When I put in my first gardens I was young and green enough myself to believe I could be a creator of dominion everywhere I poked my hoe.
The seeds of the universe may lie in the simplest patch of earth. And so may the bugs.
We remember the juicy tomato, or an ear of com, or a buttery lettuce whose pale green leaves seemed to melt on the tongue. Ever after that tomato and corn, that salad, stay in mind as the standard — as does first love — by which we judge subsequent sliced tomatoes, ears of com, and lettuces. Some of us, our taste buds haunted by the past, search out a seed that will grow the plant that puts that taste back in our mouths. We plant a garden.
What we retrieve from the soil will be memory as much as cabbage.
Fifty years ago everybody grew up on the farm, woke to the moon retreating, the rooster’s brassy cry. Huge heliocentric sunflower heads moved east to west while entire families sweated ass-deep in verdure — fresh vibrant greenness — until the sun-hypnotized sunflowers stared due west. In the last light off the horizon, farmers' families — gorged on biscuit and gravy, fatback and greens — tucked themselves between straw ticking and feather comforters and drifted off, exhausted.
I grew up more typically in a nation where seven out of ten people now live in a town or city with populations greater than 50,000. I grew up scuffing concrete, asphalt, and brick. The view west from our fifth-floor windows was of “Spry Shortening,” in yellow neon lettering that rose above smoking factories on the Jersey side of the Hudson River. Dirt was what I washed off before supper, and “Keep Off The Grass! ” the first sign I learned to read. My mother tended a dusty African violet set in a rusting saucer on the windowsill, and I kept a black-tailed white rat in a cage under the bathroom sink. That was it for flora and fauna.
All the kids in our neighborhood were trying to get back to the nature our folks had left behind in order to come to the city. Lacking anything alive and teeming to collect except cockroaches and greasy dandelions dotting the forbidden grass, I filled jars with broken colored glass from bashed tail lights. I envied my best friend David Rosenthal; he fondled a box turtle he’d picked up by a pond in New Hampshire.
In a manila envelope I kept snapshots of myself at two and three and four, before moving to New York, standing by my father in the vegetable garden adjacent to our house in the Midwest. Corn rose to my father’s shoulder, and I held, in both hands, a Beefsteak tomato the size of a softball.
I looked at primitive Kodacolors, rusty and vague, of me at my grandmother’s Missouri farm. I am weighed down by a cabbage as big as my mother’s head. Even today I can recall how heavy and dense that cabbage felt, and how silky smooth were its outer leaves. And with every six-leafed cabbage plant I stuck into the ground in later years, I had hopes of feeling that “memory cabbage” again.
High up in Manhattan, looking out at the Spry sign burning yellow through the dusk, my father’s Midwest garden was Eden before Eden was lost. I would roll in my sheets, shivering with memories of the odor of pungent tomato vines. Their pollinating blossoms powdered my hands when I plunged through the scratchy foliage in search of baby tomatoes.
The first summer following my marriage I got a half-basset, half-beagle dog; two mallard ducks who hatched seventeen black-and-yellow ducklings; a black kitten who guarded five goldfish in an oversize brandy snifter; and a blue parakeet. And I planted a small garden, digging neither deeply nor thoroughly enough, nor adding any soil amendments or fertilizers. I sowed radishes, two kinds of lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, yellow crook-neck squash, and, because I liked it fried in cornmeal, okra. By God, I was a married woman, I was pregnant, and I was going to make up for all those years keeping off the grass.
Mrs. Parrish taught me composting before I ever even heard the word. Just about everything went into her patch:
If we have pets, we have them in part because they remind us of a time when our ancestors lived intimately with animals. Until the last few hundred years man kept warm beneath rough hides and may well have gone to sleep counting the very sheep that rustled in the hay downstairs. If we have gardens, we have them in part because gardens also remind us of an era when nature was not separate, not out-of-doors and distant. Field crops and kitchen gardens once provided food, medicine, and barter stock. When the corn kernels had swelled the husk, we knew midsummer had arrived. When pumpkins turned ripe orange, winter was near.
