Of course the cultivated garden sustained not only the imagination, but also the body. It was a place to commune with real people—my family—not just my friends the wildflowers and woodland animals. And since flesh and blood people frequented the vegetable garden, the peace and refuge I found in my secret gardens were not always present.
Only my father could make a garden a place of contention. He’d been germinating for months…dreaming his way through seed catalogues, scratching lists on the backs of envelopes, plotting the rotation of crops, coaxing seedlings on the windowsill under plastic wrap or in front of the house under a cold frame, ceremoniously sprinkling wood ash over the gardens. My father’s spade hitting the ground in April with an alto note cued our immediate appearance at his side in the garden.
In my mind I am the first to arrive, as always. There are still patches of snow on the ground, but the garden’s rich organic matter has thrown back its snowy blanket like a menopausal woman.
“Where the hell’s your mother?” I hear my father’s usual opening line. He wears a torn flannel shirt. He smears his forehead with dirt as he wipes sweat from his brow and nods across the road. “And you can go tell your grandmother that anyone who doesn’t work in the garden doesn’t eat from the garden.”
Like a dutiful cottontail, I bound across the dirt road, up the lawn and arrive like Easter at my grandparents’ door. The camp is cold and damp and smells thinly of wood smoke; a fire barely takes hold in the black box stove. My grandparents, the nomads, are unpacking paper bags and getting settled in for another summer on the hill.
One hand on the doorknob, one hand on my hip, I deliver my message. “Dad says to tell you that anyone who doesn’t work in the garden…”
“Well, you can tell your father that it’s going to be a damn poor summer for your old grandmother!” She claims she said darn, but I can see her clearly, both fists firmly planted on the kitchen table, her grimacing face jutting toward mine above the red vinyl tablecloth. I think to myself that she would make a very good scarecrow, if nothing else.
Though my grandmother was a wizard with houseplants, she had “no interest in growing things out of doors.” After her father H. A.’s death, my grandfather Clayton had tried to maintain his father-in-law’s notorious gardens, but battling my grandmother’s protests and forecasting the weather with his arthritic joints became a full time occupation. The garden was reduced to a mere potato patch in the corner of the field. “Elizabeth,” he said to my grandmother one day, “I just as soon have a well educated hen as you to work with in the garden.” With that he gave up entirely.
I, on the other hand, like my father, loved to work in the garden. I reveled in the smell of peat and manure, the maiden plunge of fingers into the ground still cold and splintered with ice. At times, my father made the garden sound like a necessary evil, a burden like chopping firewood, a tic mark in a long list of tasks. But in actuality, gardening was another form of creation at which he excelled. Perhaps what ruined gardening for my father was that he had to share his gift with my maternal grandfather, Sam.
Each year after, or sometimes before, we got our garden in on Grover Hill, we went to the coast to help plant the Crosby garden. My father bitched and stewed the entire two-hour drive. He guessed at the means of Aunt Sarah malingering to escape planting the garden—he claimed she’d have a stomachache or have to tend the booth at Reid State Park. “I’ll tell you what,” he said angry as a hawk, “Sarah better be there to help since she’s the one eating from the f—— garden all summer long.”
“Yes Douglas,” my mother said filing her mental teeth to pitchfork tines. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. Jessica and I will go by ourselves.”
Heck ya we were going. I was anxious to see what my little glistening peat pods had sprouted. Besides, a trip to my mother’s family in Georgetown might as well have been a trip to Disney for me. I lay supine in the back seat staring upside-down out the window trying to guess where we were en route. I looked for landmarks—the Molly Ockette Motel, Screwogger Falls where great fountains of ice froze into tongues, blue green gobs and bubbles in the winter, through Norway with its McDonalds and Oxford with its speedway. Eventually I spied the sign for Mechanics Falls where we turned left and headed due southeast. Then I looked out for the mills, the green bridge and the wall of graffiti in Lewiston and Auburn. Finally, the Bath Ironworks, the double drawbridge, and the Dairy Queen, and we skittered across the salt marshes of Arundel like a skipping stone. Once we crossed the rumbling bridge over the Sheepscott and I spied the Smokey the Bear fire danger sign and the giant rock painted like a green lizard with one huge yellow eye that followed cars as they passed, I closed my eyes. Beyond the potters and the fire station, our car turned onto West Georgetown Road. Then I could count the seconds as I held my breath. Inevitably, we would meet Aunt Sarah as she sped past beeping the horn of her metallic-gold VW Bug, on her way to the beach with the dog.
