My own back yard.
April 14, 2011 § 18 Comments
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.
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.