It is my birthday. I am forty-one today. The Meaning of Pie is two today. One of the wonders of the last two years, and there have been many, is that I decided to grow a garden. “Why did it take so long?” I have often wondered to myself, and then within seconds the self-deprecating voice in my head says things like, “because at first you didn’t care to stand still, and then you were exhausted.” But gardening is not exactly something that takes a great deal of effort, or time. I believed that it was going to be an undertaking. I believed that it would be a huge project and my head, so full of diapers and school applications, couldn’t handle another thing. What I wished I had known is that it takes only a modicum of effort, and the effort becomes addictive. I wish I had known that the undertaking was only as big as one wants it to be. What I didn’t understand is that if you have one plant in one pot, you have started gardening. You are officially a success.
One herb plant becomes two, and two become four, and then you want tomatoes. Then you want onions. Then you think you should grow a watermelon. And this is where my little garden began.
My yard is very shady. Large trees canopy over the back yard and even challenge the grass. The previous owners of the house had a rather large garden in the back and when we bought it, the former owner went out to show us the asparagus spears popping up through the dirt. He even bought us a copy of Neil Sperry’s book as a house warming gift. That was kind. But I hadn’t been bitten by the gardening bug. I only wanted a few herbs. Pitts kept the garden going for quite a while. But, my mind was elsewhere. We began to build our little family. And the garden was neglected. Eventually we came to terms with the battle with the shade, and our new life, and we put up a swing set where the garden was.
[Right: This rosemary bush was transplanted from our old home 10 years ago.]
Jump ahead 7 years and I have children in grade school who don’t need me every moment of the day and I have become obsessed with recipes and good food and family dinners. I take care of my children in those hours when they are not entrusted to the care of their formal teachers. Dinner is suddenly very important. We have always valued that hour, but now we see that it is getting more and more dear.
I wanted a garden. I wanted something more than my few pots of herbs. And much like my urge to have a family, without a care in the world as to whether I had a boy or a girl, or whether that child would have dark brown hair or strawberry blonde hair, I really didn’t care what I grew in my garden. I just wanted to grow things. I wanted to build a spot just for plants to grow and I wanted to try. My history with plants is fairly dismal. I guess on some level my gut told me that if I hadn’t yet managed to fail to grow my children, I probably wouldn’t fail to grow plants entirely.
The main problem was that the only place in my world that gets consistent sun is my driveway…my gravel driveway that is in full view of my street. I talked to my husband and convinced him that I wasn’t going to build a permanent or horrendous thing. My penurious nature sometimes manifests itself in unsightly “savings.”
[Top left: mint; Top center: tomatillos; Top right: lavender]
In one of one of my favorite parts of The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnet, the main character Mary, an orphaned child, asks her uncle whether she could have a place to grow things. She spent her childhood in India and had never known this uncle or the vast green lands of England, and she was a bit frightened of him. He asked her if she wanted toys and dolls to play with and this was the resulting exchange:
“Might I,” quavered Mary, “might I have a bit of earth?”
In her eagerness she did not realize how queer the words would sound and that they were not the ones she had meant to say. Mr. Craven looked quite startled.
“Earth!” he repeated. “What do you mean?”
“To plant seeds in–to make things grow–to see them come alive,” Mary faltered.
He gazed at her a moment and then passed his hand quickly over his eyes.
“Do you–care about gardens so much,” he said slowly.
“I didn’t know about them in India,” said Mary. “I was always ill and tired and it was too hot. I sometimes made little beds in the sand and stuck flowers in them. But here it is different.”
Mr. Craven got up and began to walk slowly across the room.
“A bit of earth,” he said to himself, and Mary thought that somehow she must have reminded him of something. When he stopped and spoke to her his dark eyes looked almost soft and kind.
“You can have as much earth as you want,” he said. “You remind me of some one else who loved the earth and things that grow. When you see a bit of earth you want,” with something like a smile, “take it, child, and make it come alive.”
And this is where I was. I had finished a journey. I was beginning a new one. And I just wanted a bit of earth. I felt like Mary, just wanting to grow something.
This is the spirit that propelled me to the home building stores where I stood for hours just staring at paving stones and pre-fab garden boxes and plastic mulchers and and lots and lots of dirt. Organic, time release, potting, top, peat, mulch, compost, vegetable garden soil, flower garden soil, raised bed soil. This process took a long time. And I spent most of the time simply standing in the vast aisles staring. I decided I needed to back away from the whole thing and get a little simpler. Endeavoring to not spend a lot of money in case it was a monstrous eye-sore, or in case I, well, failed, I chose cinderblocks. I think they cost $1.62 per block. On my first bed, I thought I would use blocks on the ends and boards on the sides. I built the bed, a simple rectangle. It was fine. I lined it with plastic in which I had slashed some holes for drainage and then I went about finding out what to put in it. I went to a gardening store up the street and one of the men there was kind enough to recommend that I simply buy soil, shale, and compost. I purchased some plants and the soil and I went home and put together my first bed. I was so proud of that little rectangle filled with dirt.
One bed quickly became two and the second time I decided to forgo the wood planks, as they ended up being more costly than the cinder blocks and less sturdy. I just measured the space I had available and went back to the building store to buy more cinder blocks. I stacked them two high all the way around like bricks. I filled the interior with the soil mix and I filled all of the cavities in the blocks, too. I filled the bed with plants and I filled the cavities with herbs and marigolds and whatever else caught my fancy.
