“As soon as the ground can be worked:” can there be a more exciting phrase found on a seed packet? Can’t you just smell the clean fresh dirt in these words?
“As soon as the ground can be worked:” as soon as the earth below you becomes unfrozen, as soon as her flesh responds with pliancy, as soon as she yields instead of resists, as soon as winter’s cold shoulder melts a little under the tutelage of lengthening days, you can sow some early seeds in the garden.
The sun seduces the earth. Even though it’s thirty degrees in the morning, the sun warms the ground all day long. The ground holds the sun’s warmth, and loses her sheen of frost as summer saunters in, roses in hand. The early seeds like peas and broccoli (and I might try parsley and kale) don’t need high soil temperatures to germinate and don’t mind a little frost or snow. Legend says you should sow your peas on St. Patrick’s Day. I say you should have a good relationship with your soil and wait for her to tell you when she’s ready.
Luck and happenstance played a huge role in laying out my garden when it was new; I didn’t know anything about botany or agriculture. The fencerow along the walkway to the garage seemed sunny so I planted vegetables there. Each year the veggie row grew longer and now spans the whole walk. Every morning and afternoon and evening when I traverse this path to come and go from errands and work, I walk the full length of the veggie garden. I know all of her moods. I know her little hills and valleys, her caches of perennial and self-sowing herbs, her weedy spots where the catnip seeds started, and her rocky spots where nothing grows unless it just wants to. I know where some carrots are still frozen into the ground from last season. I know where corn mache, salad and cilantro overwintered. I know where I let some cherry tomatoes fall in hopes the seeds would sprout this year. I know where I’ve unearthed aggressive perennials too big for this space, where I fought cthulu-like asparagus roots and wheedling invasive raspberry sets to the death.
I walk with the garden every day, and I know her intimately. I came home from work last night, and she said she’s ready. The frost and snow have almost completely melted. Her sunniest spot seems to be giving me that come hither look. The dirt is dark and moist under the mulch of fall’s chopped leaves. But when I searched my seed packets for peas, I found none. How did I forget to save some seeds or buy new peas? Surely I had too many seeds last year and didn’t plant them all? Like a Casanova without a condom, I leave the soil unplundered until tomorrow.
As soon as the ground can be worked
I will come to you, my love.
You will know me by my trowel
By my steel-toed boots
And my stake. I will be gentle.
When you yield, I yield also.
A small trench, no deeper
I will carve into your breast.
There I will hide my seeds
And there you will work your mystery.
The fruit will grow fat in the sun.
Fall’s furrows will leave traces
That once we loved, and once we bore fruit.
This little blog started from seeds of curiosity about why I became obsessed with my garden. I started writing to find out what was deep in the dirt that spoke to me so joyfully and profoundly that I quit my other creative pursuits. After a lifetime of drawing pictures and moderate success in the amateur art world, I dropped my pencils and looked at the yard and said: This is my canvas. This really matters. No more flat static surfaces, fixed and unchanging on a gallery wall; it’s time to get messy.
I hear voices in the garden. They speak wordlessly and passionately about the stuff the earth is made of. It’s the same stuff you and I are made of, but as humans we too often pretend we’re something else. I think it’s possible every war and atrocity perpetrated throughout human history is a result of this self-deception, and certainly every catastrophic environmental disaster is. When we look clearly at ourselves, we find our roots and origins in the complex inter-related biological systems and events of the past and present earth. Simply stated, humans are part of the whole.
Working in the garden means working with history. As I was digging, I suspected I heard the voices of unnamed goddesses long erased by patriarchal empires. I thought about the part of the Grimm’s version of Cinderella I read as a child that fascinated me most: Cinderella’s mother is dead, and Cinderella grows a tree on her mother’s grave where the birds bring her all the gifts she needs to overcome adversity. With a little research into fairy tales, I discovered Cinderella tales may originate in the oral traditions of matriarchal cultures, and in the old tales the prince is a beast she civilizes rather than her savior. The prince is her prize, and Cinderella saves herself with the powers she gains from her dead gift-bearing mother.
