How To Be Garden


My garden. Let’s define terms; ‘garden’ can be misleading, can lead to unrealistic expectations—and nobody likes that.

So. What we’re talking about here is what’s outside the house; a biggish amount of rock-filled ground hacked from surrounding woodlands. Though that’s kind of backwards. What’s more accurate is to think of it as an amount of clear ground—when it became clear, I don’t know, certainly by the end of the 19th cent—that has been kept free of encroaching trees and brambles. Mostly. I no longer mow the grass. Well, not all the grass, I do mow some, to make it clear that I don’t mow from choice not laziness. I like the way it looks, how it changes over the course of a year, as well how it provides cover for insects and birds, and winter feed for deer (more about them later). They’ll crop it to the ground come spring.

It’s almost October, and I’m feeling a serious need to get outside to start the fall clean-up and, perhaps more importantly, prepare for next spring. This time last year I wasn’t thinking ahead and didn’t plant any daffodils. Usually l do. Sometimes a couple of hundred, sometimes more, perhaps recklessly adding tulips while cursing the deer who like to eat them. When the bulbs I’d planted in years past started to come up I thought, Well this looks nice. Needs more daffodils. 

I must have planted a few thousand over the years but, as already noted, there’s always room for more. This morning I ordered two hundred and fifty Dutch Masters—strangely not a cigar, but nice standard yellow trumpets—that bloom reasonably early because, lovely as the white varieties may be it’s encouraging to have early bulbs blooming while the memory of winter lingers. I also ordered some tulips for the bed right outside the house that offers at least some protection, a hundred of a soft yellow/pink mix, fifty of the black tulip Queen of the Night, and fifty of something else I’ve already forgotten; nothing red though, and I’m regretting that because there’s no red quite so red as a red tulip. I’m pretty sure I’ll buy some more at the local garden store to store in the fridge before forcing. Perhaps something red? I am fully committed to next spring.

If it’s not already clear, I’m not what you might call a careful gardener. I don’t come by it naturally, didn’t inherit some genetic need to dig. It began modestly enough as an offshoot from my interest in cooking when we bought a weekend house in Connecticut. That faded when I stopped eating meat: I don’t care what anyone says, if you’re not eating meat there’s not much point in cooking. At least, not the kind of cooking I liked to do when I would read cook books like novels. I’m the only person I know who’s read Escoffier cover to cover. Who reads Elizabeth David for the jokes.

I’ve learned a certain amount about what to grow and what to page past in catalogues to avoid temptation (looking at you, roses, you heartbreakers). I have some favorites, plants and shrubs that can be relied on to do well in the Catskills. Since I stopped mowing I’ve developed a healthy interest in weeds, that I now prefer to think of as hardy native volunteers. A lot of them, if you just leave them be, can grow into surprisingly interesting plants. 

I’ve lived in this house for twenty-three years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere. For the first eighteen I shared the house with Vivian who wasn’t really interested in the garden. He did concept: being a theater director I suppose that makes sense. He’d look around and say, There should be more flowers. With which I would agree and point to the spade. And he did hire the guy with a tractor to pull out all the Himalayan sticker-bushes, wild raspberries, whatever you call them—plants I hate only a little less than wisteria. But the actual planting, the execution, didn’t really interest him. The garden was a pleasant buffer you passed through on your way in or out.

I, on the other hand, took it seriously. Though, given the way I worked, I was often not home. Even when we’d stopped living in the city I’d be going here and there to be in plays, only seeing the garden in bursts. Someone else mowed it then, and I sometimes had help, for which I was grateful. I’d walk about batting bugs away, wishing there was more of this or that, buying unsuitable shrubs as you do and planting them in the wrong places, then going away when they needed care to get established. It’s only the last few years that I’ve been able to actually stop, take stock of what’s here, and consider how to make sense of the disorder. My first decisive act was to get the power company to put in a new pole and bury the power lines, which gave me a vista—which is like a view without a definite end-point. Then I had all the layers of the disintegrating blacktop drive taken up to be replaced by crushed stone to fix the drainage. So the bigs things are done. Which is why I’m now obsessing over vegetables.