Backyard corn patches and front porch petunias, pups and tomcats, all remind us of the genetically human creature in us who persists. No contemporary noisy urban existence can kill him. That generic human yearns for his lost ancient parity with the animal and vegetal. Today we put house-plants in our windows and teddy bears in our beds, more reminders of an earlier, greener, still unbroken world of the historically older person in us.
That first garden of mine should have been enough to discourage anyone. Slugs slithered up and down rows, chewing seedlings and excreting the colorless, sticky, shiny trails upon which slugs and snails travel. Aphids set in among the pea vines after a three-day rain and were covered, shortly after, with mildew, a fungus that silted leaves and vines and pea pods with what resembled gray powder. Only two of the dozen cabbages headed, and in these, brown worm holes bored through to the core. Near the cabbages’ hearts I found a greenish egg mass, a gelatinous vegetarian caviar. I planted the spinach too late; in the first hot afternoons it bolted to seed, sending up hollow, striated stems above stunted leaves. I planted okra too soon, and its seeds rotted in the cold, compacted soil. The tomatoes, insufficiently watered, stayed small and hard and tasted sour.
The cat ran away. The fish, overfed, died. A drunken friend, gone outside in the dark to be sick, stepped on and killed a baby duck. The dog turned out to be a thief, rummaging in neighbors’ yards and returning with plaid sneakers, toys, small tools, and other dogs’ bowls. He limped home one night, his rear peppered with buckshot.
All that, coupled with morning sickness, should have quashed my enthusiasm for re-creating Eden in the backyard. But the yellow crookneck squash fruited as fast as I could pick them, and they tasted like what my Missouri grandmother cooked. We ate lettuce — both ruby and green leaf — green peppers, one eggplant, and we feasted on uniformly-eared Country Gentleman sweet com.
The second backyard garden 1 had, and the first whose soil I worked carefully, had been covered with grass for twenty years. I had no idea what lay beneath the tough lawn. The soil was a sphinx to me. I know that in some post-World War II developments, contractors ’ bulldozers had scooped up topsoil that was then sold, leaving barren ground which was covered with turf and landscaped with bushes and trees that grew up stunted. Where I dug, that had not happened. When I broke into the lawn with my spading fork, the tines cut through thick-matted roots (roots from a clump of grass may total 400 miles in length). As soon as I had opened up the twenty-four-by-eighteen-foot plot, I saw wriggling pink earthworms. According to the gardening books I'd begun to read by then, worms meant soil was rich and in "good heart," and indeed, when I had de-turfed the area, I saw soil that was bittersweet chocolate in color. In my bare palm it felt slightly gritty, neither sandy nor sticky nor clayey.
My initial assumption in that first garden was that soil just lay there, dead, a "finished” geological product whose future had stopped billions of years earlier. Wasn’t soil the rot and slag of eons? An unmoving, unfeeling mix of dessicated rock, burned-down barns, rotted dinosaurs, decomposed trees, rust, volcanic ash, decayed Pleistocene garbage?
No. Soil, the top layer of the earth’s surface, is a mass of mineral particles, living and dead vegetable matter, air pockets, and water. Of this, about half consists of air, water, and the multitude of living creatures in that water. A spadeful of quite ordinary soil, for instance, contains more microbes than there are humans on earth. Not getting acquainted with soil and not nurturing it will cause the gardener more ingarden misery than any spider mite or blossom-end rot (a hard, round, brown rotten spot on the blossom end of tomatoes). When I began to recognize soil as "living,” as always changing and accreting, I began to tend it with the same enthusiasm I gave to the greenery tuffeting the soil’s surface.