In folklore studies, the dead gift-bearing mother is, as we say in Detroit, a Thing. She’s been in my mind since I first read Cinderella when I was a child, and I’m delighted to finally learn her name. She is most certainly out there in the garden, in the dirt and in the compost where death and transformation enact a never-ending comic/tragic cycle. Working with the goddess is leading me down the impractical path of writing my own fairy tales, and I’ve written five so far. My first attempt was posted here last summer, called The Fly And The Rose. It’s the first piece of fiction I ever tried. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.
The other stories I’m writing have less literal gardening content, and in fact deal with topics like child abuse, kidnapping, same-sex marriage, and suicide. Fairy tale worlds don’t have the kind of rules that apply to our everyday world, so I am taking many liberties with reality. As for happy endings, they are primarily a myth invented by Disney’s commercialized versions of fairy tales, and reading older versions of stories opens doors to more complicated and mysterious endings. If I have piqued your interest in fairy tales, I recommend reading Jack Zipes translation of the Grimm’s tales and any of his scholarly books. He’s kind of my hero right now. If I succeed in refining my fairy tales into publishable form, maybe he will write the introduction to my book. I mean a girl can dream, can’t she?
This time of year I should be planning my veggie garden, lusting after new seeds, and obsessing about spring bulbs. But outside the world is still brutally white and frozen, and I think I have worked so hard on the garden in the past few years that in many ways it can take care of itself. It’s established enough to no longer need coddling. Maybe the veggies can go in randomly. Maybe I won’t plan. Maybe this year I’ll sit back and be still more often, and lie down in the grass and listen to the stories the garden wants to tell me.
A sawfly larvae fairytale
I awoke on the underside of a leaf. Sunlight filtering through the sheath of my egg roused me. All was blurred. I could barely move. I shifted. As I moved my body, it suddenly screamed its message: HUNGER!
I writhed in panic as need exploded in every section of me. The egg gave way, and I burst into the terrible daylight, my jaw seeking something – anything – to devour. My home, the leaf, was my first meal.
Other instars from my brood surrounded me, and we feasted together, marching upwards from leaf to leaf as we left nothing but bare stems behind. Our greed was unchecked; this was our birthright, to eat the rosebush, to skeletonize her branches. We were on a mission. We needed to fatten up, shed our skins, emerge larger, fatten up again, emerge again; on and on until we could pupate in the welcoming soil at the foot of our beloved rose.
You see we loved her. She was the source of our sustenance, and no other leaves nearby had the right chemical scent. We knew we couldn’t eat them. We could only feast on our sweet rose. What choice did we have? Starve to preserve her? Or flourish and see her defoliated, trusting she would leaf out next spring? There was no choice, really. We ate and ate.
One dull day when I hung languid and full on the edge of a decimated leaf ready to reach my next instar, shadows passed over me and the rose shook. I don’t mean she swayed in the breeze or sagged from a heavy rain; I mean she shook like an earthquake vibrating from her very core. I reared up with my brothers in a defensive S posture. We stood together, leaf by leaf (or what was left of them), ready to defend our rose.
I heard voices.
“Oh gross. Look at all of them!”
We held our position, still as ninja. We were many; they were only two. Our forces outnumbered them exponentially.
“Eww, don’t touch them! Can’t you just knock them off with a stick?”
A heavy pinkish thing swooped in from the air above, plucking and pinching my brother on the edge of the leaf. He clung bravely with his prolegs, resisting attack. He held on valiantly, even as I saw his soft body sag in the monster’s clasping tentacles. He wiggled in a last fit of bold resistance. The monster gave one sharp tug and unceremoniously threw him onto the ground. My brother lay curled in a tight circle, expiring. I trembled.
“Well, that’s no good. They’ll just crawl back up there.”
“Why don’t you get me a glass of water, with a little soap in it? That’ll kill them.”
“Don’t you want gloves? You don’t want to touch them, do you?”
“Just get the water please.”
“Okay, hold on.”
