The Gardener's Art

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.
  • 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.
  • Image by David Diaz

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 50,000.1 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:

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.

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