Inch by Inch, Row by Row

This is the time of year when thoughts turn to gardening. I love watching as the home and garden stores start to display the bounty of the earth; first come the pansies – their little faces velvety and turned to the sun. The smelI of earth and fertilizer offer a promise of something wonderful to come.

I always think of my grandmother when the pansies first appear. She had a raised bed of them in her garden every early spring of my childhood. I well remember the ice covering their little blossoms in the winter, thawing in the spring sunshine. She and I both particularly loved the purple ones.

Then, of course, there are the vegetable plants. Talk about a miracle! From those tiny seeds come the luscious, delicious, nutritious gifts from the earth. How does He do that?

My mom and dad always had a vegetable garden. I am firmly convinced that Mack proposed to me only to ensure an endless supply of my mother’s fresh wilted lettuce and hot bacon salad. When she knew he was coming over to “court,” she would go out into the garden and pick a handful of lettuce, fry up the bacon, and have the salad ready when he got to our house.

Of course, I never appreciated the garden or the hard work that went into cultivating it. In fact, as a kid, I was always just a little embarrassed about it. We were the only people in our upscale suburban neighborhood to have a backyard full of vegetables…the neighbors all had swimming pools or tennis courts where our cucumbers and eggplant took root. That was well before the green revolution, when it became cool to grow one’s own. My parents spent every Good Friday planting the garden. That was their tradition, and it seemed to work. Their plants were always bountiful as well as beautiful.

This is also the time of year when our pals, Doug and Marcel plant their pampered and petted tomato plants – reared with the love and care usually reserved for one’s child. These two masters of the garden universe keep us supplied with the candy-sweet treats throughout the early summer. Since knowing them and cultivating their friendships, I have assembled an entire notebook of tomato-based recipes, Bubba Gump-style: tomato pie, tomato bisque, tomato sauce, tomato jam, baked tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, fried green tomatoes with shrimp…

From that first bag-full of tasty treasures that magically appears on our doorstep in early summer until the sad announcement that “this is the last batch,” our summer days are filled with the deliciousness of tomatoes. Proving that, even more important than having one’s own garden…is having a friend with a garden.

It’s a good thing that I am pretty good at cultivating the friendships of gardeners…because, I am not good at cultivating a garden of my own. Mack claims that the plants in the nursery begin to quiver and quake when I walk in. “Killer,” they whisper to one another. “The ultimate brown thumb,” they gossip in their neat little rows. And, they are right. I don’t know why, but I simply can’t grow stuff.

Years ago, when our boys were just babies, we moved into an old house in a tiny North Texas town. I immediately fell in love with the old, character-filled house, but even more than the house, I fell in love with the romance of the life that I would create there for my children. We would raise chickens, I would grow a garden, we would pump water from the earth using the squeaky windmill near the big red barn. I would probably grow 6 or 8 inches, to fulfill my dream of being tall, thin and blonde. And, of course, I would always wear a floppy white hat, a flowing gauzy dress and Birkenstocks.

We owned four acres – a virtual spread for city dwellers like Mack and me. He would head off to work in the city each morning, and I would continue the task of turning our circa-1906 farmhouse into a home.

I spent hours during that first winter, drawing out my plans for the vegetable garden. I researched the most effective placement for my plants – deciding that I would not use pesticides or artificial anything. I was well ahead of my time in the organic food movement. I got Mack to take my hand-designed plan to work for a drafter to do a professional CADD design. It was beautiful! I color-coded the lay out, and I was just about ready.

Since Mack told me from the beginning that this was really not his thing (full disclosure!), I knew that I would have to find someone else to help me prepare my garden. First, I talked the high-dollar Master plumbers from Mack’s office into coming out to run an irrigation pipe from the house to the back of the 4 acres, where the garden would be located. They dug a 6-foot deep trench from the house all the way to the back of the property, installing a state-of-the-art irrigation system that rivals what I’ve seen on commercial farms. Then, the man that I hired from town – the one with the tractor- came and dug up the area that I had staked out for my garden. I hauled in fertilizer (all natural of course), soil, compost, you name it. It was looking promising. The most fun, of course, was the purchasing: seeds, plants, tools, well…and gardening outfits. Martha Stewart could have held a photo shoot on that ½ acre plot!

My garden design was extravagant. I had raised areas for the cantaloupe and watermelon, latticed areas for the climbing beans; my tomato plants would be surrounded with marigolds to dissuade the bugs. It was bound to be a success! I had all of the knowledge of gardening that you could get from a book.

Good Friday came and we planted the garden. It was glorious. Rich soil, sun peeking out from the clouds, happy kids running through the garden rows. I was not yet tall, thin and blonde, but I did have my garden!

Things did not go so well after that. We had big storms, there were WEEDS! I found a snake beneath the cucumber plants. It was not nearly as much fun as I had anticipated.

Well, long story short, that summer I harvested one cantaloupe and enough tomatoes to make 6 pints of salsa. The cantaloupe was sweet and juicy – certainly the most delicious one I’ve ever tasted. The salsa was fabulous, too. But, by the time I bought all of the canning stuff – the big pot, the Ball jars and tops, the tongs for removing the cans, and so forth, then added in the cost of the 6-foot deep trench, the tractor guy, the dirt, fertilizer, seeds and tools…we figured that I had paid $326.37 per pint of salsa. I could have traveled to New York City for their infamous Pace Picante for a lot less money.

That was my last garden. I still have dreams, though. Every time I go through the garden department of Walmart or Home Depot in early spring, I get a little twinge. Mack says that it’s only the karma of the dead plants from my past.

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