Had I not had two young children, born seventeen months apart, I might not have taken up gardening so zealously. But I wanted to feed them vegetables that were fresh and uncontaminated by sprays. I wanted to be able to keep an eye on my children while they played out-of-doors and, at the same time, to do something I liked. Had I not had these two children and that manila envelope of old photos, I might not have honored my own good memories so consciously and might not have taken as many snapshots each year, on the backs of which I wrote,
“Girls, in the garden, 196_.” and then, “197_” As the girls got older and helped more in the garden, I liked to think they were learning a skill — bringing food out of the earth — that would always stand them in good stead and give them a material link with a past in which people did grow their own food.
Mrs. Theda Parrish, widowed for ten years and in her seventies when I put in that second garden, had lived down the block since before World War II. Her husband had been a fireman and before that a logger. Because Mr. Parrish’s work (she always referred to him as "Mr.”) had kept him from home, Mrs. Parrish always put in a garden. Not one year passed, she said, when "I didn’t have myself a patch.”
Mrs. Parrish taught me composting before I ever even heard the word. Just about everything went into her patch: ashes from the wood stove, left out for a year so that rainfall could leach out the caustic lye; shredded paper from the packing in Christmas boxes; fruit and vegetable parings and scraps; cleanings from her canary’s cage; coffee grounds and tea leaves; autumn leaves, grass and hedge clippings; groundfall plums and apples from her fruit trees; and even pinchings from her house plants. This was "compost,” one of the richest and cheapest soil amendments. (A soil amendment improves the texture of soil and is not the same as a fertilizer, which supplies nutrients to soil and, through plant roots, to the plant structure).
Not only did Mrs. Parrish (who had been a marathon dancer during the Depression) supervise her grandson Quentin’s digging in all of this garbage every spring, but she insisted that he “dig double,” two spade-lengths down into the soil, mixing in the composted materials with each spadeful of dirt. And before Quentin began the double-digging, she had him spread a dusting of lime across her garden to “sweeten” the soil. This double-digging allows the gardener to add soil amendments and any fertilizers evenly to the soil. The breaking-up of that second-down spit-length (“spit” is what old-time gardeners call the depth of the shovel or spade blade) of soil produces a loose, friable texture (“tilth”) that enhances the growth of long, straight Imperator carrots, parsnips, new potatoes, and the pound-size Walla Walla “sweets,” a delicious yellow onion that stores well over the winter.
The double-digging process in which Quentin was supervised twice a year (spring and fall) by his grandmother makes every garden task subsequently easier: hoeing rows, seeding in, thinning, weeding. It also permits the gardener to add the amendments and nutrients needed for the close-cropping technique called French intensive gardening, the 400-year-old system still practiced in the market gardens surrounding Paris, and used by an increasing number of U.S. suburban and urban gardeners.
The unseen roots are as, or even more, important than the greenery above ground. Feeding and re-feeding the well-tilled soil from which roots take their nourishment makes that greenery, and subsequent flowers and fruits, flourish. But what to “feed” the soil? Even with the difficulties, nowadays, of obtaining well-rotted manures (six months to a year in weather tempers the heat in manures; put on fresh, or unrotted, and manures will “bum”) and rotted hay. I'm still all for it. Bagged chemical fertilizers do work and are more convenient and often less expensive than the real stuff. Directions on commercial fertilizers must be followed to the letter, and the ecological ramifications are now well known.
Two houses down from Mrs. Parrish lived Mr. Downe, who had been a grammar school geography teacher. At the other end of the block were the Birches, Bud and Elma, who with their son owned half-interest in the nearby mom-and-pop comer store where Bud Birch worked every morning and all day Sunday. Bud had “sugar diabetes,” and gangrene had cost him his right leg. He'd fought in World War I
and been mustard-gassed, and had, he said, “bad nerves.” Often he smelled, slightly, of the whiskey that Elma said would kill him, what with his diabetes. He was a born gallant, and even with his noisy wooden peg — he had tossed out the leg the army gave him, he said — and his good-size belly and frequently drink-red face, I was half in love with him.
