Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My Garden

The picture today is my garden. It’s only a total of 200 sq. ft., combining a corner between the house and garage, a narrow strip along the fence and twenty or thirty pots of various sizes. The garden doesn’t produce much food, but I enjoy it.

At last count (and the count changes frequently) I had eighteen varieties of herbs, twelve flower varieties, eleven peppers, ten types of tomatoes, four types of greens, eggplant, cucumber, beans and one enormous wild grapevine. Most of the garden grows vigorously and disorderly. The bay laurel, noble plants that crowned the Olympic victors in ancient Greece, shares a pot with the Mexican herb epazote, a humble, bitter weed traditionally used to flavor black beans.

An enormous rosemary plant spreads over a quarter of the garden—probably enough rosemary to supply the entire City of Dallas for a year. I still have a lifetime of bay leaves stored in my pantry, the remainder of a decade old bay plant I grew that finally died.

If I took a more active role I could probably realize better production from my garden, but most of the time I’d rather just sit on the porch and look at it. The only plants that produce enough to use are the herbs and the peppers. With herbs and peppers it doesn’t take much in the way of quantity to produce a lot of flavor, so I have more than enough of those.

The writer Michael Pollan (who recently has become well know for An Omnivore’s Dilemma) wrote a book called Second Nature. The book is about his attempts, when he first moved from the city to the country, to grow a garden. To begin with, Pollan sowed his seed randomly and let the plants all compete for space—including the weeds. Of course he didn’t get any food from his garden. Gradually, Pollan moves further and further towards a traditional garden of rows and hoeing and fencing to keep the pests out of the garden. The book is fascinating because Pollan’s enormous curiosity leads him to discover the reasons behind gardening traditions—the book becomes a history of small scale food production.

I have taken the opposite path. I was raised in the country where having a proper garden was more than a matter of having good food to eat, it was a sign of moral virtue. If a person had weeds in their garden, then it was a given that they were of bad character. If your rows were not straight, then your mind wasn’t either.

I’ve fallen away. I still weed—some—but if I like a plant then I just let it grow. Wild evening primrose has invaded my garden and its pink blossoms are one of the first colors of spring. I let the epazote, which is a vigorous volunteer, grow almost where it will. I don’t trim and prune the rosemary or the marjoram with which it is intertwined.

As a result, I have a wild mixture of plants. Some are natives, some have gone feral, others are perennials planted long ago and each year a few new plants make their way into the garden. Some will survive on their own. Some will die. Others will be stubbornly replanted each year because I like them, and each year fail to grow.

I imagine that I have become a postmodern gardener. I no longer care whether a plant feeds me, but only that it entertain me. If I look at a plant and know its history, its taste, its uses and its culture, and find something interesting or amusing in it, then it’s good for my garden. So epazote, which repeats each year, stays even though I’m the only one in my family who can abide its bitter taste, so I rarely get to use it. Epazote is one of the few New World plants that never made it to Europe, has never been improved from its wild state, and is the most peasant plant I know, but it still has the impertinence to invade the pot containing the bay plant and strives to grow on an equal basis with the bay.

It’s a tough little guy, and I like it.

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