“Son of bitch! What’d I tell ya.” My father would say.
Nothing could steal my sunshine; I could smell the hothouse from the road. Months earlier, I spent a weekend with my grandparents shaking seed packets like tambourines, spreading potting soil like brownie batter in old baking sheets and poking sheaths of dry matter into mini pots of soil and humming with the hope of green sprouts. There is no better feeling than standing in a greenhouse with air so warm and moist you can barely breathe in…while outside, snow flies.
My grandfather Sam, unlike my father, allowed me to help dream the garden into a reality. He took time to educate me and encouraged me to tend to garden tasks on my own. The Crosby gardens were more than twice the size of ours, though a football field sized parcel contained the rutabaga patch that I would later sit in all summer to pluck stones at a wage of ten cents a full five-gallon bucket. Who ate rutabagas anyway? Apparently plenty of people around Georgetown Island. I made deliveries with my grandfather who loved to show off his granddaughter along with his produce. “She’s a hard worker—filled three five-gallon buckets with stones from the garden this morning.”
I can hear my father now, “Sam likes to be a big deal passing out his vegetables all over the island, and here we are planting and weeding for him.” My grandfather did not share with us as I recall, but why would he, we had our own garden.
The truth is my grandfather could also make the garden a place of contention just as well as my father could. Not only did he share his abundant crop of vegetables with everyone but family, he pilfered my grandmother’s prized iris, peonies and roses. He lumbered gracefully as a gorilla in his burgling stance as he filled five-gallon buckets (a man’s best friend) with flowers. Once the buckets were secure in the car, he washed up, put on a crisp dress shirt and tucked his billfold into his pocket. Next thing I knew, I was stealthily ushered into the station wagon with the dogs for a trip to town.
“See you mother,” he waved in haste to Gramma Rainey. She waved back, suspecting, in her dirty apron, as off we went to Bath to deliver her flowers to pretty bank tellers.
By the time we finished our banking, the tellers at the Savings and Loan looked more like runners-up at the Miss America pageant. They discreetly battled bees, ants, and earwigs that had been roused from their plush pollen beds while smiling at my grandfather and me with teeth shiny as new dimes.
When we got back to Georgetown my grandfather would snake his arms around my grandmother, hoisting her breast from behind like prized buttercup squash, and rub his scruff on the nape, cool with sweat, of her neck. She’d motion to the dogs and me and we’d bunch around her creating our own bouquet. All was forgiven. The rose society meeting waited. The gardeners’ association newsletter had to be written. Later, I’d sit with my grandmother pressing the faces of pansies and the delicate bodies of lobelia between Kleenexes.
* * *
Gardening at my grandparents on the coast of Maine presented its own set of challenges. Just far enough off the ocean and Kenebec River, little beneficial breeze graced their land. Besides the Mayflies, the mosquitoes were a super-hybrid often mistaken for seagulls that drank a pint of blood in one sitting. Not only were you bombarded by deerflies, but the greenheads came for their stab as well. My mother looked like a prizefighter after ten minutes. My grandfather like a swamp monster splashed in a tea he made of tobacco and God-only-knows-what. We were a sorry looking crew in the battlefield of the spring garden slicked in dirt, blood, tobacco juices, and Avon’s Skin-So-Soft—a seaside gardener’s best means of survival. While I received relatively few nibbles, I collected flies in the round blue traps of my eyes. I would come in from the garden and stand in front of the bathroom mirror pulling out my lower eyelids with the thumb and pointer finger of one hand and fishing out specks of black flies with the pinky of the other.
Gardening is not glamorous work. Moons of dirt hang on under your fingernails for the remainder of the growing season. Bug bites leave some looking like they have an extended case of the mumps. But the virtues and satisfaction of growing one’s own crop makes it all worthwhile. Wendell Berry writes, “One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use is the gardener’s own body. The garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support.”
