People who want to garden for pleasure should make certain to keep their gardens small. The smaller the better. I recommend a single planter. Otherwise gardening is more like jogging five miles in the morning: When you face the hill at Mile-Three you question your own sanity.
There will be, of course, the exultation. That is what runners call a “second wind”, but, before that “second wind” comes, one sees their mind fill up with quarreling, as if a buck private was screaming back at the screaming sergeant at boot camp, or even like a patient picking up a knife to defend himself from a surgeon approaching with a scalpel. It is such a mental ruckus that its occurrence mystifies all those who have idealized ideas about gardening.
In fact many who begin “gardening for pleasure” in April abandon the enterprise as a bad idea by June, and by July they are getting nagged by bureaucrats on the local zoning board for their patch of towering weeds. Be forewarned.
To me the actual pleasure of a big garden involves a more fundamental and ancient joy, called “avoiding starvation”. It has been 400 years since my first European ancestors stepped onto these shores, and the first 300 years saw most Americans rooted to the soil, living lives that made it very obvious that if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. There was no real escape; if you went broke you didn’t receive welfare; you went to the “poor farm” and went on working.
Currently our society is going through a period of confusion wherein many think they can, like ticks and leeches, suck off the lifeblood of others. Not merely the poor man on the dole; but the wealthy politician profiting from other’s taxes; the slippery investor on Wall Street; and even the retiree collecting an oversized pension, may be attempting to reap more than they sowed. This is bound to create resentment among those who reap less than they sow. The spectacle of a bloated Union Boss driving a fancy car and wearing pinkie rings, as the worker on the factory floor he represents pays dues and wears pants with frayed cuffs, does not inspire confidence, or even the desire to work harder. If anything it suggests laziness pays, and inspires sloth.
It is good to escape this confusion into the more real world of a vegetable garden. It is a reality which persists even when it is easier and cheaper to buy food at a market. And, if the societal breakdown ever collapses to a degree wherein the shelves are empty in the markets, perhaps the connection to the ancient joy of survival will be less of a mere concept, and more real. Money is worthless if the markets are empty, whereas dirt has value when it holds potatoes.
However, in the rush to finish spring planting in June, the “joy” is most definitely unapparent. It is then one is most like a jogger approaching a steep hill, muttering to himself, “Why do I do this? Jogging is STUPID!”
Perhaps the most difficult moment is arising from bed in the morning. The physical work involved in small-scale gardening made me achy even as a young man, and as I approach age seventy the pain seems more constant; I never seem able to “get in shape”. Also I seem to work in slow motion. I spend far more time leaning on my hoe than actually using it. Not that anyone is going to want to hear the violins of my self pity. They’ll just affirm the voice in my own head: “Why do you garden? Gardening is STUPID”.
Rather than whine to others, I turn to the blues, and try to make sonnets of my grouching:
. FIRST COFFEE SONNET
Who knows if songbirds are ambivalent
When they first awake? Who fathoms bird brains?
Perhaps they need some bird-equivalent
Of coffee, before cascading refrains
Of music fill our forests. Perhaps…perhaps…
I hate to think of birds as superior
To a poet, yet dawn’s a complete collapse
Of my morale, and I’m inferior
To birds, before my first cup of coffee.
I glower at pert birds; call each a twit;
Resent their singing. They seem to scoff me
As I drag to the pot with zero wit
And the only thing I’m able to praise
Is the coffee in this cup I now raise.
. FIRST ASPIRIN SONNET
All I get from gardening is my lame grunts
As I rise in the morning. Pathetic!
I feel I won’t survive the few hot months
Before harvest. Reward? Others will get it.
My harvest’s to limp to, (before coffee),
My aspirin bottle…and guilt, as before
Coffee and pills God should look down and see
Me at prayer. I guess, with my limbs sore,
I could pray for a morning that’s pain-free;
For mercy, and miraculous healings,
And dirt with no big rocks as I spade it;
Yet I suppose that might hurt God’s feelings.
I should thank Him life’s just how He made it:
Old men plant saplings, although they won’t see
The apples that some day will hang from the tree.
This is not to say that, after aspirin and coffee, old gardeners can’t find joy in new gardens. There is the joy of old efforts from prior years; the rhubarb and asparagus that spring up without my raising a finger, from old roots. And there is the first handful of flat snow peas, small servings at dinner twice as delectable as any store’s, and all the more delectable because I beat other local gardeners by two weeks, and harvested first. And then there’s the faithful old standby, so good for children as it can be harvested in a mere twenty days, the radish.
What could be fresh and new about a radish? Glad you asked. I can recall growing radishes as a rugrat back in the 1950’s, yet in all these years I never knew you could eat the greens. Last night I had a mess of delicious radish greens fried up in olive oil with garlic, which goes to show you every spring hold’s something new, and also that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
For example, strips of black plastic make for less weeding between potatoes during July heatwaves. Black plastic may be ugly, newfangled stuff, and likely screws up the ecology of soil chemistry in some unforeseen way, but old men are allowed to resort to cheap tricks to avoid bending their creaky backs….I think…