Friday, July 24, 2009

In the Garden

Summer Bounty, 1997

One of the great pleasures of having a yard is being able to garden. My parents were gardeners. But like most kids, I resented yard work. If you couldn’t run it over with a lawn mower, I didn’t have much time for it.

When my wife and I got married we lived in an old apartment house in the city. We had a porch with just enough sun to grow tomatoes in pots. From there we moved to a nearby row house that had a small and level, if narrow, plot of land in the back. We planted flowering shrubs and perennials, and even had a little pond out there. After we moved, the next owner filled in the pond and bricked everything over.

It was some time before we moved to our first “real” house. It had a wonderful yard. Anything I planted flourished. We had large perennial beds, flowering shrubs and a vegetable garden big enough to keep our family and most of our friends and neighbors fed.

After we moved from that house, we learned that the couple that bought it from us pulled out all the flowers and vegetables and planted grass. (Note to self: take more clippings next time you move. Apparently no one will miss them.)

We’ve been in our current house for eleven years. When we arrived it had so many trees that there was barely enough light to support weeds. I thought the carpet of unraked leaves was a sign of good arable soil. But the leaves just covered up a hard surface of impermeable clay.

Gardening teaches many lessons, not the least of which is patience. I spent the first three years bringing in soil, compost, manure and hundreds of plants, bulbs and shrubs. Most of them died, some because they didn’t get enough light or moisture, and some because they were eaten by moles, voles and other members of the local animal gentry.

In the fourth year I threw up my hands in frustration and decided not to give a damn. After loving her for years, Mother Nature had given me the big middle finger. I returned to photography instead.

In the fifth year a terrible hurricane came, knocking down trees and washing or blowing away anything that didn’t have deep roots. It took months to clear the debris and repair the house. But when the last tree crew, contractor and FEMA debris truck (it took more than 40 loads from our yard alone) pulled away, we were left with a clean palette.

In the years since, we’ve gradually restored some of the old gardens and continued to cultivate better soil. We’ve planted new trees and shrubs and taken some old ones out. We’ve begrudgingly accepted the limited variety of plants that will do well here. This summer, for the first time in a decade, we have a vegetable garden. It’s small, but has proven sunny and fertile enough to support basic veggies.

They say one of the things that draws people to gardening is its elemental relationship to life and death. You see it all in just a few months. It's sad to put a garden to bed in the fall. But fortunately, life starts anew in the spring and the cycle begins all over again.


  1. So true, so true. Your gardening history is similar to mine and to many of our generation, I suspect. Have you read any of Henry Mitchell's books on gardening? The best, the wittiest garden tomes I've EVER read---and I've read many, including the Important English ones ;D. I recommend them highly to you---they're just great fun to read as books, not just as garden books.

  2. I agree--so very true! Even in "established" gardens, there are changes every year. We're always planting, moving plants around, taking things out and putting new things in...but I tell myself it's good for the soul. I'm glad your fallen trees left you with some good, anyway! (We actually have a few huge pine trees that I wouldn't mind losing, if they'd just fall AWAY from our house!--parking under them in the driveway leaves sap on my car and it makes me nuts.)

  3. I've never had a garden and never thought I would, but almost on a whim this year, I planted a few tomato plants, some cucumbers, a few pepper varieties and okra (yes, okra.) Watching the garden grow has made this summer so enjoyable for me. I find there's very little weeding I need to do, so I just go and watch it every day. A friend tells me that's a lot of pressure to put on my little plants, but they seem to thrive on the attention. It will be a while before anything is ripe, but I'm already planning on expanding for next year!