Not only does the food taste better because you have co-created and cared for it, but having to walk down the long drive or out into the field to harvest it, works up an appetite. Plucking your own crops from the garden is obviously nothing like reaching into the crisper of the fridge. Instead you must make the trek to the garden, peruse the rows searching for the just right head of cabbage, the yearning crowns of broccoli. Then you must cleave them neatly from their stalks with a freshly sharpened, deer-handled knife, which hopefully you have remembered to bring to the garden. While you’re down with your knees against the board or stone of the raised bed, you spy weeds poking through the mulch. Ten or fifteen minutes of weeding later, across the bed, you swear you see the white Vs and yellow spots that flank an enormous green horn worm as it samples your early-girl tomato. You leap to the plant’s defense—hurtling the alien eyes of brussel sprouts as they cower beneath you and your sharp knife—and dispose of the invasive creature in whatever humane or inhumane manner (depending on your blood sugar level) you choose. And damn it—you just picked the green beans yesterday, but they sure look ready for another harvesting. Your stomach grumbles something fierce. The beans could wait until tomorrow, but you know that if you pick them now, the yield will ultimately be greater. But tonight you were going to pick the snow peas for the stir-fry, and so you must. Half way back to the house, you realize you forgot to pick the lettuce and cherry tomatoes for the salad that you’ve been hankering for all day. And so you return to the garden on a recognizance mission, watchful of ambushing pests like slugs and cucumber beetles, making a mental list of what needs to be tackled tomorrow for survival in the garden. By the time you get to the kitchen to wash chop and cook your bounty, nothing has ever tasted better…until the following afternoon, when you do it all over again.
* * *
Back on Grove Hill, my mother appeared, robust with purpose, next to my father in the garden. She stood by her man in an effort to be a self-sufficient off-the-lander. When the crops came in my mother toiled over the blaze of the wood stove on many summer days canning tomatoes and beans, making pickles, jams and jellies. There was the matter of filling the wood boxes and stoking the fire, hauling dusty, cobwebbed bags full of mason jars from the cellar into the 100-degree kitchen, and then preparing them in boiling pots of water before blanching the vegetables, knocking them out for their winter slumber in glass, paraffin-sealed coffins. Inside the belly of the wood cook stove, blueberry pies bubbled. Her specialty—raspberry glaze—a layer of cream cheese slicked with a gelatinous raspberry red coat. Such delicacies were not for us. In an effort to make money, my mother baked for local restaurants. We salivated and sweated in the kitchen all day just to see the pies go off to town in a basket.
The summer kitchen smelled tantalizing, but felt like the winter sauna. I stayed outside and milled around the garden. What I adored best about these times was the rare unity with my father. I could see the garden’s meditative effects take him over. It was in the garden, I best liked to be with him. I’m sure I was never the help I imagined myself to be. I too became absorbed in contemplation and fell prey to the puppet strings of my imagination. While the cat peered from the tall grass like a lioness, I snuffed around with the dog in the manure and hay covering the garden paths. We nibbled at nasturtiums that protected the summer squash as we visited the inhabitants of the garden, each with their own personality. There was a hierarchy of vegetables that most likely had to do with my taste buds. Carrots were kings and queens, waving their filigreed tops like monarchs. I felt like the imperial magician pulling up their colorful bodies from under ground. Under ground! Sometimes there was the delight of a deformity—where perhaps a stone had interfered with growth, resulting in a twist of the body or an added appendage. You don’t find carrots with legs or peppers with bulbous noses in the grocery store! Special vegetables were treated like dolls, staged in plays on the knoll in front of the beehive for a captive and approving audience.
There were obvious friends in the garden like broccoli and cabbage, who at their beginnings looked so much alike. Though dill resembled the carrots, they didn’t like each other, but the carrots did like parsley. In fact, parsley protected them against carrot flies and stimulated their growth. Tomatoes didn’t like the meddlesome manner of the squash. Potatoes didn’t like ostentatious tomatoes. I suspected that the potato envied most every vegetable that got to grow above ground. Even the beets would rather live next to the lettuce than be near the remote potatoes. So the negative starch remained cloistered in a patch away from the garden. Meanwhile, beans and peas were humble and got along with everyone. Just like people, vegetables were born into families. Some got along some didn’t. I made all this up, or perhaps I absorbed some of this knowledge from my father and Grampy Sam. There are many books written on the subject of companion planting such as Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte. I am no expert, and rely on my imagination still.
