Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In The Garden

Charles Jonas Good (aka "Chalk), my 
great uncle and gardening inspiration.
As a very small child I once “helped” my great uncle Chalk dig potatoes and peanuts. He’d press the pitchfork into the ground with his boot and invite me to help him pull the handle back. When we did, roots and potatoes and peanuts emerged from the dirt like magic. He’d pull the wood-framed window screens from his Victorian-era home, lay them across saw horses and spread the potatoes and peanuts there to be rinsed and then dried in the sun.

There was something magical about things of value waiting in the dirt – like getting something for nothing. I’d get the same rush watching archeology documentaries.

My parents kept a garden for awhile when I was a kid. I burnt it to the ground once. Late one dry fall when the corn stalks were yellow I was sent to burn the trash in a barrel at the edge of the alley. I must have gotten to playing with the fire, beating the burning paper and cardboard with a stick to watch the sparks fly. Later while I was watching TV, my mom came and grabbed me by the arm and drug me to the back yard. You know that way a parent grabbed you too hard by the arm or the ear when they were mad? It was that kinda “shit’s-about-to-go-down” arm-dragging. She man-handled me across the patio and shoved me into the open of the yard so I could see the blackened garden smoldering. Looked like a bomb hit it.

I guess some sparks must of gotten loose.

I laid in bed that night with a sore arm, a sore ass, and tears running down my cheeks, considering the situation: I’ve kinda done ‘em a favor. This will be the easiest autumn garden clean-up ever. But I was alone in my glass-half-full rationalizations. My family still likes to tell the story about when Kurt burned the garden down. I nearly burned the house down a couple times, so I endure the garden story with good nature. It coulda been a lot worse.

Asparagus making its first 
appearance this year in my garden.
I planted a garden of my own at the first house I owned, excited that things of value would grow in the dirt for me and my family. My salvage tendencies provided stacks of old wooden storm windows which I made cold frames from, allowing me to make a little green house and plant early in spring and grow late in the fall. I grew a lot of brocolli, tomatoes, peppers and spinach in that garden.

One Saturday evening I picked jalapenos and carried a bowl full into the house. Baby Cal needed to be but in the bath next to the kitchen, so I set down the peppers, took off his diaper, and sat him in the bath water. As I diced the peppers in the kitchen, I could hear Cal wimpering in the bathroom. I looked ‘round the corner to find him desperately clawing at his hips, trying to peal back the pain. The residue from the skins of the peppers on my fingertip had left handprint burns on his tender toddler skin.

That was the last time that my gardening led to burns (so far).

Fast forward more than 20 years and gardening has become cheap therapy. On warm, sunny days like the ones we’ve had lately, I pull into the drive after a day in the car or at the office staring into a computer screen and drop my computer bag on the patio and wonder over into the plants, often still wearing a sport coat and dress pants. My gray tabby, Gracie follows and lays in the grass nearby, watching as I snap off a handful of asparagus, pull weeds in the garlic and onions, and pinch the early sucker-starts from the tomatoes. Gracie’s been keeping the bunnies from eating off the starts of the green beans.
Each year I can salsa, marinara sauce, bruschetta, pickled jalepenos, sriracha sauce, roasted red peppers and green beans, the ingredients all coming from my garden, including the herbs. And I water it all during dry spells with rain water gathered from the garage roof and stored in barrels. City hose water rarely touches my garden. And it’s all mulched with leaves from my yard. I put almost no leaves on the curb for the city to take. I keep them on site and let them partially decompose over the winter.

Gracie, the garden watch cat: She may be small, but 
so is a stick of dynamite. Many a rabbit and 
chipmunk have underestimated her.
I’m not a crazed back-to-earth guy, but it’s become a healthy game: how much can I produce with what’s here, on this little piece of urban landscape. Last year I pulled out a useless row of lilly of the valley and planted blueberries. That should be a nice addition.

Last week I carried bags of produce to family gatherings in Tipton. My cousin Pete and his wife Jen mixed a bundle of my asparagus into the mushroom risotto and a big head of my backyard romaine into a salad. The next night they steamed my broccoli. Sunday I ate my morning bagel with black raspberry jam I canned last year and later that night carried a bag of fresh cut spinach to Danny and Allison’s for the dinner salad.

Spinach & garlic coming on strong 
this spring.
Who needs morning devotionals and weekly therapy sessions when you’ve got a garden? If the garden isn’t getting you closer to God or your inner Chi, you’re doing it wrong . . . or you have an infestation of aphids. Or asparagus beetles.