Friday, June 6, 2008

The evolution of a gardener - parts one and two

Here in this part of Maine, the trees have finally leafed out. Our growing season is so short, one can practically blink and it's over and snowing once again. At this moment, our heater is on. It is damp and cold, but I'm looking out the window and it's deeply green, at long last, and the flowering trees and bushes are putting on a lovely display of bright whites that gleam like strands of miniature christmas lights. This season is much too brief, to be sure, but perhaps that's what makes it all the more beautiful. I find the growing season, at times, to be a bit sad, but then, too, everything grows like mad here. One can imagine sitting down and actually watching the plants gain an inch in an hour, if one paid attention. It certainly seems so. I still think it's possible with american bamboo.

My first foray in gardening was something of a disaster. My neighbor and I decided that we wanted to grow vegetables. Oddly, what I remember most about this first foray into gardening was the difficulty of obtaining anything to garden with. My friend and I walked many miles to the older part of town. Perhaps I remember this well, for we were both small girls and we walked at least three miles carrying bags of manure, which is not a light load. I would venture to guess that this endeavor (including manure) was due to my fascination with the "back to the land" movement and the Whole Earth Catalog. I was not a child of great aspirations; reducing life to its basics seemed a great idea to me.

As my mother thought vegetable gardening not the greatest aesthetic choice, I was asked to plant my vegetables on the side of the house that no one ever saw, which I complied with, of course. Looking back, I'm surprised that she okayed this project at all. She was never keen on anything that wasn't her idea or excited her own sensibilities. But these were the years in which my parents were plainly miserable and so, for the most part, I was left to my own devices.

So, I planted from seed, not knowing the first thing about it. Not many came up and the ones that did, well, I didn't even know what they were, for I had not marked the plants. I don't remember weeding or doing anything at all except watching. I came of age in a time when everything was instant - coffee, mashed potatoes in a box, frozen food and pop tarts - it was the seventies, after all, and waiting for a raw vegetable seemed totally anachronistic. I find it interesting to think that in some ways we were, as a culture, more impatient back then, for now we live in the age of the Web and reading reviews of technology always includes bench tests of how fast the things are. I have a "slow" scanner, which - horrors! - takes forty to fifty seconds to scan (for which it was only rated three out of five stars, as if less than a minute is some kind of crime).

But, in other things, I believe we have slowed down. Perhaps this is due to technology itself, and our need to feel human in the face of it. I have thought that repeatedly when I've ruminated on the popularity of hand-knitting and home cooking with fresh ingredients. When a decent home computer can beat the world's greater chess master, it's time for us to engage in activities that computers can't top us on, and no computer can plant a seed (I don't think) or make even a decent aesthetic decision.

So, back to my side-of-house garden sometime in the early seventies. Eventually, some zucchinis did show themselves. I was not thrilled, for I didn't like zucchinis and I still don't. But I was amazed. I had actually put some seeds in the earth (and probably thrown some manure on for good measure) and there it was: food. Maybe not for for me, but someone would probably like a zucchini or two. They got bigger and bigger and I figured I'd wait until they were at least the size of a cucumber (which I did like) until I picked them. This was a mistake, for they were eaten by animals. Every last one of them.

And that was the end of my gardening hobby.

Yet, I continued to fantasize about gardening throughout my life. I remember spending hours and hours, in my dark apartment on Horatio Street, an apartment that totally denied the existence of a real world by facing only an airshaft, leafing through a huge Reader's Digest book of flower gardening. This book was enchanting, with both lovely drawings and nice photographs of every conceivable flower. I followed the lead of an old friend of mine, by subscribing to Horticulture magazine, of all things. My friend lived in a dive in the East Village with a toilet and bathtub in the kitchen. He surrounded both with beautiful curtains and a friendly stack of magazines next to the john. It was there I discovered even finer points of high end gardening, in that magazine, which it is absurd to think we both subscribed to, living in Manhattan, with not even a community garden plot to either of our names. But in the gardens of our imaginations, I believe for both of us, we envisioned minor Versailles or at least a charming British cottage garden (and no bugs or late frosts could invade these gardens of our minds).

The second garden I planted was both a wonderful success and a dismal failure. I lived, for a time, in eastern Long Island, in a neighborhood where every one, it seemed, except for I, used a lawn service. This meant that every day some one somewhere had little white flags with a skull and crossbones on them surrounding their lawn. This meant, of course, pesticides were just sprayed, and keep off. The yards were all perfect turf with a bunch of azaleas. I still find it hard to appreciate azaleas.

The thing was, being the only one who didn't spray my lawn or garden, every bug conceivable congregated at my house. I'm sure of it. Now that I've been gardening for years, I see that the problems I had with bugs back then was completely outside of normal. If there was a bug that attacked something, no matter how rare or improbably it was, it came and ate the plants. The act of gardening itself was near disgusting because of this. Sow bugs (or potato bugs) were in an abundance that was stunning. I've never like these critters on the best of days, but when thousands of them are eating your flowers, well, I came to absolutely loathe them.

I also came to loathe lawn itself (which I've changed my mind on) for it was so emblematic of keeping up appearances. And I wasn't happy the day a new neighbor came over to ask me if I could cut her lawn. Out there mowing, in a white t-shirt and jeans, she thought I was the lawn boy. Yes, I had a crew cut, but didn't she (or her mawkish daughter) notice the 36D boobs? I felt like asking her that, but I kept mum. I only responded with a weak, "I own this house." Well, that wasn't really true. As true for most Americans, the bank owned the house, and that became abundantly obvious when they foreclosed on me.

So, the bugs ate most of the flowers and I wrestled daily and diligently removing the front lawn with a sharp spade (which is an arduous and slow task). However, my herb garden was moving along nicely. It smelled glorious. It wasn't much to look at, so I started thinking of it as a garden for the blind. It was wonderful bringing people outside to handle the flowers, not actually see them, and then smell their fingers. And as a goodly amount of the plants (lavender, artemesia, to name a few) were a ghostly grayish green, they looked beautiful by moonlight.

As I think about the gardens that were to come, I realize there have been more than I originally thought. I am stunned to realize I had completely forgotten the quarter of an acre garden I tried to manage for two years when I first moved to Maine. And so, since this gardening history is quite a bit larger than I originally thought, this entry is only the beginning of a longer narrative. To be continued. . .

Photo note: My garden, last year on June 19. I should remember to take another photo on the same day this year to contrast and compare. Someone please remind me!


Anonymous said...

My first gardening experience took place in my Brooklyn apartment as a kid. My advisor was
Billthedoorman who was a very enthusiastic gardener and had taken on the big pots of flowers in front of the building. We would trade clippings and I would start avocadoplants from the pits and share the results.

Julie H. Rose said...

Wait: are you saying you actually grew avocados that you ate? I am stunned. I've never even had one of those things sprout!