When I lived on a low ridge just east of the Continental Divide in the Broad River watershed, I had a friend down on the bottomland who was a resolute and practical vegetable gardener. The appearance of her plot was prosaic, but her yield was as dependable as her ancient tractor, which had shouldered the farm’s burdens since the mid-1950s. She tended traditional crops — corn, pole beans, green beans, pumpkins, crookneck and candy-baker squash, cukes, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers, collards, mustard and kale, beets, cabbage and onions — canning or drying all her necessary veggies for the winter. A farmer for all her seven decades, she was unquestionably a pro, with ample surplus to share with friends and neighbors.
One year I was looking for a bit more land to till that was flatter than my 60-percent-grade, postage-stamp lot with its pitifully thin topsoil. She allowed that it would be a favor to her if I cleared a one-acre field that had been ignored for the several years of her widowhood. Preventing its return to primeval forest would be all the benefit she wanted of the land for now, and I was welcome to plant what I would.
So I bush-hogged and raked and harrowed, then worked it over with road-scraper tines that dug down 10 inches, ripping out long, ropy roots from the sumac and blackberries and hardwood saplings that had encroached during the fallow years. Then I worked through the area I wanted to plant with a spade fork and shovel, breaking up weed roots and tossing fist-sized rocks off to the side. Finally the ground was ready for planting, and plant I did.
In addition to the traditional crops favored by my neighbor, I put in basil, parsley, dill, eggplant, artichokes, sweet potatoes, four varieties of hot peppers, several sorts of exotic beans, and Jerusalem artichokes. Then I impulsively interplanted dahlias, petunias, nasturtiums, asters, marigolds, mums, daisies, glads, red-hot poker, sunflowers, Mexican sunflowers, hollyhocks, zinnias, batchelor buttons and alyssum.
By August, there were flowers everywhere in between the veggies. My neighbor tracked the progress in the reopened field on her daily evening walks, laughing and shaking her head at the strange amalgam that had emerged. Brilliant patches of orange, yellow and red formed a crazy quilt of texture and color. Bright gladiolus stalks looked down on a tangle of acorn- and hubbard-squash vines; sunflowers loomed above tomatoes and basil and nasturtiums and alyssum, splayed beneath eggplant and peppers. The perennial flowers, which wouldn’t bloom for another season, added their wealth of wildly diverse foliage; altogether, it was a Rousseauvian jungle of a garden.
It made no sense whatsoever to my neighbor, whose plentiful flowers were safely sequestered in garden beds around her farmhouse. If nothing else, planting perennials in a vegetable patch nixed future tractoring, a mainstay of her traditionalist approach to food production.
There were spectacular failures, of course. Chief among them was the corn crop, which was mauled by raccoons, squirrels and probably deer (tracks provided strong circumstantial evidence). This followed from the fact that my dog lived with me, a full two miles from the crime scene. Flea beetles decimated most of the eggplant. And hundreds of potatoes left in the ground for “safekeeping” that year were mined by voles until scarcely a tuber had escaped tunneling. Clearly, much remained to be learned.
Still, ecology was definitely on my side. Nature abhors a monocrop (otherwise, gardeners would never have to weed). And if my little ecosystem was pure Disney — a cartoon home to plant varieties from around the globe, with widely varying soil preferences, growth habits, insect friends and foes, sunlight needs, moisture requirements … and on and on — it was at least diverse. Diversity diminishes pestilence. The mixture of smells confuses the egg-laying moths and butterflies whose caterpillars wreak such havoc, and the variety of vegetation seemed to invite songbirds who sang as they debugged my garden program.
By season’s end, if my stomach was more empty for the lack of potatoes and corn, my heart was full of delight. Clearing the field may have been payment enough for my good neighbor, but the bouquets I left on her doorstep — and the subsequent smiles — were pure profit.