He was in France during the war. While he was “cleaning up Paree for them Froggies,” he told me, sitting on our back stoop early one spring afternoon, his entire family, back on an Indiana farm — seven brothers and sisters, his mother and father — had died of Spanish influenza. “I came home, ma’am,” he said huskily, “to nothin’, and when I got off the train at Vincennes and hitched out to the place, there was nobody there except the old hound that had been my pa’s, and she was nursin’ seven pups.” The Birches' current dog, Prince, a spindly-legged mongrel that shed white hair and left a sourish smell hanging over their house, was descended directly from that same litter, he said.
After fifty years of marriage, the Birches were still romantic with one another. She “fixed up” before he came back from the store at noon, combing out her yellow-white pin curls into a bob and splashing Belladogia behind her earlobes. She was a big, beefy woman, square in the shoulders and broad across the bosom, who took great pride in her slender ankles and size-five double-A foot. “Bud always has admired my feet,” she told me.
Mr. Downe, the former geography teacher, was “mean-spirited,” Mrs. Parrish warned me. He watchdogged radio, TV, and newspapers, he scoured U.S. News and World Report, and when he walked the alley and visited with neighbors, dressed in the old blue or gray suits in which he had taught geography, he always brought predictions of storms that would destroy our gardens, or of race riots, or war with the Commies, or new influenzas and colds.
But he did have the finest asparagus bed anyone on the block could remember. In spring and fall he applied to it a high-nitrogen fertilizer he compounded from pig dung. Every year one of his former students, now a pig farmer, brought him a half-dozen gunny sacks stuffed with the rotted droppings. Mr. Downe filled his three zinc milking pails one-quarter full with the dung, then added warm water to the top, let it set overnight, then strained out the liquid and poured it on the asparagus bed. Pig droppings, Mr. Downe told me, contained the highest nitrogen levels of all farm animals.
He was also the first person who explained to me what the numbers on chemical fertilizer labels meant. A label that reads 5-10-10, for example, means the contents include five percent nitrogen, ten percent phosphorous, and ten percent potassium. The numbers are always listed on commerical fertilizers in that order. Nitrogen promotes plant stem and leaf growth; phosphorous encourages root formation, flowering, and fruiting; potassium promotes root growth and seed production.
Mr. Downe scoffed at our vegetarian friends. He pointed out to me that even those animals which, historically, were regarded as vegetarians ate ‘ ‘plenty of meat ” in the form of insects they consumed along with the plants on which they fed. Then he would laugh, harshly.
Making friends with Mr. Downe (I never heard anyone call him “Frank”) took time. The year both my girls entered school he brought me a bundle of first cuttings from his asparagus bed. When I thanked him for the thin, crisp spears, he replied, “Well, I guess you’ll be lonesome now.” He always took great interest in my questions and got out his 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, handing me Volume 13, HAR-HUR, to “read up on horticulture.” This edition’s article on gardening, if one allows for some recent improvements in home gardening, remains one of the most thorough how-tos in the English language.
Mr. Downe’s hard rancorousness often frightened me. Once, when he believed the Birch’s mutt “went” on his yard, he did not speak with them for a year. Often, for no reason I could ascertain, when we met on the street, he only growled at me. Finally I came in time to scorn his mean fussiness and doomstering.
After a few years, however, I began to adore Ben Birch. One afternoon, while digging up some mint from Elma Birch’s bed (mint thrives almost anywhere, and if a gardener is not careful, its long roots will take over a garden area), I said something to her about how awful it must have been for Ben when he came home from war to find all his family dead. She laughed, her large, soft bosom shaking. “He told you that old story?” she said. “That’s just his whiskey talking.” On my knees in Elma’s herb bed, looking up, puzzled, into her beady blue eyes, I felt so hurt that nausea rose in my throat. “Ben came out of an orphanage,' ’ she said sharply. “He was a bastard. He never knew his father or his mother.”
“But what about Prince?” I asked.
“A stray that somebody dumped off at the store,” she said, and walked inside, leaving me alone in her backyard with the sound of the revolving lawn sprinkler and, in the distance, children screaming on the school playground.
