I have never understood why we keep a garden and why, 35 years ago when I bought my first house in the country, I started digging up a patch for vegetables before doing anything else. When you think how easy and cheap, relatively, it is to buy a bunch of carrots or beets, why raise them? And root crops especially are hard to tell apart, when store-bought, from our own. There is an atavism at work here, a kind of backbreaking make-believe that has no reality. And besides, I don’t particularly like eating vegetables. I’d much rather eat something juicy and fat. Like hotdogs.
Now hot dogs and mustard with some warm sauerkraut—if you could raise them outside your window—you’d really have something you could justify without a second’s hesitation. Or a hot pastrami vine.
As it is, though, I can’t deny that come April I find myself going out to lean on the fence and look at that cursed rectangle, resolving with all my rational powers not to plant it again. It’s not even economical anymore with the price of seed so high now, and if I calculate what I have invested in a tiller and other tools, fertilizer, wire fence, and all the rest, it becomes ludicrous. I don’t dare speak of my time and my wife’s—which would figure out to be about six or seven thousand dollars per tomato—in good years.
But inevitably a morning arrives when, just as I am awakening, a scent wafts through the window, something like earth-as-air, a scent that seems to come up from the very center of this planet. And the sun means business, suddenly, and has a different, deeper yellow in its beams on the carpet. The birds begin screaming hysterically, thinking what I am thinking—the worms are deliciously worming their way through the melting soil. But it is not only pleasure send-ing me back to stare at that plot of soil, it is really conflict. The question is the same each year—what method should we use? The last few years we unrolled thirty-six-inch–wide black plastic between the rows and it worked perfectly, keeping the soil moist in dry times and weed-free, and when we go off for a few days it’s not hard to find our garden again, as it had been when we used to cultivate.
But, here we go again—black plastic looks so industrial, so unromantic, and probably gives cancer of the fingertips from handling it. And of course some people think it unfair to use black plastic because it does work so efficiently. Like the early opposition to the large tennis rackets. Anything that reduces suffering has to be a little evil. Nevertheless, I have gradually moved over to hay mulch, mostly because we cut a lot of hay and it does improve the soil’s tilth as it rots, looks lovely, and comes to us free. But it needs to be very heavily laid on or you will have planted a hayfield, which we did one year, long ago. No less than six inches deep, unless you buy salt hay, but that costs so much you might as well eat salad in a restaurant.
Keeping a garden makes you aware of how delicate, bountiful, and easily ruined the surface of this little planet is. In that 50-by-70-foot patch there must be a dozen different types of soil. Parsley won’t grow in one part but loves another and the same goes for the other crops. I suppose if you loaded the soil with chemical fertilizer these differences would cease to affect growth, but I use it sparingly and only in rows right where seeds are planted rather than broadcast over the whole area. I’m not sure why I do this beyond the saving in fertilizer and my unwillingness to aid the weeds between the rows.
I never spray anything, principally because insect damage and fungi have never affected more than a scant proportion of plants in this garden. I am not sure why it is spared except that it lies in the midst of a former hayfield where there is heavy grass growth, and maybe insects get enough to eat out there beyond the fence.
The attractions of gardening, I think, at least for a certain number of gardeners, are neurotic and moral. Whenever life seems pointless and difficult to grasp, you can always get out in the garden and get something done. Also, your paternal or maternal instincts come into play because helpless living things are depending on you, require training and discipline and encouragement and protection from enemies and bad influences. In some cases, as with squash and some cucumbers, your offspring—as it were—begin to turn upon you in massive numbers, proliferating more and more each morning and threatening to follow you into the house to strangle you in their vines. Zucchini tend to hide their fruits under broad leaves until they have become monster green phallic clubs to mock all man and subvert the women.
Gardening is a moral occupation, as well, because you always start in spring resolved to keep it looking neat this year, just like the pictures in the catalogs and magazines, but by July you once again face the chaos of unthinned carrots, lettuce, and beets. This is when my wife becomes—openly now—mistress of the garden. A consumer of vast quantities of vegetables, she does the thinning and hand-cultivating of the tiny plants. Squatting, she patiently moves down each row selecting which plants shall live and which she will cast aside. Tilling and planting having been completed, I excuse myself from this tedious task, for one thing because the plants have outgrown their grassy look and show signs of being lettuces. (Although on certain days unaccountably I like lettuce.)
At about this time my wife’s 85-year-old mother, a botanist, makes her first visit to the garden. She looks about skeptically. Her favorite task is binding the tomato plants to stakes. She is an outspoken, truthful woman, or she was until she learned better. Now, instead of saying, “You have planted the tomatoes in the damp part of the garden,” she waits until October when she makes her annual trip to her home in Europe; then she gives me my goodbye kiss and says offhandedly, “Tomatoes in damp soil tend more to get fungi,” and toddles away to her plane. But by October nothing in the garden matters, so sure am I that I will never plant it again.
The psychology of gardening, obviously, is quite complicated. In my experience, far more educated city people who move to the country bother with gardens then do people born in the country. The latter take immense pleasure in being well enough off not to have to work that hard to eat lettuce. City people feel they have to work off their sins, perhaps, or are convinced they are being poisoned by sprays on their vegetables. Country people, being generally more conservatively business-oriented, spray everything in sight, perhaps to show their faith in chemical companies.
I garden, I suppose, because I must. It would be intolerable to have to pass an unplanted, fenced garden a few times a day. But if it makes little economic sense to plant it, and a very debatable taste advantage, there are certain compensations and these must be what annually tilt my mind toward all that work. There are few sights quite as gratifyingly beautiful as a vegetable garden glistening in the sun, all dewy and glittering with a dozen shades of green at seven in the morning. Far lovelier, in fact, than rows of hotdogs. In some pocket of the mind there may even be a tendency to metamorphose this vision into a personal reassurance that all this healthy growth, this orderliness and thrusting life must somehow reflect similar movements in one’s own spirit. Without a garden to Jill and plant I would not know what April was for.
As it is, April is for getting irritated all over again at this pointless, time-consuming hobby. I do not understand people who claim to “love” gardening. A garden is an extension of oneself—or selves, and so it has to be an arena where striving does not cease, but continues by other means. As an example: You simply have to face the moment when you must admit that the lettuce was planted too deep or was not watered enough, and cease hoping it will show itself tomorrow, and dig up the row again. But you will feel better for not standing on your dignity. And that’s what gardening is all about—character building. Which is why Adam was a gardener. (And we all know where it got him, too.)
But is it conceivable that the father of us all should have been a mason, weaver, shoemaker, or anything but a gardener? Of course not. Only the gardener is capable of endlessly reviving so much hope that this year, regardless of drought, blood, typhoon, or his own stupidity, this year he is going to do it right! Leave it to God to have picked the proper occupation for His only creature capable of such perpetual and unregenerate self-delusion.
I suppose it should be added, for honesty’s sake, that the above was written on one of the coldest days in December. ❖
CREDIT LINE: “After the Spring”, from ECHOES DOWN THE CORRIDOR: COLLECTED ESSAYS, 1944-2000 by Arthur Miller, edited by Stephen Centola, copyright © 2000 by Arthur Miller. Used by permission of Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
This article was published originally in 2016, in GreenPrints Issue #108.