Last summer, for the first time in my sixteen years here, I didn't keep a real vegetable garden, but only scratched out a small plot from the greater garden (it's been in the same spot for almost a 135 years, and I comforted myself thinking it must have had other fallow times), just enough room for Elysia to plant a few radish seeds and for me to plant a flat of beefsteak tomatoes from the farmer's market. And some golden beets, and two rows of Nantes carrots, which I can't live without come September (and October and November and December and-the record for not getting snarfed in storage-January). And a Thai hot pepper plant someone had given me - beautiful tiny yellow spears of flame. I'd planted several kinds of garlic the previous autumn, so there'd be that kind of heat and sweet as well. And in a kitchen drawer two Yukon Gold potatoes all shriveled and sprouted, so I dunk them in the dirt and old mulch amid the shorter species of weeds (plenty to pick from, a real hotbed of diversity).
No real garden, though, because I'd had the plan to go to the Arctic for all of August and some of September, a Canada Coast Guard icebreaker voyage in the company of climate scientists to observe the unexpected speed of human folly. All the plans were made, all the permissions granted. And then the reason for no garden shifted to a more personal disaster: my mother-in-law was diagnosed with a brain tumor that June, died September 5 - the start and end frost dates here in the valley of the Temple Stream. Of course, my ice trip was off. And the garden stayed off. I bought a half share from Joe Hodgkin's community supported agriculture (CSA) operation up the street, and no matter how sad things got that summer or how difficult the logistics back-and-forth to New York City hospitals, we had fresh produce (an amazing cornucopia-this was a half share?), including Elysia's radishes, nearly a year's supply of garlic, and in the end about three pounds of nice little potatoes.
I never got to planting my fall garlic, never turned the mulch under, didn't plant a cover crop (winter rye, was what I'd had in mind-its deep roots bring up minerals, people say, and its thick growth chokes out unwanted growth beautifully, a necessity after a weedy fallow summer), and so this spring, my gosh, the profusion of weeds was spectacular, the incursion of grasses just plain discouraging.
And no garlic.
We'd have to go to Italy for that!May first, still some snow in the yard (and a great deal in the woods), I turned over a narrow strip of earth along the rock wall I've made almost by accident lining up rocks pulled from the glacial till that underlies everything here and that frost pushes up endlessly, large and small, year after year, thirty feet by two or three rocks high, one of the short legs of the rectangle of the old garden spot, which is large. Elysia didn't need help, and didn't need much encouragement, planted her row of radishes (I for my part cherishing the memory of doing the same at her age and younger, and cherishing the possibility that in fifty years she'll remember so) and planted her row of chard, and two rows of lettuce (I just broadcast lettuce seeds over a groomed area randomly, but order isn't a bad place for a little girl to start).
On the train from Fiumicino's Leonardo da Vinci Airport into Rome, May 6, we spotted hundreds of tiny gardens tucked between tracks and road, between tracks and backyards, between tracks and tracks, in any little space, the Roman planting season two months ahead of ours, and I felt the old inspiration blooming like the vacant lots of poppies, poppies growing up in every mound of dirt in every junkyard, and gardens, gardens. The ruins, the lovely, lively pace of contemporary Rome layered over them, the ancient fields of Tuscany, the fields of yellow-flowering rape seed, the beautiful fresh contemporary produce on restaurant plates and at the little grocery stores (baby artichokes!), then back to Rome and rare rainy days, then home again.
Elysia and I rushed down to the garden to have a look: Her plants were up, all right, but our two-and-a-half weeks away had been a cool, dry period in Maine and everything was tiny, looked spare and scruffy after all the profusion, wouldn't be big enough to eat for weeks. I looked out over the rest of the big, weedy plot and thought, Well, a CSA share and a few tomato plants, and let the rest go back to lawn.
But that mood was only jetlag, and lasted just till I looked over the fence at my neighbor Charlie's garden plot, similarly overgrown. I knew he and his wife weren't going to let their garden go. So I wasn't too late. More dry weather, and cool, two light frosts. Then one fine day, without announcement, Charlie tilled his garden, back and forth, back and forth, professional equipment, tractor towing industrial rototiller through beautifully friable soil, none of the clumps of recent rainy Mays. I looked at my weeds, thought of my front-tine rototiller squashed under the shed I lost to snow load over the winter. Maybe just put about a foot of hay over the whole plot, plant some garlic in the fall, and call it a year.
But no, as luck would have it, no.