I hated Ben for lying to me. The next time I saw him, both his talk and his hugs felt spoiled. Into my twenties I had still expected adults, and especially people grown into their sixties and seventies, to have resolved their emotional and ethical problems. I expected that whoever looked good (or what I thought of as “good”), was good. Did I ever love Ben again? No. I tried to bring the old fond feelings back, but they wouldn’t come, and when he touched me, I would only feel like a bad person myself for having loved someone whose “whiskey talked.”
One of a postwar generation, born on the cusp of Hiroshima into a family rent by suicide and abandonment, I was a pessimistic little kid. Janey, my next-door-neighbor the year we both turned eight, had been born in a Japanese concentration camp and was already fitted with false teeth. She slept with crackers, sugar cubes, and mayonnaise sandwiches under her pillow. While playing dolls and dress-up with Janey and her older sister Anne, I learned ways of mankind that are still too horrible to me to repeat. On some nights, through our apartment walls, Janey’s father’s nightmare screams woke me up. Both he and her mother had been tortured. I attended school with children whose grandparents and aunts and uncles and older sisters and brothers were killed in Belsen Belsen, in Ravensbruck, Dachau, and Babi Yar; and my friend David Rosenthal, whom I envied for his turtle, wondered aloud, once, if I would hide him when, not if, “it” happened again.
My garden was a little world, an oasis where I could make something — food — whose reality was incontestable, and whose virtue — unlike money or power — I did not question. Immersion in “garden time” attached me to a wider rhythm, a beat of time older than the Cuban Missile Crisis (whose hourly updates accompanied the nursing of my first child), older than the Cold War and the execution of the Rosenbergs; older than Hiroshima; older than the death camps. I never found any cure — chemical, political, psychiatric, interpersonal, spiritual — quite like the one that washed over me when I put my spade into soil every spring.
If a person in search of a "memory vegetable,” one of those luscious tomatoes or tender lettuces eaten as a child, were to take up gardening, he or she might find that a seed to reproduce that specific vegetable cannot be located anywhere. We have lost much of our original seed stock. Mankind now depends largely on a dozen crops (com, wheat, barley, soybeans, potatoes, rice, millet, sorghum, oats, rye, peas, and peanuts) compared with forty to fifty in the Nineteenth Century. Whereas tens of thousands of plants are known to be edible, we produce far fewer varieties, and only about 600 edible plant species are cultivated worldwide.
The loss of seed stock began innocuously enough when our ancestors saved those seeds from garden produce that best met their requirements. But as they selected for more desirable qualities (early ripening, disease resistance, and large fruit size), multiple strains were developed, and the original seed was often lost.
In Third World countries where seed for commercial crops is imported from First World nations, whole ranges of seed stock have disappeared, and these countries are now dependent on First World suppliers for seed. The offspring of a hybridized seed such as the modem corn grown in nations like Nicaragua will not reproduce itself “true" if the seeds are saved and replanted. Instead it will, if it produces anything, reproduce one of its parent’s stocks. The result is that countries that fall out of favor with their suppliers may find themselves, as have Nicaraguan farmers, without any usable seed at all.
Worldwide there are “seed savers,” usually hobbyists, whose common avocation is protection of old-fashioned, heirloom, and even pre-Columbian seed varieties. In nearly every state in this country loosely knit organizations exist from whom these seeds can be purchased. The recently published Guerilla Gardening by Washington State University English professor John F. Adams (Coward-McCann, 1983) recounts the history of worldwide seedstock loss and lists persons from whom “antique” seeds can be bought or bartered.
Most home gardeners depend on seeds and sprouted plants from groceries, nurseries, and garden centers, or they order from mail-order catalogues. When a new gardener plans his first garden, the question often arises as to which vegetables to grow. I found it helpful first to make a list of what we liked and then to work from that, eliminating vegetables that took up too much space or that needed a longer growing season than our climate offered.
