Yes, that was me who gleefully shouted last summer, “I have worms!” The land was previously hard clay and I had been working it, digging, adding, preparing it to become a fruitful and productive garden. So worms were a glorious sight.
I love to garden. Not fanatically so, but there is something I get when I’m out digging in the dirt. I get excited about the quality of the earth, its texture, its pungent aroma. The worms!
I look forward to the pile of gardening catalogs that arrive in the mail in the dead of winter. Determining what to plant, where to plant, how many of each to plant, creating my mosaic of nature; it thrills me. I have copious sketches of gardens; maps that I draw with the intention that my gardens will be beautiful and colorful, as well as fruitful. Drawing and planning and perusing those catalogs gives me hope that spring is just around the corner, even though it is months away.
Dad used to have a stack of seed magazines beside his bed. The pile was strewn all over the floor. At hand level next to his can of peanuts, intermingled with Playboys and Down East magazines, he had his favorite, Burpee’s, with dog-eared pages. He too, was a planner.
I reach down for my trowel; holding it in my hand, I give it a jostle to feel the heft of it before I actually start to pummel, loosening up the earth, readying it for planting. The tool looks war-torn-- the varnish is flaking off the handle, and the tines are rusted from being left out in the rain too many times. I recall Dad’s gardening tools. His tools in general were weathered, rusted, dirty, used.
“I don’t give a good God-damn what they look like. They work just fine.”
I believe my gardening gene is from my dad. The desire to garden has become stronger as I’ve grown older. It wasn’t always that way. I hated doing it as a kid; it was a dreaded chore, weeding. I loathed that on a gloriously hot day my mother would decree that we were going to help Daddy work in the garden. What? I thought. We aren’t going swimming? We aren’t going shopping? We aren’t…pretty much doing anything rather than gardening? My day was ruined.
One time it was so hot as we were working in the garden, I began to feel dizzy. I was parched, dehydrated even. So we all headed into the kitchen for some water. I was standing by Dad’s chair, about to take a sip, when suddenly I found myself in a heap on the floor, and Dad covered in water.
“GODDAMN-JESUS-CHRIST-RED-ROSY-SON-OF-A…” Dad could get fired up, and when he did, the litany of profane language was impressive.
Weeding was cancelled for the rest of the afternoon.
But now, 20 years later, as I sit amid neat rows of lush, leafy greens, the sun beating down on my shoulders, listening to the radio, gardening is soothing. The mocking birds and I whistle back and forth in conversation and I just enjoy the relaxation and repetition of the pull, pull, pull of weeds.
Daddy had an enormous garden. It started off relatively good- sized, but as he wanted to try new things it would get bigger and bigger. It began with the usual suspects: tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, beets, parsnips, squash—oh, all kinds of squash!
And then one year he decided to try some herbs. Basil, sorrel, marjoram, pahz-lee. (Dad was from Maine and had a thick Down East accent.)
“What’s the sorrel for, Dad?”
“Goddamned if I know. Just tryin’ it out, seein’ if it’ll grow.”
And each time he added a new vegetable, or herb, or fruit, he rototilled another row or two, or three, …or four. The garden began in the back yard. We had a lot of land. Our house sat on 2 acres, and then we had 7 acres of field.
“Ralph, I’m not going to have a back yard if you keep adding to that huge, too-goddamn-big-garden,” my mother was heard to exclaim. But that didn’t deter the gentleman farmer. He then created a second garden behind the pine trees in the field.
And being the Maine-iac he was, he began planting potatoes, of course. Rows and rows of potatoes, which are glorious plants. Even the bugs they attract are pretty. Potato bugs.
“Weeze, c’mon out with me. Let’s pick off the potato bugs.”
And of course I’d go, even if it was to pick potato bugs, because when Dad invited you to do something, you went along! Even when you were a 30-year old!
And out we’d go, Dad lumbering across the yard in his leather work boots, me barefoot, taking one and a half steps for each of his strides. Under the locust tree, around the peach trees, behind the row of pines toward the westward sky.
Together we grabbed the potato bugs and put them into a container. When the container was full, we’d dump it into the beer can that held an inch or so of kerosene, that Dad kept hanging on a branch of a pine.
“Garden looks good, Dad.”
“Oh yes. The Garden of Eden.”
I’d heard him call it that hundreds of times.
“Come on out and take a look at the Garden of Eden, Herman,” I can remember my Dad saying to his best friend, who was a real farmer.
“God, Ralph, that’s a good lookin’ gahden.” Words that would make my father stand even taller than his six-foot-two frame.
After we finished debugging the potatoes, he’d give me a tour of the garden, showing me the plants, and if they were ready, he would pick the vegetables as we walked by.
“Here, Weeze, try this,” and he’d pop a fresh green bean or carrot into my mouth. A gift from Dad. From him to me. “How’s that taste?”
“Good, except for the dirt on it.”
“Agh, a little dirt won’t hurt ya.”
Daddy always gave gifts from his garden to friends and of course family. We’d go to someone’s house for dinner and Dad would head out to the garden to pick some zucchini or peppers or tomatoes to take with us.
And everyone would rave about the lovely produce. “Oh Ralph, I don’t know how you grow such lovely vegetables. They are just beautiful. Really beautiful.”
My grandmother, Mamie, was Dad’s biggest fan. He’d bring her a cucumber, a tomato, and a single perfectly shaped six-inch summer squash.
“Oh, well, there’s dinner! That’s just the way I like my squash, Ralphie.” And sure enough, she’d steam the squash with just a dab of butter, salt and pepper, and slice the tomato and cuke with a little white vinegar and a pinch of sugar for a dressing. And that was her dinner.
He was a giver of gifts, a sharer of nature, an experimenter of vegetables, my quasi-farmer-dad. I wish I could ask his advice about the damn soaker hose that isn’t working right. I wish I could ask him why my tomatoes had black spots on the bottom. I wish he could hand me a green bean to nibble as we walk. And even though he’s not here, it is in my garden as I hold the handle of the worn old trowel, and sing back and forth to the birds, and of course pulling weeds, that I feel closest to him.