The tomatoes are over for the year; at least, mine are. Of all the varieties available to plant I chose Rose de Bern, because it is the tomato that tastes the way you think a tomato should but rarely does. Even if a lot of places no longer sell the plants or grow the variety because of its susceptibility to disease, rot, or some other blight that the newer hybrids can resist, I don’t know why anyone would want to grow anything else. All right, the Paul Robeson is also very good, with a surprising tang and lovely color. And I will concede that Striped Germans have a lot going for them. Last night I worked out that my crop had amounted to, I think, in all, ten tomatoes. I spent ten bucks on the four plants I put in so… a dollar a tomato! Well, not quite. Let’s not get carried away. There’s also the bagful of Moo Doo I dug in to get things off to a good start. That’s about eight ninety-something. So adding it all together, my tomatoes came in at approximately $8.99 a pound. A personal best; in years past I’ve been happy to break twenty.

This year’s tomato triumph got me thinking again of a dedicated vegetable garden. It would have to be fenced of course (deer again), and there would need to be raised beds because I am not about to start hacking trenches out of my rock-strewn clay. It would need to be near enough to the house to be workable without being an eyesore, and… I need to start planning it now. But I also need to be able to believe I’d actually use it to grow things, that it would be worth the trouble. Living surrounded by ex-Brooklynites seeking a better life, making a stab at organic gardening to sell their produce in the local farmers’ market, I can do very well. But is that really good enough?

My favorite stand, where I buy most of my vegetables, the only suppliers of my favorite Rose de Bern, let me down this year. I don’t blame them, they must try to make some sort of living after all. Last year, the owner would joke with me about my weird obsession but this year, as the tomatoes came in he was avoiding my eye. I soon saw why: they’d chilled the stock, something that hadn’t happened before, at least not at the beginning of the season. Despite anything that anyone states in the food section of the New York Times, it’s not good to put tomatoes in the fridge. It doesn’t just spoil the taste and kill the scent, it turns them watery. Not a big deal with those waxy, vaguely orange things we get at the supermarket but when you do that to a treasured heirloom…! 

When I eat a tomato I want to be able to taste the summer. A recipe: 

To serve four, or one if you’re greedy, take four freshly laid eggs (I’m now pretending I’m Elizabeth David and showing you what I mean by the jokes; she lived in a world where a fresh egg was only a fingersnap away), put them in a saucepan that will hold them comfortably, fill with cold water and set on the stove. As soon as the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat, cover the pan and set to one side for fifteen minutes (This is Martha Stewart’s method for making a perfect hard-boiled egg straight from the fridge. For a soft-boiled version, cover the saucepan as before and leave for two minutes. Depending on the size of your pan you might need to adjust the time). Meanwhile, for each egg take one perfectly ripe, rose-pink tomato that is not too large and not too small—the Rose de Bern comes to mind, though I suppose you could try a Big Boy or a Mortgage Buster—core the fruit and take off one very thin slice from the bottom so that it stands upright on a plate. With a sharp knife, make vertical slices that almost cut through the fruit so that it will open without falling apart. Make a dressing of lemon juice and olive oil. The classic version is to set each tomato on a bed of mayonnaise but I find it too cloying. Besides I do not have a spare grandmother on hand to sit in the sun outside the kitchen door of a Provençal farmhouse singing songs of the old days as she mounts the shining mixture drop by drop. As I was saying, make a lemony dressing and set aside. When the eggs have sat in the cooling water for fifteen-twenty minutes, crack them, run under cold water and remove the shells. Now, with that same sharp knife, slice the eggs thickly, inserting each slice into the cuts in the prepared tomatoes. If you’re careful, instead of falling apart, these will open like a fan and look very pretty. When they’re assembled, you pour over them the lemon/oil dressing, sprinkle a little chopped parsley, and serve. As you eat them you can if you want think of yourself as a character in a novel by Flaubert. You might cry.

Since I’ve brought up the NY Times, let me just add a word of warning; despite anything you might read in the recipes there, never ever combine raw garlic with a fresh tomato. It tastes like the proverbial cup of cold sick. 

