Road Foodie

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A Peripatetic Gardener

Posted By on May 19, 2009

This post’s title should be an oxymoron.
The lover of green things, the woman who yearns to bite into a fig from her own tree, courts heartbreak if she moves from place to place, never stopping long enough to allow the growth of deep and clinging roots. Gardening is by definition a pursuit for those who dream on the long term. Thomas Jefferson said “I may be an old man, but I am a young gardener.” The fruits of his labors can still be enjoyed at Monticello.

Beginning the seventh garden of my gardening life. Venice.

Beginning the seventh garden of my gardening life. Venice.

C cuts wood for a diamond-shaped bed.

C cuts wood for a diamond-shaped bed.


The first time I pressed a small green plant into the soil, and then dined on the results, was in England. At that sprawling Tudor house, my gardener did the hard work and I played the still-wet-behind-the-ears lady of the manor. There I learned the rhythms of gardening from my staid English mother-in-law—she of the turquoise suit and matching pillbox hat, the perpetual sad eyes and stern frown. Her wisdom stays with me today even though the last time we exchanged guarded words was twenty years ago. My second vegetable garden was in England, too, behind a fashionable row house near Parson’s Green, in Fulham. But that garden didn’t have much chance to produce; halfway through the first growing season, a life-quake took me unceremoniously, and broke, down to Spain’s Costa del Sol.

There, I coaxed mesclun, arugola, yellow pear tomatoes, and herbs of every flavor from a small plot of rocky soil, not because it was chic but because I couldn’t afford to buy them. I spent three years trying to germinate some contentment in that place. My first-ever fig tree was just beginning to bear enough fruits to pair with a platter-full of shaved Iberico ham, when the mascara-tinged tears trailing down my cheeks became a torrent of such force that it swept me back to the land of my birth, southern California.

The scene is set for a postage-stamp of utopia, overlooked by affordable housing.

The scene is set for a postage-stamp of utopia, overlooked by affordable housing.

Gardeners, as a breed, are hopeful people. They believe in the future.

Gardeners, as a breed, are hopeful people. They believe in the future.


My fourth vegetable garden was a solo affair. For once (if, only briefly) I was not married. In Mar Vista I ripped up the lawn behind a rented bungalow and raised a straggly bed of tomatoes. I learned the seasons for a third time: the zen of gardening in Los Angeles lay somewhere happily between England and Spain. After another three years came my fifth garden, the first of what would eventually be three Venice Beach gardens: a narrow patch of tomatoes and basil behind the redwood deck of my next little home, facing a massive bank of unruly bougainvillea. Just two years later, it was on to another Venice home, and another, much bigger garden. There, a landscaper built formidable raised beds of my own design, there was room for artichokes, and the huge bank of green that faced the garden was bamboo, not bougainvillea. Three years passed, punctuated—at least in the garden—only by the incineration of one of the four beds. (Around midnight, a spark smoldering since the afternoon pig-roast torched the bed and defenseless cucumbers within. The metaphor did not go unnoticed.) The clock had begun to tick on my remaining time in yet another garden.
The patient gardener is always rewarded. If she is still there.

The patient gardener is always rewarded. If she is still there.

Caption here.

Lettuce dine!


Garden number seven, still in Venice Beach, was home-made but infinitely more lovely than its ritzy predecessor. I was now in the company of a man, C, who had silvery-green fingers and a heart—if not a wallet—big enough to nurture every possible flowering, budding, living thing. Including me. The raised beds were shallower, but produced vegetables and flowers of rare beauty. The symmetrically-arranged beds were surrounded by pale gravel and waving sea grasses, and on one side stood a Valentine’s Day gift: a fig tree. To the passing observer, it was a straggly adolescent; to me the fig was possessed of swagger and brio. I could have stayed in that garden, and for once reaped the sweet rewards of a mature fig tree, but life, again, intervened. Faced with the inexorably approaching financial crisis, my family of two-plus-dog chose to flee east, to a 28-acre defunct mushroom farm in the Hudson Valley, and there ride out the storm. There is no question in my mind that the Venice garden C and I had created from nothing caused a strange woman to throw caution to the wind. Unaccountably, she paid us an obscene amount of money for a 1400 square foot house on a postage stamp east of Lincoln Boulevard. It was a symbol of the lemming-like zeitgeist slowly overtaking our world. Whenever my heart skips a beat remembering that magical place, thinking about the money makes it better.
Kind of.
Once, great love was put into this garden. But not recently. Even its bones are tired.

Once, great love was put into this garden. But not recently. Even its bones are tired.

Hopeful signs from the once-and-future espaliered pears.

Hopeful signs from the once-and-future espaliered pears.

And so begins another weft in life’s rich tapestry. I find myself, this time far from alone, beginning my eighth vegetable garden. It is down the street, on the land of a great friend whose property is home to the ruins of a once-ambitious kitchen garden. Neglected for years, the only signs of productivity that remain are four espaliered pear trees, intent on escape from a once-imposed order. Last winter, when I was solo in Marfa, C and the garden’s owner, Jared, agreed, along with our friends the Lupones, that we would combine forces and finances to resurrect the sadly neglected garden.

It would be a monumental task.

The wire fence was buckled and too short to keep out the incessantly circling multitudes of deer. The wooden fence against which two of the pears were, in a manner of speaking, still espaliered, had been gnawed through at rabbit and woodchuck level. The old barn which formed one side of the garden was home to swarms of angry bees. The water line that fed the faucet was broken, somewhere deep within the enormous barn, so the closest source of water was a hundred feet away.

The first step: remove the old fence. C pulled it out with the gator.

The first step: remove the old fence. C pulled it out with the gator.

Digging some sand into the site of an ancient bed, for drainage.

Digging some sand into the site of an ancient bed, for drainage.

In far off Marfa, I heard about the communal garden plan, and was happy. Instead of feeling tired, and incapable of summoning the enthusiasm to start yet another kitchen garden, I hit the seed sites and began to dream. The rest of the garden gang churned on with their lives, striving to make ends meet and survive the long winter of our collective discontent. I ordered a propagator and a hundred dollars worth of seeds. In the interest of economy, I was resolved to raise the plants from seed rather than buying professionally-raised plants. Good thing I did. Because not a plant has gone in the ground yet, here in the endless pre-spring season of the Northeast, and we’ve already spent over a thousand dollars. Just now, the plot to save money by growing our own vegetables seems more of a joke. To spread out the initial cost, we invited in a fourth family (well, actually, just Steve). I have been coddling the seedlings for five weeks now, from the exciting first moments of germination to today, when I am keenly watching the temperature forecasts, trying to decide when it’s safe to set out the spindly little plants. Meanwhile, I move the seedlings around the house three times a day: In the morning, they are on the front porch, available for full sun (if it should ever come out). Afternoons, they move to the screened porch in the rear, for the air. At night, they come indoors.
Last night, the 18th of May, the temperature dropped to 37 degrees. Fig trees won’t grow in this climate.

T

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