Perhaps simply because I had the space again after many years of living in urban condos, I started to garden when we moved into our house three years ago. It was also the influence of locavore literature — my gardening is focused on vegetables — and Michael Pollan, especially his early book Second Nature. It turns out that the soil here is dark and wormy and doesn’t demand much from novice gardeners. My first year I grew snap peas, lettuce, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and parsley and a few other herbs. Since then I’ve grown kale, jalapenos, sorrel and rutabagas. Okra was a bust, and I probably over-watered heirloom tomatoes, which developed holes, or didn’t develop at all, and didn’t taste like much, either.
This year I got ambitious and laid out raised beds and, with a lot of help and advice from a young friend, created a small native plant garden. Now I can see delicate spots of lavender and yellow from the kitchen window: spiderwort, black-eyed susans and lanceleaf coreopsis. Dragon carrots are showing their feathery tops, fingerling potatoes are in full leaf, and the kale I started from seed indoors is finally looking sturdy, despite late planting. I’ve even bought a compost bin and am carefully building its under-layer from dried leaves and twigs that I scrounge from our overly large lawn.
I check on the garden every morning and then early in the
evening, when I harvest what I can and water. Weeding is compulsively satisfying work. Watering gives a fresh dark carpet back to the green rows. I fret about chewed-off leaves on the chioggia beets; the marigold border won’t ward off squirrels. The Thai chili peppers, also started indoors from seed, look fragile but are slowly getting bigger.
These are good concerns, simple and immediate ones. And for the length of the growing season (which admittedly is short in the northern Midwest) there’s always something to look for each morning, and even from morning to evening: some new leaves, a dark green jalapeno growing from its little white flower, the first sighting of a root vegetable. And then there is the chance to start again next spring.
Of course, gardens, especially vegetable gardens, demand that you stay put, want you to put down roots, too, expect a daily routine as much as old people or children. The price of contentment and seasonal hope is immobility. Traveling and gardening, novelty and homegrown food, exotic landscapes and one’s own dear patch of cultivated soil, are nearly, if not quite, mutually exclusive terms. How to find a compromise without letting the garden go wild?
Post Scriptum: Today’s (Thursday, June 23, 2011) issue of the New York Times carried an article by Penelope Green about rooftop gardeners in Manhattan (“Nearer the Sun, but No Safer,” D1). One of the gardeners, whose rooftop features fruit trees as well as flowers, and which she and her husband have been tending for decades, noted that it’s not easy to leave their garden. They have to find someone to care for it and give them detailed instructions. “‘I always wonder what our life might have been like without the garden,’ Ms. Goldstein added. ‘Where we would have gone or who we might have become.’ A garden, she noted, is an anchor, which, depending on your point of view, can be either a support or a tether.”
I’ve realized the anchoring effect of gardens, but as a novice it had never occurred to me that a garden could shape who you become. On the whole, it still seems to me that despite the tension between wanting to be tethered and wanting to break loose, gardening can only incline us in a good direction.