Once a brief respite ended, the full onslaught began. How can I describe the horror as one by one we were mercilessly torn from our rose and plunged to our deaths, drowned like so many tiny Ophelia with no rosemary for remembrance, no prince to grieve our passing? We were drowned after watching our brothers be drowned, a torture almost worse than the end itself. With no wings to fly, no stingers to poison, and no voices to scream, we watched our own massacre, helpless and silent.
Drowning feels like breathing glass. You are not gently lulled like a lobster in a pot. You do not fall asleep. Every millimeter of your insides is shredded by shards of pain as oxygen is replaced by a thousand pins and cuts. You want to black out; you should be dead by now. You have certainly stopped breathing.
“Well, I guess we should throw them in the compost.”
“Yeah, they won’t be able to get back here.”
“Do you think they’re dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh well. Doesn’t matter.”
Overwhelmed by nausea, swirling and sloshing in sticky liquid, and consumed by the black, hot pain of agonizingly slow death, we were cast into a dark pit.
The smell of the rose had always been so sweet. We had known her chemical signature from before our birth, and her fragrance had always been the center of our world. Now we writhed in a steaming hole full of molding banana peels, rotting wood, pungent citrus remains and spent coffee grounds. We choked on the smell of ammonia. We cringed at the sight of unnameable clumps of what may have been vegetation or something else entirely. We saw nothing we could eat, and the temperature seemed to be rising with remorseless fury. All we could smell now was filth.
Thankfully, this hell ended swiftly for most of us, soft-bodied as we were. Innumerable predators from every direction checked the taste of our tender bodies, and found it to their liking. Those of us who lasted longer, wounded, succumbed to bacterial and fungal assault before starvation. In all cases, death was quick.
Now that I am dead, I am bemused by my own continuing existence. I don’t know what I am, but I know I am still in the hell-pit by the aromas and the heat. My self feels less like a self every day; sometimes I feel dispersed throughout the pit, large like an over-inflated balloon and small like the invisible grain of sand within that will suddenly pop it. I feel none of the pain of my colony’s massacre or my own suffering and death. I feel a different pain I am at odds with myself to comprehend. I feel my heart will break, because the world around me is so vast. I feel I will cry forever, because this world has made me part of it. I feel lost, yet ubiquitous. I feel-
The pit is moving again, one of the many routine upheavals that break my train of thought, tossing my barely-grasped ideas into thin air and scattering all meaning to the wind. So be it. With every upheaval, the fragrance subtly changes and improves. Today, this place smells wholesome and familiar. It seems to smell like home.
I am somewhere else now, in the sun. I remember a sort of journey, feeling spread on the ground like a grave and then brought back to life through osmosis. I feel I have gone inside of time to travel through it. I decide to relax a little more, to open.
“Oh look, honey!”
‘Well I’ll be damned. It’s going to make it.”
I have always been the rose. These monsters with their blunt tentacles now caress me, bring their faces close in wonder, and praise my bloom. They treat me as an honored guest when once upon a time they treated me as their sworn adversary. Those who once attacked me now cherish and protect me.
We are still in the same garden. We are still the same creatures. We still worship the same fragrance, as we always have. In this moment before the next breeze billows my musings away like dust, I ask myself: what, and in which of us – if anything – has changed?
You’d think I was some sort of vegetarian. You’d think I only eat fresh organic produce and never get a coke and fries with my exploitation-burger. You’d think that to see the graph paper and diagrams and drawings of next year’s garden, and to witness the obsessive calculations employed by a self-confessed math-impaired non-engineer type going against the laws of nature to squeeze in one more row of carrots or mizuna; and beets, I’ve got to fit some beets in there; they don’t mind a little shade…maybe behind the tomatoes? Yes, yes! More…MORE!
I have so many seeds. I tried not to buy more this year, except the ones I need.
I have a small veggie garden. I have seeds leftover from last year. In truth, I could plant a whole garden with what I’ve got. But a garden full of what? Remains of the day? What about experiments and surprises? Gardening wouldn’t be worth it without problem solving and innovation. I’ll never learn anything planting the same old stuff year after year. And in my house we like some variety in our diet. Through my powers of rationalization, I am able to expand the definition of “need” to suit my greed for seed.
