW!


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