* * *
As I write this, I realize I have lived on a city plot for almost two decades. I remember what attracted me to our house. My neighbor’s garden, a whole house lot, which cascaded from the woods down to the street, where flowers and vegetables thrived harmoniously, and hummingbirds, goldfinches and butterflies, performed a dazzling ballet. Our adjacent yard consisted of an obituary-sized plot of yellowing green. Or so I thought. Closer inspection revealed a stone fireplace ensconced by saplings, and beneath the encroaching young woods, the terraced earth of forgotten gardens waited for us.
My husband Luke and I hacked at the trees, dug out the stumps, and tried to recover the garden’s faded glory. Many city friends and Luke’s family members praised our efforts. One even said, “It looks like a nursery around here.” While one sister-in-law asked why we bothered, the other said, “I love your yard; I don’t feel like I’m in Worcester.” (She’s the sister-in-law who always knows the right thing to say.) But I knew our garden would impress none of my relatives.
My father scolded saying there were far too many shrubs and flowers and not enough practical plants—vegetables and herbs. He was right of course, but what could I grow? A couple of tomato and pepper plants? What was the point?
“It’s just as easy to go to the farmers market down the street.” I shrugged, “It’s good to support them.”
“What about the money?” my father asked.
“You could hang your clothes on a clothesline,” my mother added.
I had become citified. Why cover what little lawn we had with vegetables when it was just as easy to go to the store? And I liked perfumey, soft clothes out of the dryer. Did I need to apologize for this? My parents shook their heads filled with disappointment and disbelief. I had lost touch with my history.
I knew it too. What made it worse was my brother-in-law, after having read Micheal Pollan, lectured on the evils of fast food and joined an organic garden co-op with our friend Jim. Jim wrote to the Worcester Magazine announcing his love affair with his clothesline. The Bobsy Twins of going green. How fashionable, I thought. Who did they think they were talking to anyway? I grew up in Maine. Maine! We grew everything. Saved everything. Wasted nothing. Wanted nothing.
What had happened to me?
My husband Luke and I put away the kiddy pool, he exhumed the gigantic bridal’s mantle bush and we created two vegetable gardens in their places. Luke strung a V of clothesline from the Mulberry tree to each corner of the house. I planted seeds from packets for the first time in two decades—little bits of potential poured from their sleeves of sleep—and I began to dream again, lose myself in the wordless oblivion of the earth.
* * *
I remembered another favored friend from the garden—the gallant cabbage. Rosettes of leaves tightly folded around each other forming beautiful spheres like rows of the beheaded. As a child I wanted so much to hold one of those heads as large as my own—a smooth, powdered, purple ball—that I wheedled it from its nest of reverie in the sun.
“Jessica! That isn’t ready to be picked!” My father lurched and screeched.
My plaything dropped with a thud. I felt my lip begin to quiver. Across the road, up the lawn, I locked myself in the stockade of bamboo.
No matter. The humming bird’s whirr would distract. Tomorrow I would return to the garden where a glistening spider web would span from the grass to the tip of an apple tree like the Eiffel Tower, where squadrons of bees and flies would shoot by like stars with a metallic buzz, where dragon flies would glitter in the safe harbors of squash flowers, where maneuvers of Jays would shriek across the sky as if in a ceremonial flyover. Celebration. Abundance. Promise. So much potential from a seemingly dead thing—a seed, a brown patch of earth. Hope. Connection. Resurrection.
I think it was Gandhi who said, “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” I realize now, that in restoring my great-grandfather’s garden, my father was doing more than being a self-reliant Mainer, he was renewing a connection with his childhood on Grover Hill, he was healing the place, and himself. He pealed back the scab of clover from the garden and returned colorful bounty, forgotten scents, the textures and flavors of the earth. And despite his sometimes seeming dismay, this act of creation showed love and promise for us all.
p.s. For you Worcesterites there’s a good piece in Worcester Living Magazine entitled “Gardening Smarts” by Margaret LeRoux. She interviews Dawn Davies from Tower Hill who also mentions the book Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riott.