Salad Days

The best life coaching comes from your garden.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY LINDA COOK DEVONA

Last year, my family hosted a German exchange student for a few weeks. As a gift, he left us a cookbook with traditional recipes from his region. Being a foodie my-self, I was excited to try them. But as someone who tries with mixed results to eat healthy, I had some misgivings, based on certain stereotypes about the richness of German cuisine. I opened the book warily, hoping to find something healthy. It felt like a delicate balance: I wanted to appreciate another culture, but I didn’t want to—how should I put this?—end up looking even more like Helmut Kohl than I already do.

I don’t mean to body-shame the legendary German chancellor. On the contrary, his ursine presence was surely an advantage on the world stage. But I don’t need to hold my own with the likes of Thatcher and Reagan. I’m just trying to limit the extra weight I have to haul up Colorado’s hilly roads on my bike.

Many Internet memes tell us to “live each day as if it were your last.” What nonsense.

So I was relieved to see that our new cookbook had a section on salads. I turned to the very first recipe, which was called “Wurst Käse Salat.” For those who don’t speak much German, like me, I assume this translates as “Worst Case Salad.” And it turned out to be an appropriate name. The ingredients of this “salad” are sausage and cheese. Yes, in Germany, you can claim that you feel like something light and healthy, so you’re just going to eat a salad, and then chow down a big plate of sausage and cheese. With the obligatory bread and beer, presumably.

That sounds tasty, although it would seem to stretch the definition of “salad,” and the definition of my abs, to the breaking point. But it did get me thinking about salad, which is easy to forget about during the blazing days of Summer. Since leafy greens are my favorite crops, I basically have two gardening seasons now: Spring and Fall. For me, Summer is too hot and dry to grow much other than a few heat-loving crops like tomatoes, peppers, and bindweed. In the dog days, I think back longingly to the warm days and cool nights of Spring, when the lettuce and other greens thrive. Yes, those are the salad days, when the garden pulses with the boundless energy of the newly awakened earth.

As a lover of fresh greens from the garden, I’ve often wondered about the phrase “salad days.” Since I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare and/or access to Google, I now know that the term was coined by the Bard in his play Antony and Cleopatra. Toward the end of Act I, Cleopatra says she regrets hooking up with Julius Caesar back in her youthful “salad days / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood.”

The teenage Cleo felt like a metaphorical salad because she was naïve and cool. We use the term now to harken back to the most fun and carefree time of life, but it originally implied youthful inexperience and bad decisions. So yeah, basically the same thing.

In the garden, though, the salad days are literal, and they’re the best parts of the season. It’s not only the most pleasant time to be in the garden, but the salad days are among the most productive, too. In his book High-Value Veggies, Mel Bartholomew calculates, based on input cost, labor, and yield, that growing green or red lettuce gives the gardener a return on investment (ROI) of 2,094%. For a diverse mesclun blend, this key indicator jumps to a whopping 3,228%! Finally, some empirical support for my long-standing view that my time is better spent earning massive returns out in the garden than inside at the computer, tinkering with the asset allocation of my puny 401(k).

ROI seems like an abstract concept, but you can feel it in the garden. I can give hours of TLC to a row of finicky, hard-to-grow carrots, then months later harvest enough to fill a bag that costs about three bucks at the store. But lettuce is the crop that keeps on giving, vigorously regenerating itself to supply huge daily salads for weeks on end.

But why, a nongardener might ask, go to the trouble of growing your own lettuce when you can buy a big plastic box of prewashed organic mix at the grocery store for about $5?

Well, the garden variety tastes better, of course. And lettuce that’s alive in the garden stays fresh. By the time I get to the bottom of that huge grocery-store box, the composting process is well underway. Five bucks seems less frugal when I only get two or three salads before it turns to green mush. The recent discovery of two dead bats in these boxes has further reduced their appeal to me. One bat I could overlook, but two starts to seem like a quality control issue. I love to see bats flying above my garden noshing on mosquitoes, but there’s little risk I’ll inadvertently toss a dead one into the colander.

This is the lesson I take from the plastic box of slime: The beauty of the garden, like life itself, is ephemeral. There’s no point in holding on to some idealized vision of past glory days, salad or otherwise. Fresh lettuce must be enjoyed in the moment, and can’t even be frozen, canned, or pickled like many other crops.

Nowadays, the advice we get on how to live swings from one extreme to the other. On the one hand, many Internet memes tell us to “live each day as if it were your last.” What nonsense. Let’s think about what it would really be like to do that. I would have to spend every day frantically putting my affairs in order. It would be a panicked frenzy of last-minute details: searching for important papers, making tearful calls to puzzled relatives and friends to tell them, as I have each preceding day, that I’ll never see them again. It would not be fun, and repeating that macabre ritual day in and day out would be a living hell. I certainly wouldn’t spend a leisurely day planting seeds in the garden—what would be the point, if I’m supposed to act as if I won’t be there to enjoy the harvest?

In reaction to this unrealistic approach, some posters in workplace break rooms now go too far the other way, telling us to treat each day as if we’re going to live forever. This is also terrible advice. I’m a procrastinator now! If I had unlimited time, I’d probably spend the first 300 years drinking coffee and watching Andy Griffith Show reruns.

So instead, I get my life coaching from the garden: Live in nature’s rhythm, not as if a lifetime can be compressed into a single day or extended out forever. I just enjoy each season as it rolls by, living each day as if I have a few decades left, maybe a bit more if I eat plenty of kale, maybe less in the event of a freak rototilling mishap. It may sound boring, but I think it’s the right balance.

The best part of living seasonally is that, unlike Shakespeare’s metaphorical salad days, a gardener’s literal salad days are not receding into the past. The best times of life come back around every year. Twice, in fact, in both Spring and Fall! Now, as the cool Autumn days return, the lettuce seeds we planted in late Summer will reward us with a bounty of delicious greens all the way to the first hard frost. Now that’s what I call a Best Case Salad. A whole (second) season of them.


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