The plum tree is dead. Sad, I know. I never got any fruit from it and I don’t know who did—birds? raccoons? bears?—but the blossom was pretty and I’ll miss it. Anyhow, it’s dead and I need to cut it down. Next to it is what remains of a pear tree, broken by bears, and dying too. You know what they say about misfortunate creating opportunities? I realized that I could dig up some nearby shrubs and move them, add in a few more (azaleas? spireas?) to line the left side of the drive as you come in, opposite a couple of the big old Norway Spruce to kind of balance things, water would be available from the stream behind (hand pump?), with the right kind of fence in a year or two it could look like it’s always been there. Plus I could grow a few flowers! Something for me to enjoy instead of the you-know-who, (as I’m sure is apparent, realistic or not, I’m right now selling myself hard on this idea). And there could be a place to sit quietly and… and sort of be in the garden. If I get it planned now, get it built in spring, I could be looking at as many as twenty tomatoes next year. Or forty! Why not? The light is good, plenty of full sun to swell gourds and make the lettuce bolt.

I’ve been thinking of Voltaire retiring to Geneva at the end of his life to tend his garden and clear his mind. Not that I think I’m Voltaire, or that I’m at the end of my life; I saw my doctor the other day who has gone from “You could have as many as ten good years take up yoga,” at the check-up on my seventieth to, “You could live forever and is your house wheelchair accessible?” last week. I tell him he has no tact: he looks proud. 

When you’re in your twenties you don’t much see the point of gardening. It all takes too long. Waiting a year for something to bloom is a major investment of time. But at seventy-four, as I am now, one year as a percentage of your life doesn’t seem like much. Now I put something in the ground and think, In five years that’ll be nice. I plant a tree and think, Will I be around to see it mature? Chances are, no—though the willow I put in is now huge and graceful, the first tree to leaf out in a haze of gold each spring. And there are other trees I put in when we were first here that are doing well and becoming mature, but what about what I plant now? They say you don’t so much plant trees for yourself, you plant them for whoever owns the house next. Certainly that’s true of the seven huge Norway Spruce along the drive, the seven sisters planted maybe in the Thirties? Who could imagine then what they’ve become? 

In 1910 this place became the Sunnyside Spring farm. The site of my fantasy vegetable garden is roughly where the barn was, next to the wagon house. I’ve dug around there a bit, enough to know that it seems like it was built up and leveled with flat bluestones. So, as before noted, raised beds would be essential. Do they give any protection from the jumping worms that have started showing up? I saw one the other day, writhing unpleasantly, and it did sort of jump. I’ve read that they suck nutrients out of the earth and are impossible to kill. There’s always some new pest, some bug or blight. The elm trees died, then there was a blight that hit the ash trees, then the emerald borers showed up to kill whatever ash trees were left. When I go up in the woods, where paths used to be, I can hardly walk for all the downed trees. Warming has made the poison ivy explode, along with the tick population. And this year I got no barn swallows. They did show up right around when they usually do but when we started to get the smoke coming down from Canadian wildfires they disappeared and didn’t come back. One of the delights of summer was having them nest on the porch to raise a brood of chicks, then to see them leave the nest (there’s always one who lingers a bit), practice flying for a couple of weeks and one day vanish, heading south, leaving behind a miraculous sense of freedom and regret. And will we get any snow this year? Will it fall the way it used to so there’s a thick covering by Thanksgiving that stays on the ground till March? Or will we have more of the violent snowfalls that break the trees and melt within a couple of weeks so the ground never gets really frozen? Will anything ever be the same again?

As I start to close down for winter it’s a comfort to think of next year. In February the seed catalogues will come and of course I’ll buy seeds, I always buy seeds though I almost never plant them. Well this year, if I plan ahead I could raise some seedlings and put them in the ground and see what happens, encourage them into summer and on to fall. Seasons in the garden wax and wane like the phases of the moon, a month becomes a year, a year a month.

In a fragment of a lyric by Praxilla, mid 5th cent BCE, there’s a few lines about Adonis, in the underworld after his death when he’s asked, of all the things you left behind what was the best? What the poet gives him to say in reply is:

‘The best thing I left was the light of the sun;

second, the shining stars and the moon’s orb;

and then the cucumbers and apples and pears in season’.

He’s not wrong. To be continued:

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