I saw Charlie in his garden and went to the fence, and in the course of a long conversation about many things public and private I asked him if he'd till my garden for me, and that very afternoon, having said yes, he did. Back and forth, back and forth, the friable soil falling off his tiller blades, lost tomato hoops and liberated hay tines tangling hopelessly in his machinery, long stops to tangle them out, then back and forth, back and forth, two years' crop of rocks banging the steel shields of the tiller, beautiful, the loam pillowing up high, light, almost fluffy.
And then a couple of days of rain, moistening the soil, which was rich with all the year's old weed growth, and all the mulching hay gone rotten and all the oak leaves I'd dumped, and the several buckets of wood-stove ash, and compost, compost.
Then suddenly it was a Friday, end of May. Friday is farmer's market, and Elysia and I got there on the early side after errands elsewhere, straight to Carla Bock's booth, Hoof and Paw Farm, New Sharon (she's a psychotherapist as well), and looked over flats and pots and chatted with Carla (she's got a five-week foal that Elysia and I thought we'd better go visit - also there was the price of gasoline to discuss and, of course, the weather: cool, a little too dry, and the price of gasoline). In the end we bought a flat of Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, early crop and delicious, full of memories: E.E. standing around the wildly profuse vines the July she was two years old (only, but unbelievably, five years ago!) plucking tomatoes as fast as she could and popping them in her mouth, seeds and pulp dripping down her chin, big garden-loving grin, dozens of the sweetly acid little things exploding in her mouth till she stopped and stared and announced her lips were stinging.
And eggplant and peppers of various kinds and other tomato breeds, even some basil and parsley and leeks, all the things I hadn't started from seed, and could never have succeeded like Carla succeeds in starting from seed, heated hoop houses and years of experience, infinite patience, the professional early start."Daddy, I don't want six Sun Gold cherry tomatoes," Elysia said emphatically. We searched the stock, but there wasn't a Sun Gold in a single ton pot.
Carla suggested a Rainbow Cherry tomato, a plant that she says produces multiple hues ripe. She shrugged describing it, slightly embarrassed, as I am too at the enthusiasms plant breeders and namers inspire.
"Rainbow," Elysia said transported. She'll be a sucker for Fedco catalogues to come.
We loaded the car and onto the next errand, seeds at the Better Living Center (a healthy-foods store right by the farmer's market), seeds to add to the thin selection of seeds I'd roused myself to order back in January from the Fedco catalogue. (This is Fedco's anniversary year and the catalogue is subtitled "Thirty Years of Spring Fiction.")
We got home from the farmer's market and immediately Elysia said, "Let's plant!"
"Lunch," I said.
"Plant!" she commanded.
I was used to a younger Elysia in the garden. At one year of age she had been an observer and pointer and namer, all from the comfort of her baby backpack: "Stick. Bug. Seed." At two, as we've seen, she was a harvesting machine. At three she was deeply interested in earthworms ("Daddy, find me another one"). At four she enjoyed planting the seeds, enthusiastically covered them with dirt, loved watering them, but then wanted them back-waahh! At five she really stayed with it, a good ten minutes or so, and then it was back to the house for a hand wash and rousing game of castles and Barbies, the whole dirt thing forgotten. At six the work of the garden seemed to have caught her interest, and with great confidence she told Daddy exactly what to do and how, and, then, with a flounce, left him to his work, went in the house to dance.
But at seven, this year, a gardener has been born.
We dug, we hoed, we spade-forked, we marked a large section of garden for her to call her own, then made it larger yet. She took part in every step, wanted to do even the hardest jobs on her own, dug out weeds and planted rows of carrots while I put my tomatoes in. She planted cos lettuce and here and there a pansy, a row of cosmos already blooming, and her rainbow tomato, then one of my Sun Golds. She planted nasturtium and watermelon seeds and Easter egg radishes while I put my peppers in and set up stakes for pole beans, poked seeds in the ground.
I had to argue to get a break for lunch.
And then we were back in the garden, throwing clods of grass roots out onto the lawn, filling an old joint-compound bucket with the year's new crop of rocks, planting, planting, raking, raking, watering, watering, finally standing back to look, back to look at the results of a whole morning and afternoon's focused labor, what would very soon be food for ourselves, food for our friends, food for the pantry in town.
"Let's go listen to music," Elysia said with a twirl of delight.
And never had we so richly earned our dance time.Bill Roorbach is the author of Temple Stream and his work appears in "A Place Called Maine: 24 Authors on the Maine Experience," published by Down East.