Monday, December 28, 2009

Why I Garden

My local garden/blog heroine, Mary Ann Newcomer, organized an essay contest this year: "Why I Garden," with essays due — most appropriately — by midnight on Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice. Here's the essay I submitted. The story you're about to read, is true.


I garden because I'm a grazer from way back.

I grew up in an old South Boise neighborhood with trees medieval in scale, where chilly irrigation ditches ran through the dark shade, popping with water skippers.

When you grow up in a place like this, you know what it's like to wake up on a summer
morning, tie your Keds, and set out to look for breakfast. You don't go to the kitchen. You go to your mother's garden for raspberries fresh off the cane; plums plucked from low-hanging branches; and green apples. They're sweet, a little wormy, and one of your friends swears they taste like pancakes around their bruises.

Eat like this during your formative years, and you will never agree to a life without plants.

I tried to be plantless for a while, during a decade-long interlude as an imposter New Yorker. I dug up a tiny sagebrush once when I was home on a visit. Took it back to Manhattan in a paper cup, intending to grow it on the windowsill of my Avenue A apartment. You already know how that turned out.

Plant ended up as dry grey shavings in a muslin bag. At least it smelled like home. And some people call the smell of sage as narcotic as heroin for a westerner like me.

Pretty soon, when I realized my favorite place in the City was actually kind of rural — a community garden on Houston Street that grew tropic, with hibiscus, and turtle pools, and true blue morning glories on the chainlink — I packed up my things, and moved back home.

Some ten years later, I have a tiny garden of my own. It's all possibility there. I want to plant an alphabet garden, labeled and fastidious, with one plant for each letter. Acanthus is a perfect "a." Acanthus grows big and showy. Probably why Romans decided to stick it on the tops of Corinthian columns. But go with acanthus' common name, and you get the letter "b."

To his friends, old, grand, columnar acanthus is "bear breeches."
Bear breeches. Bear pants. I don't think there's much funnier in the botanical world than bear pants on a column.

So I garden for the humor, not just the bear pants, but the sinister "Bela Lugosi" daylily, and the blossoms of the dicentra that look like a bathing beauty in a tub when you pull them apart.

I also garden for the home sentiment of place.

To plant the letter "Q," which is truly a challenge, I would go with quince.
A quince tree grows on the edge of my old back yard, where my parents still live, and my mom still gardens. The quince tree is not beautiful. Its fruit, in the pesticide-free yard — the reason our dogs always live so long, say the vets, and the reason I could graze in a freewheeling way — is measly and pocked.
The smell of the fruit is sweet and clean, though, a smell you might choose if someone told you to designate a representative aroma for the year 1932. The color for that year, by the way, would be fly-paper yellow.

When my grandmother was alive, she made jelly out of the quinces from this tree. The jelly was clear, pale pink. The tree is not beautiful, but its jelly was.