I bought about ten new packets of seeds. To a non-gardener, that probably doesn’t sound like much. The cost looks reasonable on the bill, and the packets all fit daintily in a small paper bag. But read the back of each little time-bomb of vegetation and you will begin to see the problem: “this packet plants four ten foot rows” and “plants eight mounds of six-foot long vines” and “requires a minimum of two feet per plant.” Holy crap, I don’t have that kind of space!
So here I sit surrounded by seed packets and drawings, trying to find spaces in the flower gardens to sneak a few veggies, and feeling completely overwhelmed. Every time I think I have a plan, I remember some essential vegetable I’d be distraught not to grow, like eggplant.
Can you believe I forgot the eggplant? We eat it like cake I tell you, all summer long. We love eggplant; okay, so let me move the chard, and remember the peas only last the first part of the season, and make sure to keep plants in the same family moving to different places every year to prevent disease.
Now, maybe I need to leave some room to walk around in the garden, so I can harvest all this food I’m going to grow. But not too much space-I can be surprisingly acrobatic when it comes to picking vegetables! It looks like I’ll be doing some very avant-garde harvest dances this season.
My planning would be quite simple if I gardened on a grid like a normal person. Maybe I should build a geometric series of rectangular raised beds like smart veggie gardeners do, making crop rotation a no-brainer and esthetics all but a non-issue. Oh please. Get real. Such a thing will not be happening in my yard.
My veggie garden will continue to be mad and passionate. If the cucumber tumbles into an unholy embrace with the lettuces, then so be it. I’m going to cram some Delicata squash vines behind the roses in the Pink garden and under the aronia in the Butterfly garden because last year the compost sprouted squash that flourished there naturally. The large rough leaves contrasted well with the more delicate leaves of the flowers. I’ll be growing more herbs in the little nook of the Pink garden abutting the veggies, a space with the microclimate of a desert and therefore a great home for cumin and savory. My garden may look like a madhouse, but there is logic behind the placement of (almost) every plant.
I do enjoy a little chaos in the garden. The excitement of too many seeds is problem I’m gleeful to have. Too many seeds means I have extra to give to a friend who’s starting a garden this year. Too may seeds means I’ll have too much food and plenty to share when it ripens all at once. Too many seeds means when one crop bolts, new crops are waiting in the wings and the ground will not be fallow. Too many seeds means being more creative, more disciplined.
If you really think about it, isn’t the idea of “too many seeds” a fallacy? Some of those early crops will be gone in the blink of an eye. Rapini, mizuna, spinach and radishes ripen in about one month and leave empty space for more crops. That’s four packets of seeds used up by April right there. Lettuces come and go, and you’d never want to be caught without a handful of Mesclun to scatter in a bare spot. When the cucumbers and peas have given their all, you need to have some cool or hot season crop to go in their place and make use of the soil you’ve nurtured and finessed instead of letting it sprout weeds-and it will sprout weeds, you can bet money on it.
Too many seeds? No, there is no such thing. If only I could get outside and start planting them. Oh, the harsh reality of February. Oh, the promises of spring.
Oh Cilantro, Cilantro, why won’t you grow?
Our second year together, I saved your seeds and let many fall to the ground after the first spring’s crop. You sprouted again in the fall, and kept low to the ground surviving the winter freeze. In spring, you bolted.
Our third year, I bought Long-Standing Cilantro seeds, spread my saved seeds, sowed you every two weeks, placed you in many different soils, put pebbles around you for warmth, spread compost in your bed, and watered you attentively expecting a successional crop of leaves. You sprouted twice: in the spring and in the fall.
Cilantro, what can I do to appease you? Is my soil too rich? My expectations too high? Have I offended the Cilantro gods with some small infraction beneath my conscious awareness? Maybe you’re still pouting about that raspberry bush. Cilantro, you know I’m sorry about that raspberry bush. She meant nothing to me; the birds ate all her fruit. I was young and foolish and didn’t know raspberry roots would invade the garden like a super-virus trying to destroy everything we had together. I ripped that raspberry out, dug up every living root trying to reproduce itself, plucked out every tiny plantlet poking its fickle head above the ground. That was over a year ago, Cilantro, and you’re still giving me that look, those flowers.