Some thrived, some died, some went wild. Some produced tons of fruit and some produced a few precious gems. I am an absolute novice. I don’t know the bugs. I don’t know a thing about the pH or the nitrogen levels in my soil. I don’t yet know what to not plant beside what. I haven’t the foggiest notion what I will plant next. I only know that it will bring me simple joy. I do know that the whole operation has paid for itself by keeping me from ever having to buy the little three dollar packets of herbs at the grocery store. A cook could go broke doing that.
[Top center: some of my wonderful neighborhood worms; Bottom Center: An experiment in watering by wicking; Bottom right: A lizard that had just snatched a butterfly for lunch]
Now, I present you with a million little photos all nice and macro and up close and it might make you wonder whether my garden is really beautiful. Well, the answer is yes and no. It is beautiful to me. I have learned in life that seeing beauty amongst chaos is fairly important. I shoot with a macro lens that lets me get up very close to beautiful things and you never see what is all around them. A soft depth of field allows the eye to focus on the subject and gives you an ethereal view of what little else is in the frame. And, just as you cannot see the yellowed and twisted base of the kale plant in the photo at the lead of this post, when I take photos in my kitchen that look perfect, you cannot see the giant pile of dishes in the sink just to the left. If I shot with a wide angle lens, you would have a different impression.
[Center: A Valentine from my chainsaw wielding husband, next to some of the kids' tools; Right: One variety of lavender]
But, every time I walk out my kitchen door I see profusions of green where once there was gravel. Every time I leave my house I see a butterfly, or a bug, or a worm, or a bee, or a new bud. I see glory. I snip herbs for dressings and to season meats. I snip basil for pesto. I snip sage for pork and chicken dishes. I snip Mexican Mint Marigold when I want a cheater’s version of tarragon. I grow bay. I have parsley and oregano and mint, and thyme, and lavender. The herbs are truly my permanent connection to the garden. I always have to touch them. I touch the lavender and smell my hands. I break off a bloom and rub it onto my neck so I can enjoy the scent for a while. The bees adore the blooming lavender.
I pulled up my very first potatoes last week and I’m not sure anything has ever made me so happy. The kids and I dug around trying not to disturb everything in case we were too early and then we saw a ruby orb hiding in the dirt. It had worked! I somehow hadn’t believed that it would work. I cut up and roasted the potatoes and I drenched them in butter and fresh herbs from the garden. They tasted better than almost anything I’ve ever eaten.
I’ve grown a bell pepper plant that gave me one precious pepper. I’ve grown habaneros that I made into jelly. I’ve grown three stalks of corn that were sad and died. I’ve grown a meandering monster that took over the entire bed and grew distended, yellow and bizarre cucumbers. Utterly my fault, I’m sure. I don’t like cucumbers enough to figure it all out, however. I moved on to something else. My point is that in the little successes I love it. But I also love it, and learn, in my failures. It is all worthwhile because it gets me closer to the dirt and it makes me care about what I eat. I’m slowly learning what wants to live with me in the sunshine in Texas and what does not. Texas summer sunshine is not for everyone or everything. The ones that love me unconditionally are a big rosemary bush that I transplanted to our home when we moved here and the lovely lavenders.
But, let’s be honest. At the end of the day, I have a cinder block garden in a gravel drive way that lives much of the time by two big cars and a wood pile. It isn’t a garden designer’s dream. But it is my dream. I will change it a bit at a time. Maybe someday I will have a grand garden and wear a big floppy hat and carry a large basket around to collect my bounty. For now, though, I will continue to happily go out of my house and touch the lavender and talk to jalapeno plants and then get in my car and go fetching or delivering young people, and buying groceries that I can gild with my homegrown wares.
I hope that if you have ever wanted a garden, you get your bit of earth and claim it for your own. There is no downside except that someday you might have to talk someone into carrying away a bunch of cinder blocks. Or you might fall in love and keep putting up beds until you have to park on the street and the code enforcement people start to come after you. The upside is unlimited, though. The upside is health and warmth and dampness and dirt under your nails. It is growing and it is living. And it is fine.
My desire to write a bit about my garden coincided with my stumbling across a beautiful gardening book called Garden Anywhere by Alys Fowler. I’ve never been interested in reading a gardening book from page one to the final page. But this book is different. Ms. Fowler clearly has a very laudable background in gardening, yet she presents a view of gardening that is accessible to everyone, even if you only have a 4 square foot window box to work with. It emphasizes the thrifty side of gardening and shows you how to make or re-purpose all kinds of neat things into bits of lush goodness (or worm farms). And, what’s more, it is a beautifully and simply photographed book that will make you happy to have on your bedside so that you can see it when you go to bed and when you wake up. That way, you can end the day and begin the next thinking about the beauty that you are capable of fostering. I found my copy at Anthropologie.
The photos of pots sitting on top of two-by-fours is my current experiment on bottoms up watering. There is water in the bottom pots and a wicking material (rope) going from the water into the planter. There is a gentleman named Larry Hall who developed a method of water management in which he sets all of his pots (big pickle buckets) on a boxed in, plastic, rain gutter filled with water. His plants suck up water from below in only the amounts needed, as opposed to watering from the top and having run-off. I just think it is fun to play with conceptually, and since Texas is having water issues, figuring out ways to use less of it by choosing plants wisely (for instance, the hydrangeas living in my backyard at the moment might not be the best choice) and by using rain barrels or these kinds of alternative watering systems, intrigues me. I have been looking at a lot of information on these SIP’s (sub irrigated planters) but just can’t warm up to gardening in pickle buckets yet. But, I might. I intend to keep playing in my earth and you just never know what I might end up doing.