No vegetable garden, however, should be without flowers. Marigolds are the most popular annual flower in the U.S., and in the vegetable garden they are not only attractive but they also repel soil nematodes, microscopic worms that live in the soil and feed on plant roots. Some gardeners even grind up their marigold plants after harvest and mix them into the garden soil. Zinnias, asters, bachelor’s buttons, and sunflowers are easy to start in the ground from seed. Other flowers, both annual and perennial, are better purchased as plants. The seeds of such as the petunia, coleus, snapdragon, pansy, and four o’clock, for example, are as fine as table salt.
Although I found catalogues and seed packets helpful for learning what to plant and when, a neighborhood gardener always is the best source when one wants to know whether to plant, say, an Early Girl tomato or a Big Boy. The closer to home that garden advisor is, the better. A neighborhood at one end of town may have significantly different soil, weather, and water run-off conditions from a neighborhood at the other end of town.
Ortho and Sunset publish general guides to vegetable gardening. County and state agricultural extension agents offer pamphlets and advice, plus such services as soil testing and pest and disease identification and treatment for their eradication. (This information is available locally through the University of California Cooperative Extension. The phone number is 565-5376.) A knowledgeable salesperson in a greenhouse or garden store can also be a valuable ally.
Mrs. Parrish, my instructor in composting, insisted that seed rows be finely raked. She planted seeds at a depth equal to twice the seed’s thickness. When she planted carrot, parsley, beet, and onion seeds (which are all difficult to germinate), she would hobble down the row pouring boiling water from her teakettle over the seeds before she had her grandson Quentin cover them with powdery soil. The boiling water, she said, cracked the hard seed case and hastened germination, and in addition, made that germination more even.
Mrs. Parrish never planted any of the cabbage family (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts) twice in the same season in the same row. To do so increases the risk of disease. She kept rough drawings of what she planted where, each year, and never planted the same thing in the same place two years consecutively, again because this increased the likelihood of disease.
Early on, I learned from her to “spot” rows of small, slow-germinating seeds such as carrot, onion, beet and even green and lima beans by planting with these seeds the faster-germinating, softer-cased radish. Once the radish sprouts its first leaves above the soil line, it has not only opened the soil for harder, smaller seeds, but also it marks the rows. A radish comes to maturity in as few as twenty-two days, and the radishes will be eaten long before beets or carrots have put out their first green rufflings.
Maybe I’m easily pleased. But the thrill of visiting the garden in the morning to see what’s come up has been a thrill that never left. Early in the morning, when the birds still sing freely, as yet undisturbed by traffic, dogs or cats, or the paper boy, then is the time to run down the back steps into the garden to check. If an entire row of beans has split the earth, that’s a thrill. The curved neck of the just-germinated bean plant is still pale then, and the whitish-yellow leaves look like the wings on the old White Rock label’s nymph.
Impatience hampered the success of my first gardens. I put out tomato and pepper plants too soon, not waiting until May when night temperatures have settled into upper forties and low fifties. The cold nights stultify growth and can damage tender leaves. I “dressed’’tomatoes and peppers in three-pound coffee cans and gallon plastic jugs from which I had cut out the bottoms. Although these cans and jugs were useful in keeping out slugs and cutworms, which bite off plants at soil level, my rushing the tomato and pepper season always caused grief. First, there was the ever-growing collection of three-pound cans and gallon jugs in the garage and back porch. My tomatoes and peppers came on no sooner— and often later, because they had been initially stunted — than tomatoes and peppers put out at the proper time. When nights turned unexpectedly cold and stormy, I would take tablecloths, sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and beach towels and spread them across the jugs and cans, anchoring all this linen and napery with rocks and tools. And then, next day, I would have to wash and dry it all.
