Michael and I are novice gardeners, living in the heart of the ninth largest city in the country. I like to call it kamikaze gardening at its best. Now that the weather has finally turned cool again and we can actually spend time outdoors without dying of heatstroke, my thoughts have turned to growing a winter garden.
In my continuing effort to eat healthier, last week I visited my local used bookstore for cookbooks. I was specifically looking for books on cooking vegetables. I found two really great books: Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables and Simply in Season. What I love about both books is that the recipes are set up by season, and go along with the things you might grow in your garden. I can’t wait to try out all the recipes.
After perusing both books, and realizing there are vegetables that actually grow during the cold months, I announced to Michael that we absolutely had to go to our local nursery and plant a winter garden. A few weeks ago we spent an entire day in the garden, cleaning up after The Hottest Summer on Record, and planting a row of loose leaf lettuce. Since we don’t usually have our first frost until the very end of November, we figured we might be lucky enough to get another crop of lettuce before it got too cold to grow anything.
In the spring we had planted a gazillion miniscule lettuce seeds, but a huge thunderstorm the very next morning washed all but seven tiny seeds away. I found seven little lettuce plants scattered around the garden a few weeks later and transplanted them back to their original bed. I nurtured them all spring like they were my children. Despite the dogs’ best efforts at trampling them to death (before we got smart and erected a fence), for a few weeks in spring we had the best lettuce I’ve ever eaten. Then the extreme heat took over and pretty much did them in.
On Saturday we went to the nursery and bought chives for the herb garden, three broccoli, three brussels sprouts, two spinach, and two arugula plants. Since we had done such a good job in the spring of mixing our own compost into the clay soil, planting the new vegetables didn’t take long at all. Hopefully we’ll have delicious winter vegetables from our very own winter garden a little later in the season.
I’ve always been somewhat of a “granola” type, but even I’m surprised by how much I love growing things. Flower gardening brings its own sense of fulfillment and creates beauty for the house, not to mention being good for the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, but growing our own vegetables and herbs is much more satisfying. I feel both self-reliant and Earth Mother-ish at the same time. Michael and I are making a serious effort to live more self-sufficiently, and this is a step in the right direction.
The other day I was in the front flowerbed, surveying some of the stalks for signs of life after a colder than usual winter, amazed that tiny leaves are starting to sprout. I had the thought that no matter what, things want to grow. Ever since I quit my job almost a month ago life around me seems to be thriving. Even an indoor plant that has barely clung to life for the past five years has inexplicably decided to shoot up a single large white flower.
I can’t explain it. Maybe I don’t need to. It’s as if once I made the decision to leave my dead-end job years of stifled and stunted energy had to be released and regenerated. Demeter is smiling down on me, and my life is fertile once again–in the garden, at least. Who would’ve thought?
Oh, it gets even stranger. Two weekends in a row now I’ve had dreams of snakes. Small snakes. That bite me. We’ve found three snakes in the garden so far, and the other day I found a snake skin in the new wildflower garden I planted. I went online and found a great blog post about snake medicine and another woman’s experience with snakes showing up in her life, too. Then yesterday, in the middle of boring test prep, a student interrupted and asked if I had heard about “the snake that escaped from the zoo.” I had to stop and blink a few times before I could process what he had just said.
I know, I know. It’s spring, snakes are out there, people dream about them all the time, and some even escape from zoos. Still, it all seems somewhat synchronous. Have I suddenly manifested all of these snakes in my life and my dreams, or am I merely aware of what has always been there? Now that I’ve made this major change in my life, am I simply tapping into a universal symbol, part of Jung’s “collective unconscious” made manifest? I’ve always loved the idea of a collective unconscious, that no matter how different we all are there is a network of understanding that speaks to us all in the language of symbols, images, and archetypes.
I woke up this morning with that same thought again. Things want to grow. No matter how much of an idiot I am in the garden, or in my job, or in my relationships with others, things change and grow and renew despite my own best/worst efforts. I think everyone senses this, even if they aren’t strong enough to make a major change in their own lives. I’ve been surprised by so many friends and colleagues telling me how much they admire me for quitting my job, and most of them seem almost wistful when they tell me this. Perhaps it’s the idea of change that’s so scary to us, even more than the actual reality of that change–kind of like the monster under the bed that kept our arms and legs tucked safely under the covers when we were kids.
