Our backyard garden is 12 feet by 16 feet, dug out about 6 years ago. That season we harvested enough pickling cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes to put up over a dozen jars of sweet pickles, plus equal batches of tomatoes and salsa. Our little patch of earth on our tenth of an acre semi-urban lot was, it would seem, fertile. In fact, the ground had already yielded treasure during the spring planting – I dug out handfuls of 85 year old white hexagonal bathroom tile, the best pieces now on display in an old wire-bail Atlas jar in our downstairs powder room. The earth, since that bountiful harvest, spits out a tile or two every year, but has not offered much more.
We began with seeds in peat pods that expand with added water. Tiny cotyledons (baby plants) in a tray with a clear lid that I carried from window to window, intent on capturing the fleeting sun and warmth of the first weeks of spring. By Memorial Day planting, my barely-5 inch tall tomato and pepper plants would look like kindergarteners lined up for the bus on the first day of school – too tiny, I fear, for a suddenly big world, like a stiff breeze could flatten them, but lined up and awaiting adventure nonetheless.
I water and weed religiously. The sunshine and summer rains take their shifts, and we watch green marbles expand into fat red tomatoes, delicate white blossoms shyly reveal shiny peppers, and bean bushes offer an overwhelming torrent of velvety, slim beans. My garden fills my basket several times each week from midsummer onward – green beans, pickling cukes, tomatoes; bell, habanero, and chili peppers; dill, basil, even a row of corn and a climbing vine of festive gourds. The garden is something to behold, a true bounty and nothing short of a miracle.
But this, too, comes to an end. Leaves turn rusty. Cooling nights whisper a lullaby. The bean bushes will defiantly continue to grow the stray beans that I’ve missed, their yellow leaves finally falling away to reveal giant pods fit for a horse. The final tomatoes and cucumbers are simmered, seasoned, and sealed into canning jars. I bring in the basil last, just before the first frost, cutting it off at the ground and carefully picking off the best leaves for freezer-preservation. In January, my sauce will wink, as if to say, “Remember summer?”
That farmers can produce bounty, year after year, against all odds, impresses me to no end. We experienced a chilly summer and had little to show for it. We became the preferred burrowing site for a family of groundhogs, who wait slightly less longer than I do to pick a prized tomato. Vine leaves wither under a powdery mildew and their fruits wither in turn. The earth tires, as do I.
Last year, the garden lay fallow, except for the excellent crop of weeds and grasses. I hoped this to be a strategy for soil rejuvenation. This year, we bought plants at the local nursery; heartier, surely, than any seedlings I ever started. We planted, as usual, on Memorial Day. Everything is growing, but the groundhogs returned (and have been humanely relocated after some losses.) And then there is the searing drought. Which hasn’t stunted the choking weeds.
We picked two zucchini, but the plant that usually rewards gardeners richly isn’t showing much sign of additional reproduction. The tomato and peppers are working on it, meekly.
Our decision is made. We farm no more after this season. The 12 x 16 patch of earth will be mow-able next year. Perhaps a large pot or two for tomato and basil – something of a size that we can coddle, even in our slightly disinterested state. And that is it, the reason for this downward spiral: We are getting out of it what we put into it. Relatively common and small setbacks broke our hearts, just as quickly as the first Caprese salad or grilled zucchini of the season had tickled our green thumbs.
It’s simply time for something new.
I have written hundreds of thousands of words, perhaps millions. Many words go to grocery and to-do lists, work notes, calendar appointments, “be back later” ‘s, and the various notations that keep life moving forward. School essays, letters to friends, cards; volumes of journals, college papers, e-mails; church newsletter articles, winning essays, short stories – all these words I have planted throughout my life. Some I dip into long after the harvest, others have gone to the winds or the compost bin, or just lay still where I left them, becoming part of the earth again.
Some words, like certain kinds of wildflower seeds that are genetically programmed to lie dormant for decades, sleep. It is as if I find an old seed packet in the shed; to test for viability, you lay seeds on a wet paper towel and close them in a drawer. In a week, if any have sprouted, you know your rate of viability. Then, you dig out your garden again, plant the seeds, and hope for the best.
I’m sorting through old words right now, testing for viability. I expect a sprout will cause my thumb to take on a greenish cast. If I then decide to start digging, I know that I will get out of it only what I put into it.