A sizable subset of my generation acted on our discontent with the perceived evils of Western civilization in the late 20th century by embracing our culture’s oldest myth. “We’ve got to get ourselves Back to the garden,” ran Joni Mitchell’s refrain.
Like many others, I pretended I was a homesteader, bought some wooded land and lived in a tent while I carved a clearing, built a rude shack and, most important of all, planted a garden. Busy with survival, I never questioned whether I was part of the solution or simply embracing a more primitive form of the problem. That first garden was a pretty thorough disaster outside of the okra crop, whose lovely blooms and overgrown spears will remain forever in my memory, icons of good intentions and unintended consequence.
All these years later, gardening now a part of who I am and how I understand the world, I see the first plowing — my own in 1971 and our agrarian ancestors’ circa 8,000 B.C. — as our original sin. Everything we do that is out of sync with nature has grown from that initial tearing of the soil when we split from a gatherer-hunter culture, built granaries and began to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few. In my version of the story, it isn’t eating the apple that creates the problem, it’s planting and grafting it.
We heirs to 100 centuries of agriculture can’t unplow that first field, so we make our accommodations while ideological purists commit suicide. Substantial and growing numbers of gardeners, myself included, start from Hippocrates’ premise, to “make a habit of two things — to help or at least to do no harm,” and are adopting organic growing methods. Only the most willfully blind souls can imagine they aren’t fracturing a micro-environment when they replace indigenous growth with non-native food crops and flowers. The organicist hopes to minimize collateral damage both outside the garden and inside the gardener.
Beyond that more-or-less common ground, however, styles vary widely. If you participate in a garden tour or simply walk through an urban neighborhood, you will find garden theory and personality quirks laid bare.
Commercial growers are necessarily careful planners. With large investments of time and money on the line, they require dependable results. That usually plays out in organized rows or beds with space for workers to move between to plant, tend and harvest. Methodology is studied and implemented with scrupulous care, a process that may include frost-protective row covers at both ends of the season or using biodiesel-fueled tractors and solar-powered water pumps.
Yet, it’s in the home garden that variation really runs wild.
Jeanne, my old friend in New Hampshire, is inclined to let plants grow where they want to grow, as if she’s not so much making garden decisions as getting out of the way. Volunteers of all sorts emanate from her compost and sprawl across her meadow. Patches of berry bushes and a few fruit trees scattered around the property attest to planting decisions she made years ago, but each year’s garden is two parts whim and one part fancy. Like her watercolors and pastels, there is an unstudied surface to her gardening that belies years of careful attention to the basics. She knows exactly what she is doing, and her yard is an unending delight to eye, palate and palette.
Compare that to my neighbor Pearlee’s ultra-traditionalism — planting the same varieties of the same staples in the same rows, year after year, in a cycle that feels as old as the hills that surround her farm in Buncombe County. Watching her efforts for 25 seasons, the only evident change I have noted has been the succession of dogs enlisted to keep raccoons and deer at bay.
Pearlee’s opposite in many ways is Larry. He endlessly experiments with new varieties, seeking the perfect musk melon and the most succulently nuanced sweet corn. (He is something of a sweet corn tyrant who generously offers it to neighbors but only permits u-pick if their kettles are, literally, boiling. If his corn won’t be cooked immediately, at its peak flavor, he sees no reason to squander his effort.) No lover of dogs, Larry expends enormous effort on electric fencing, traps and guns to ward off local fauna. A scientific horticulturist, he grows the best melons I’ve ever eaten.
Then there’s Betsy, more given to flowers than food production, whose plantings seem to pass in waves. For a few years, cone flowers and coreopsis predominate, to be succeeded by a surge of four-o’clocks and cannas. A tsunami of Jerusalem artichokes and helianthus, or sunflowers, earned her the appellation of “the sunflower lady” in her Asheville neighborhood. Her stand of sweet corn along a curb in the city puzzles urban kids who never much considered whence corn sprang. Betsy plants unknown seed mixtures to see what comes up and is averse to pulling up any plant that is doing well, no matter how much it encroaches on other beauties. Live and let live is clearly her guiding principle.
Al is all business when it comes to his garden, though he wouldn’t really characterize himself as a commercial grower. To determine which flowers and vegetables he will propagate, he takes orders over the winter and plants those varieties for which he has a prepaid market. With no intention of making agronomy a full-fledged business, Al merely hopes to be paid for the time he would spend in the garden anyway. He’s content to enjoy the surplus of whatever the market encourages him to grow. One year, half his garden was planted in straw flowers ordered by a local crafter. Another year, the largest crop was carrots ordered by a vegetarian restaurant that needed a dependable supply for its juice trade. A potter by profession, Al’s rows of plants swirl and curve along the hillside, seemingly a natural extension of the clay work he crafts in his studio with a garden view.
I believe each of us is making some effort to reconnect through the garden to a more fundamental place, where causes and effects are clearer, where life’s processes play out in cycles of birth, death and rebirth, replicating and evolving to manifest as gardener and flower, the wonderer and the wonder, the warbler and the worm. We lift a blossom and inhale deeply. The scent penetrates the most ancient part of our brains, taking us back to the garden and before — where we are, humbly and gloriously, a part.