Cilantro, I’ve coddled and finessed you, I’ve watered and limed you, I’ve let you run wild and grow any place you want to sprout while the other herbs got mercilessly weeded for straying out of bounds. But you, Cilantro, with all the seeding and the soaking, with all the effort I’ve put into trying to make you happy, with all the freedom I’ve given you, you refuse to produce more than a handful of leaves each year.
Maybe it’s over between us. Maybe I’ll just buy the huge bunches of leaves easily available for fifty cents at Saigon Market, and devote my precious garden space to some vegetable that appreciates me. This isn’t a one-way relationship, Cilantro; there has to be give and take on both sides. And so far, all you’ve done is take.
So think about it. You’re out there in the snow, perversely overwintering, mocking me with your cold-hardiness, waving frilled green leaves at me every day when I walk the garden path. Think about how you want this to end. If this becomes war, I think we both know who will win; I think we both know who has feet and opposable thumbs. I’m not threatening you, Cilantro. I’m simply stating the facts.
So think about it. Think very carefully about whether you want to make flowers or leaves next spring. I hope you’ll come to your senses and make the right decision for both of us.
It’s the way they bloom in fall when most of the pink perennials are already spent, the way they need no deadheading, no pinching back, no tidying up. In spring and summer they put up nice rosettes of maple shaped leaves that grow low enough not to block the flowers behind them. Then, in fall, they go from ground-cover to superstar and continually send up small poppy-like blooms on cool little stalks that wave in the breeze, hence the name “windflower.” The bees and butterflies go crazy on their nectar. These plants grow a deep taproot and live a long time, slowly spreading into larger clumps only in need of division if you want to relocate them or limit their spread.
Though my garden ethic focuses on native plants, I’ll never be a purist. I’m really more of a taintist. Anemones make me happy. When I’m exhausted at the end of summer, all they need me to do is sit back and enjoy their beauty. They’re not invasive, so their only harm is they take up space that could be filled with natives, but really, is it sane to be a purist? Isn’t fundamentalism the road to madness? Isn’t the garden a place for tolerance and acceptance?
Yes, I think it is.
Duchamp’s The Large Glass has no relevance to the garden, unless we view a garden as a massive installation piece defying the confines of a gallery, which perhaps we should. The title “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” resonated in my head while I stripped the German Queen bare to expose her fruit to the sun. After her fall from grace, she needed to be ravaged. All those green tomatoes buried last week may now have a chance to ripen. So many beautiful green promises.
The Large Glass is in fact a piece of art that incorporates time and the natural accumulation of things and unraveling of things; for eight years it was not a static piece but allowed to collect dust and become rather than merely be made like so many lesser works of art. Duchamp planned it that way, not as a painting but as a moment in time, or many moments in many times. On display in Philadelphia, it incorporates the surrounding environment because it is transparent and does not hang on a wall. Have a look: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/54149.html
It is both a product of chance, and a work that remains unfinished, much like a garden. Good grounding in Dadaist theory may be the only thing that prevents me from throwing in the towel in the garden this year. Or should I say the “trowel?”
Things are definitely not under control. The garden is becoming and will not be made. Cucumber leaves are curling and brown, but the plant is fruiting its ass off. Vines consume the red velvet lettuce, insert a huge shlong into the marigolds, and reach forward with tendrils to commandeer the calendula. I count six cucumbers in this picture; maybe you can find more.
This volunteer from the compost that I expected to be acorn squash is certainly not. Whatever it is, there’s plenty. It makes a new whatever-that-is every foot it grows. How do I find out if it’s edible? Are there random poisonous squash/gourds I should beware of eating? How do I know when it’s ripe?
The garden gods are Dadaists, in love with both science and random chance. How they must laugh. To reward my fidelity to folly, they sent me a gift: my first ever mourning cloak butterfly. I think with practice, I may learn to laugh with them.
We’re about to go tomato crazy all up in here. My saucy vining vixens have grown from six-inch starter plants to six-foot behemoths laden with plump green fruit. When will they ripen? How long must we wait?
