The garden is a universe all its own. The things that grow there mostly do so out of our sight. Just as farmers can’t spend all their time watching corn grow, so we can’t while our days away making sure the cucumbers keep their vines on track.
Good gardeners are always on the lookout, however. They keep the garden floor free of weeds and interlopers that would crowd out their tomatoes and beans. They till and mulch and pull weeds. They build fences against the rabbits and groundhogs. Every evening, they sprinkle the garden with life-giving water. They cinch up the vines, prune the tomatoes, and pluck the blooms off of overproducers.
I am a crummy gardener. I set everything up to take care of itself. I don’t mulch unless I have it, and I rarely do because I don’t keep a good mulch pile. I water once or twice a week when the plants look a little droopy. But I only know that when I go up to the garden, which when I go to water. I hoe off the tops of the morning glories, cinquefoil, and wandering Jew. I scrape away the leaves of grass. Yes, I know that I will have all those weeds back the next day, but I am a lazy man. I want the most for the least amount of work.
This is much different than the past. My first house, the one I could call my own, had a tiny yard. In the back was a parking space hewn out of the terrace. Determined never to park there, I filled the space one or two feet thick with new soil and mulch. I hacked away another small plot next to the timbers that held back the terrace.
The hoeing and preparation of the garden took about a month. Plenty of organic matter filled that ground. Autumn leaves, household waste, and grass clippings made for a huge mulch pile in the corner of the yard behind the fence that folded away from the parking space. Everything was right. I was a proud home owner. This was my Eden.
That year, I started all my plants inside in tiny pots. Snow was still on the ground in March when I seeded and thinned green peppers, jalapenos, and tomatoes, shifting and turning the trays to get the best light from a west-facing window that stood above my countertop next to the sink. The whole house took up only 636 square feet, and the kitchen was like a ship’s galley. But I arrayed the drainboard with trays. Every time I passed the window, and I looked at my work growing.
I was proud of myself. Plants came up and I thinned them. When they were big enough, I transplanted them into bigger pots. When the time was right and the snow had melted, I went outside to my meticulously prepared garden plot and planted beans and lettuce. I seeded okra and eggplant right in the parking space. I even sowed tobacco that year, a painstaking endeavor since tobacco seeds are like dust and produce thousands of seedlings.
Then came the day I decided to move the plants I’d cultured by the window outside. The tomatoes and peppers were about six or eight inches tall. They were strong and healthy, and I’d even started taking the trays outside for part of the day to harden my charges against the weather.
It was with great satisfaction that I put those plants in the ground. I stood from my work and felt I was master of all I surveyed. I watered well, washed off my new garden tools, and went inside happy that I was on the way to being a legitimate home owner.
The next morning, I slipped on my shoes and took up my coffee cup to go out and see how the plants were doing. I confidently strode across the dewy backyard, expecting that my well-cared for plants would have rooted and grown two inches overnight.
When I arrived at the garden, I saw only green stalks. Something or some things had gnawed away every leaf. My mouth gaped. My heart sunk. I felt immediate dejection. I looked around for evidence. A squirrel chittered away at me from the tree that grew behind the mulch pile.
These were the opening days of the internet and I didn’t have a computer at home that connected anywhere but my own fingers and brain. So, I consulted a gardening manual. I determined that I wouldn’t be a chemical sprayer. Building a fence seemed like a lot of work. The manual said that cayenne was a good creature repellent. I went to the spice store and bought a kilo of cayenne powder, the hottest they had.
I replanted with store-bought plants and was religious about covering them with cayenne every couple of days and after a rain. Sure enough, the squirrels stayed in their trees and groundhogs in their dens. (There was nothing I could do about the lettuce, however, as no one wants spicy lettuce. Fortunately, I grew more than the critters could eat.)
I even took to trapping the squirrels in a live trap and taking them to the park. No matter how many I caught, more always filled their places. After a while, I thought about the cruelty of being trapped and moved from my home against my will. I relied purely on cayenne and constant watchfulness to get my crop.
And my parking space-sized garden produced. We had tomatoes and beans, leaf lettuce and romaine and chard. The counter filled with eggplant and okra. The peppers and jalapenos came out of our ears. I had never eaten so healthy in my life. The rewards outweighed all the work and worry.
As a matter of fact, we had so many tomatoes that year that toward the end of the season, when the green tomatoes stop ripening quickly, my daughter, best friend, and I played a splashy backyard game with green tomatoes and a baseball bat.
That was the best garden I ever had.
I’ve kept gardens ever since, except for two seasons before this one. And I don’t think you could really say I “kept” them. Each year, I’d start the season with the best intentions. Life, however, would get in the way. My priorities changed. As time went on, those plants got lonelier and lonelier. I wrote a book.
I’d wade in every now and then and pluck what I could from among the weeds. I found plants withered and browned from the heat. Vines and plants succumbed to fungus and bugs. Despite my worst efforts, however, I harvested much and canned quite a bit.
I’ve learned that a garden well-tended yields a lot of produce. It also feels good to keep a garden. You can look back over days and seeks and see what you’ve accomplished. That tiny plot at my first house kept my grocery bill to just bread and cheese that year.
A lonely garden produces, but only a fraction. But that little bit sure tastes great.
So this year, I go at it with low expectations. My garden at this house is no bigger than a parking spot. I hoe and do not pull. I tied up the tomato vines and built runnels around all the plants so that watering’s easy and fast. This year, I have only my favorite garden plants—tomatoes and jalapenos. I just went into the garden today to complete my fifteen or twenty minutes of work for the week. I should have my first tomatoes in about ten days.
Maybe next year I’ll expand my portfolio. I still envy those gardeners who harvest greens and lettuce and okra. I want their eggplant and romaine. But for now, I’ll take what I have. I’m doing good this year. It’s not much but I’m growing.