From that initial cut into soil until harvest time, gardening teaches patience and is a school for consistency. In nothing I have ever done could I as clearly see the consequences of impatience and carelessness as in the garden. If I did not set out the beer bottles, one-eighth full of beer, on their sides for the slugs to crawl into, the slugs would chew my newly-planted cabbage plants. (For the home garden, plants in the cabbage family are best bought already started.) If I let water stand in the unused pot from which I'd knocked out a tomato plant before planting it, mosquitoes would breed in the empty pot. Getting water on leaves of cucurbit family (melons, squash, cucumbers) could bring on mildews. Allowing smokers who had not washed their hands to touch the leaves of tomatoes (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and tobacco all come from the same deadly nightshade, or solanum, family) may leave tomato plants open to the scourge of tobacco mosaic, a viral disease that mottles leaves and eventually kills the plant. But for all those caveats and perils, taking up gardening is not like enrolling in boot camp. Certain facts of nature must be respected; the garden, like the human body, won't lie.
But I learned I could fudge. I could shorten recommended distances between plants. I could crop more closely than seed packages advise. As long as I left sufficient room for air to get to the plant (overcrowding encourages disease, in gardens as well as ghettos), and made up for the closer cropping with larger doses of fertilizers, nothing awful happened. In smaller urban gardens, close cropping
allows the gardener to grow even more than the average one to one and a half pounds per square foot of garden space. Also, the extra foliage shadowing the soil retains moisture and discourages weed growth.
Many schools of watering are taught. The only way to know for sure how far the water has gone is to dig down and check. I learned how often to water — as every gardener does — by watering. New vegetable seedlings need more frequent watering than a large, established cabbage. Sandy soils need water more often than those that run to clay. Hot weather calls for more water than cool.
I have tried laying down rotted hay between rows and around plants to suppress weed growth and to reduce evaporation of water from the soil. I have also tried those hideous black plastic sheets, into which holes are cut where plants are to be set. The plastic does what the hay does and also accelerates the warming of soil in spring. Nonetheless, I so missed the color of that rich, bittersweet chocolate-colored soil that the advantages straw and plastic offered were not worth the aesthetic damage they created in the garden.
By the end of July, bugs would become a concern in the garden. Day by day I watched for the fine webs that indicated spider mites and the white cabbage butterflies. Coming up in the post-Silent Spring era, I believed chemical warfare was an act of last resort. I never went so far as to bring in ladybugs or praying mantises to wage war for me by feeding on my aphids and thrips and wire worms, but I did learn to put on my glasses and carefully hand-pick snails and caterpillars off foliage. Using fine jets of water, I hosed off the vines and stems that showed smaller mites and aphids.
Mrs. Parrish concocted a natural insecticide; she ground ten to twelve dried red chili peppers and soaked them in two cups of hot water. She put this mixture into the pint spray bottle that screwed onto her garden hose nozzle, and with the spray turned on full blast, she dosed the cabbage heads. Early the next morning she would spray the cabbage with clear water.
I never heard any of my older neighbors say the word organic. These older men and women grew up on farms, and gardening came naturally. They told me how to dig and store potatoes. (Loosen the plant with a spading fork, getting the tines down beneath the plant. Use your hands to feel for the potatoes. Lift up the plant and shake it, then pick the potatoes off it. Let the potatoes dry out — but not in the sun, because they will take on green spots, and potatoes with green spots can make you sick. After they have dried for two weeks in a cool place, cull out any potatoes with a cut in them. Lay the unblemished ones gently in a gunny sack, and store them in a cool, dark place.) They taught me to leave some carrots and rutabagas in the ground after fall and dig them at
Thanksgiving, when they were sweeter. They warned me to ripen tomatoes at season’s end with a foot of vine still attached so the tomatoes wouldn’t get sour or watery.
My innate carelessness made me even more frightened of killing a pet or making a child sick with Malathion, diazanon, and Sevin, all chemicals used to deal with garden pests. This trio smells ghastly and is in fact so disagreeable that I preferred to let an occasional plant die — just pulling it up and throwing it in the garbage so that other plants would not be infected.