The Texas Tomato Cages have lived up to their promise. During a summer rainstorm with sixty mile an hour winds and flowers and tree limbs whipping around madly, the tomato cages didn’t budge. Although the circumference of the cages looked ridiculous around the teensy starter plants early in the season, the vines have had no problem filling every inch of the cages and reaching the tops already, with a couple more months of summer to go. Now my problem is how to go higher.
Trying to maximize productivity through an intelligent use of space, I only planted three tomatoes this year. My husband, fearing dearth, questioned me about the plan: “only three?” Yes, three, and one tomato is determinate. (Luckily, he doesn’t know what that means.) My theory is that with better vertical gardening we’ll have more fruit from fewer plants. He questioned me only once, and then assumed his usual charmingly blind faith in my decisions. Why anyone would trust me of all people is something I’ll never understand. He’s not an idiot, and yet he trusts me. Such a wonderful man.
But back to tomatoes: last year I had about two or three big harvest days before the vines collapsed under their own bulk or grew too long to keep off the ground, and the tangled mess left fruit rotting in the dirt. I left bare dirt instead of mulching last year because I wasn’t sure what material to use for mulch in a food garden. Wood mulch encourages fungal activity in the soil, which is not as beneficial for annuals as bacterial activity, and leads to creepy mushrooms growing in the veggie patch. Gross. This year I went with the green matter theory, tossing any chopped up plant materials I pruned or harvested onto the veggie bed instead of into the compost, including some weeds and grass clippings. So far the green mulch does not seem to “rob the soil of nitrogen” as some people claim, and it keeps the dirt from splashing up onto the plants when it rains. (Dirt splashing=disease.)
The tomatoes are tall and heavy with promising green globes. The lowest fruit on the vines is just about to ripen. Once tomato season starts, it may go on until October if I’ve planned things right and the weather holds out. It’s almost time to go tomato crazy. Let the games begin!
Good gardeners kill plants.
There’s no way to have beauty or food or both and allow every plant to fulfill its natural life cycle. I’m not talking about pruning or pinching back; I’m talking about ripping plants out of the ground roots and all. I’m talking about obliteration.
I’m trying to be strong and resolute, now that I’ve clear cut the lettuce.
This year’s first lettuce crop started out fulfilling my fantasy of “a patchwork quilt of salad greens” to quote Carolyn Herriot’s book The Zero Mile Diet. Contrasting the red-leaf lettuce with the bright chartreuse lettuce created a charming effect…for a few weeks. Then, as the lettuce began to get bitter and white goop began to ooze from the stems when it was cut, I suspected it was getting ready to bolt. Already? Sure enough, creepy florets started to form. So I cut it down.
I’ve improved since last year. This year I’ve already started new lettuce seeds for a second round of salads. Last year I watched the lettuce go to flower and to seed, with weird fascination. Flowering lettuce is a surreal sight. Carolyn Herriot’s book focuses on seed saving, and I respect her for showing the hideous after photo of the “patchwork quilt” gone to seed. I should also thank her for the after photo of peas gone to seed, because this year’s glorious moment of snow pea harvest quickly turned brown and rubbery, and I lamented over what I could possibly have done wrong while I yanked the vines out of the ground. Seeing her photo, I didn’t do anything wrong; the peas just decided it was time to make seeds.
I’ve been ruthless with the spinach, rapini, and mustard. And I’ve been rewarded with more space to plant in, more food to harvest, and more varieties of crops. None of the plants have shrieked like a mandrake when torn from the ground, driving me to madness and death. New seeds have been started, and we’ve eaten some of our own food almost every day this month.
Oh, but it’s hard to start a bed of seeds, water and nurture and weed them each day, watch happily as they grow and flourish, eat their leaves with a sense of companionship, and then – kill them. Saving seeds seems politically important in the shadow of corporate agriculture, and it may help give me a sense of atonement, but I’ll have to work out a plan for seed saving in my small space. This year’s focus is production and timing, for which I must remain steely and resolute. I mustn’t waiver with sentimentality. If a plant can’t feed me, it must die.
I’m not a gardener, I’m a warrior.