I’ve come to regard our garden as an ongoing experiment; this is our first year in this house, with this yard, with this baby Frances. And so the limited time of a new parent and the limited gardening knowledge of a lax urbanite has given way to a throw-it-in-the-ground-see-if-it-grows approach, and though it does not yield any landscaping that a lush gardening magazine would touch with a ten-foot pole, it has produced some food, some fun, and a welcome reality check.
The garden plays host to many cathartic hours of slapdash effort. It’s an investment that has paid off in experience more than crop yield, or in gorgeous produce. Manny Howard wrote a book about the year he spent trying to convert his Brooklyn backyard into a micro-farm bountiful enough to sustain his family. (Spoiler: it wasn’t.) He had access to, and spent, thousands of dollars in creating this tiny farm, which strikes me as obnoxious even though I'm not happy to admit it does. But his heart was in the right place. "Green markets can be a kind of food pornography," he said once in a Time magazine article. "You buy a big bushel of beet greens without a wormhole in it, and that's just not what farm food looks like."
The wormhole, to me, is the entire point of growing your own food. It’s not hard work to stick some seeds and set-outs in the dirt and hope for the best, because a few plants most likely will survive and grow into something edible. But it is very hard work to grow enough food to make a well-rounded meal, or a bunch of meals for a family, or enough bushels to share with a neighborhood. In the process of navigating the territory between a weed patch and a Better Homes & Gardens-worthy backyard of beautiful food, I’ve come to realize that the wormhole in the Swiss chard is the stamp of something real and pure. The scattershot hours I’ve put into weeding and watering have showed me how precious and miraculous food is, and what a sin it is to waste it, and that the places food grows are not always pretty. They are dirt and mud and weeds and bugs, and so what? Before vast Central Valley acres of chemicals and brackish water and trucked-in bees, there were plots in backyards and modest family farms.
A single, misshapen cucumber was my garden’s afterthought. Of the entire packet of seeds I planted, one lonely seedling showed its face. I kept watering it, just to see what would happen, and lo and behold: it produced a gimpy, bulbous fruit, no bigger than a finger banana. Observing its progress (or lack thereof) over the summer months entertained me, because I never knew if the plant was going to suddenly give up the ghost. Finally I picked the thing, and it was inedibly bitter. Into the compost it went, and I bought a waxy, truck-farm cucumber from the grocery store. 99 cents, a little less than the packet of cucumber seeds had cost.
Other items we planted were not so fickle. Radishes, summer squash, parsley, Russian kale, butter lettuce, Swiss and rainbow chard, and sugar pumpkins have been very plentiful, if not photogenic. A stranger gave me a flat of strawberry plants, which I put in because hey, they were free! And I found out that strawberry plants are more or less garden pets, things you grown for fun, for the little morning ruby snacks they give you.
There’s some lamb’s ear growing in the garden, too, which I neglected to pull out because of its flocked, soft leaves. My garden is neither lovely nor lush, but it rejuvenates and centers me. Some people go to a pedi-spa for that kind of feeling. Me, I prefer callused hands and dirt lodged under my toenails. As for the wormholes, once those greens are cooked, no one is the wiser.
That’s what a garden is. Organic food with a lower-case “o,” and sweat, and whatever luck and labor partner up to give you.