As the children got older and they ate what they wanted at places other than their own kitchen table, my own gardening changed. I reproduced in my yard the white perennial flower garden designed by an English gardener who had been Virginia Woolf’s lesbian lover. It was a complex undertaking, and the girls — teenagers by then — helped reluctantly, and only if they had nothing better to do. These were years when I increasingly feared my time with them had been wasted, and we maintained a charged distance from one another. My garden became a refuge from the house, which was now always rumbling with loud music and reeking of insufficiently dried marijuana grown along banks of local streams. I hated the way we were with one another and felt my own estrangement from my parents settle into another generation.
Mrs. Parrish’s legs finally gave out on her. She flew east to visit her eldest daughter and never came back. Grandson Quentin and his father came on weekends in a red Toyota pickup and loaded up the Parrishes' belongings. Quentin, almost twenty then, had lost his easiness with me.
Ben Birch suffered a massive stroke. I heard the sirens stop at the little store but did not know until evening that it had been Ben and that he was dead when they got there. A black wreath hung on the store's door for two days, and then on the next Monday, Elma — who had never shopped or worked in their store — showed up behind the counter.
That left Mr. Downe, the retired schoolteacher, and me. He looked as leathery, as tough as ever, and still dressed in the same suits he wore a decade before. I cut him bouquets from the white garden and he complimented me, without irony, on its “charming carelessness.”
The aim of the home garden is not perfection. When I put in my first gardens I was young and green enough myself to believe I could be a creator of dominion everywhere I poked my hoe. Long cool spring days when the light stayed grayish-green, when clouds hung low day after day and plants stood still and didn’t grow; a ravaging freak hailstorm that beat down the fruited tomatoes; a pet rabbit that got loose and chewed up rows of new lettuce; maggots eating the onions; these brought me low and taught me the virtue T.S. Eliot qualified as endless: “humility.”
The gardening boom of the late Sixties and the Seventies was hard on gardening. When growing vegetables and a few flowers became part of the era’s chic, and gardening became acceptable party talk, the act of gardening — its ways and means — became overcomplicated. The act suffered from the ideology that encouraged it, and like everything else that becomes popular, gardening became one more competitive sport, and emotionally, socially, and fiscally more expensive. Even if the Birches and Mrs. Parrish and Mr. Downe did not teach me the best of gardening technologies, I am always grateful I learned from people who learned it from people who did it to eat. I would have hated boutique lettuce growing.
The garden gave me a place where paradise could be briefly regained. Standing out among the rows in the late evening when the scent of tomato pollen would cut through the air, I could remember back twenty, then twenty-five, then thirty years. Although I never did recapture the taste of my father’s tomatoes or the feel of my grandmother’s heavy cabbages, I did often retrieve the parts of myself I liked best when I was working in the soil.
In late fall I always, rather gladly, put the garden away. When I lived where frost came and in one night would raze every vine and leaf, turning every green one to black and brown, weather ended the garden for me. When I lived where killing frost did not come, I picked and pulled what bounty was left, keeping a row or two of carrots, perhaps some turnips and rutabagas and beets if any remained, and then turned over the soil, adding three or four inches of well-rotted manure I would load onto the garden surface. After the manure was turned into the soil, I would cover the garden with leaves and grass clippings. Winter and then early spring rains would soak into the earth, breaking down what I added.
When my daughter Rebecca turned twenty, she was living in a rented house in the city, and most of my garden efforts went into the white perennials. When she came home to visit on a Fourth of July weekend, she brought, stacked on the back seat of her blue VW Bug, grocery sacks filled with green beans, red- and green-leaf lettuces, white icicle and French breakfast radishes, green puller onions, Detroit dark-red beets, and skinny thinnings from her carrot row. Wrapped in a wet paper towel in the front seat was a huge clutch of variously colored sweet peas. When she opened the car door and stepped out onto the driveway, along which I had bedded in white petunias, she kissed my mouth and handed me the sack of green beans. Looking into that sack, I felt dizzy on love.