Since I’m still teaching until June, my own Personal Big Change hasn’t happened yet. Or has it? Already I’m looking at the world differently, and things are good. Paralleling my new found fertility in the garden, I’m feeling more creative these days. I’m calmer, too. Like the little snake skin I found left behind in the flowerbed the other day, I’m moving on, leaving a lot of stuff behind–and that’s a good thing.
Walls can be found in all kinds of places, even in nature, and this past weekend I hit a new one. I planted a vegetable garden. In our backyard. In the middle of the city. Two years ago I planted a flower garden in our front yard, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed gardening. I couldn’t believe how everything flourished in our extreme Texas heat, but it helped that I purposely chose native, perennial plants. A vegetable garden, however, seemed like a delicate operation that I wasn’t trained for. Like I said, this was stretching it for me.
This whole idea came from my boyfriend, Michael, who craved strawberries like he had growing up in Ohio. Even though Texas is hardly Ohio, and we live right in the middle of a huge city, last summer he built a large compost container and plotted off a corner of our backyard for a garden (Michael loves projects). He did some research online, built a wooden structure for the strawberries, threw in some sand, and lovingly planted the plants he had ordered online. He also grew seedlings from some habanero peppers we cooked one weekend, rigging up a homemade greenhouse with reflective walls and a grow light on our kitchen table. (Did I mention that Michael likes projects?)
During spring break we went to Home Depot and went a little crazy buying packets of seeds and starter plants. We bought tomatoes, okra, cauliflower, oregano, sage, peppers, onions, garlic, and zucchini. I also couldn’t resist adding more flowers to the flower garden, and bought some irises, hollyhock, calla lillies, wildflower seeds, and sunflower seeds. We bought all kinds of seed packets–carrots, celery, looseleaf lettuce, and broccoli, to name a few.
We started on Saturday afternoon, but I spent so much time planting the new flowers and starting a wildflower garden against the back fence, that we never even had time to do anything in the vegetable garden. We made up for it on Sunday and worked like dogs until it got dark. Gardening is hard work. It was hot, too, for so early in the spring, with the temperature hovering in the mid-80’s.
This is where our inexperience starts to show. We did nothing extra to the dirt in our garden. We had been adding compost to the ground since last summer, so we figured it was good to go. Michael kept saying it would be okay, even though my Mother Earth News magazines always talked about ph levels and acidity. We eyeballed our plots (none of that measuring and using string to make everything nice and straight for us), and plopped everything in the ground. Our garden was taking shape, but by the late afternoon we were getting tired and cranky. At one point I saw Michael dig a hole and put in an entire head of garlic and cover it back up with dirt. When I asked him if he wasn’t supposed to pull the cloves apart and plant them separately, he replied he was too tired. Running marathons are hard, but my brain was starting to feel as fuzzy as it does around mile 19. We had definitely hit the gardening wall.
Our garden filled up quicker than we expected, and I still needed to plant the onions. I decided to add them to the front of my new wildflower garden, kind of like a natural border. The ground was hard as a rock, and when I mentioned it to Michael he pulled out an entire bag of peat moss from the shed that I didn’t even know we had. I was secretly thinking we should have added it to the vegetable garden. I dug a long trench and mixed the peat moss in with the flowerbed dirt and somehow found the energy to plant about 60 tiny onions. My back was killing me by the time I was done. I had the feeling my onions were doomed. Just below the peat moss mixture was a wall of hard clay that I doubted my onions would be able to penetrate. At the very least, I figured they would be horribly deformed and would make good conversation pieces when I tried to give them to my friends. Hey, check out these pancake onions.
Somehow, when everything was planted, we managed to pull ourselves together and take stock of our hard work. With optimism and the satisfaction that can only come from a day’s worth of hard physical labor, we staggered off to the shower, not knowing if anything would actually take root and grow in our own little inner city vegetable garden.