Monday, January 25, 2010


A brief pause occurred this weekend in the otherwise 8 days of solid rain. The ceasefire afforded me the chance to reestablish my garden. In recent months my garden had floundered and finally got to the point where I could no longer claim to have a garden. Part of me was hesitant to plant anything with the possibility looming that we could get kicked out of our house in a few months. (How sad would it be to miss a harvest by a few weeks or plant a perennial knowing that not long after it establishes its roots some piece of construction equipment hell-bent on razing Shakedown St won’t even pause for the poor plant’s demise?) I decided, however, that in my case having a garden is a conduit towards present happiness that is independent of expected future harvest. It is also a bellwether for mental health—like reading and cooking—though it may not be entirely clear where the causation lies.

Gardening has evolved with me. In much the same way that medicine has done more harm than good until relatively recent ages, so it was with my treatment of plants. The first time I ever took an interest in anything botanical was when I decided with my childhood neighbor that it was imperative that we remove some of my mother’s Rhododendrons. We had decided, based on absolutely nothing, that they were diseased and to prevent a pandemic that would overtake the yard, they had to go. My mother was not pleased and, for a long time, my gardening acumen improved little. I still feel slightly guilty when I think about the Astilbe and Columbines that I mistakenly removed as weeds in High School.

My first truly well-considered garden was outside my apartment in Escondido Village. Escondido Village is part of the graduate housing at Stanford and, though some have tried, there is not a patch of dirt to call your own. The inspiration came through a New York Times article linked to instructions on how to build a “salad table.” The concept was simple: 4 inches of compost mix held up by hardware mesh and window screening for drainage elevated to a height of 3 feet. The revelation was the tremendous diversity that could be grown in only 4 inches of something less than soil. My table included bunching onions, radishes and a variety of salad. The term salad, of course, could loosely be applied to any leaves that were intended to be eaten raw. My favorite surprise of that summer was a red leafed amaranth. Allowed to grow to its full extent, the plant would have reached upwards of 6 feet and shed thousands of seeds—useful when ground into a traditional flour. My plants, neatly groomed and confined to their shallow home had a soft green leaf with red radiating outward from the center. Understated--being one of my favorite attributes--its colors intensified for any passerby inquisitive enough to turn over the leaf.

With no premeditated intent, the garden and the containers multiplied. I was a little self-conscious of its appearance. For some reason, although I’m not exactly sure why, I was concerned that the university would have a problem with it. For geometrical reason, the hose also ran through the house and out a duct that was intended to ventilate a drier. (Since the units no longer came with driers, the duct was now available.) I was worried my roommates would object to the hose running across the kitchen floor. Instead, I was astounded by the positive comments from those who walked by. In particular, an older Chinese gentleman would frequently meet me outside and, though he didn’t speak a single world of English, manage to convey his criticism of my technique. (Coincidently, his criticisms reflected my mother’s, who always accused me of being too harsh on the plants. This gentleman would have preferred that I snip around the outer leaves of the greens instead of lopping off the whole top. I still lop off the whole top.)

Moving into Shakedown St (a house, don’t let the name fool you) gave me the chance to establish my garden in the ground. One of the subtler aspects of a garden that is somehow partially lost when it is containerized is the emotion that a particular plant conjures up—each plant’s emotional avatar being slightly different. Describing these emotions would be akin to describing the color green, but I can say that it is a meld of an increased knowledge of the plant’s botany and lifecycle as well as an intimacy in the finer details of the plants appearance and touch that get recorded and brought to life with, say, the smell of a tomato plant. When a plant’s affection is particularly strong, it can persist as nostalgia for an entire lifetime. Such is the case with the smell of a tomato plant—which somehow reminds me of the passage of time.

In the course of maintaining these Shakedown gardens, I discovered a surprising affection for two plants in particular: garlic and potatoes. For one thing, these plants excited me simply because I had never thought to grow them before. The intrigue with potatoes lay in the mystery. I was forced to tend to the above ground plant, watch it grow and, indirectly through the course of care, cover its bounty from my vision. (Potatoes require mounding around the base so that the tubers avoid expose to sunlight. Sunlight produces solanine, the toxic substance present in nightshades that made Europeans hesitant to eat spuds in the first place.) Digging them up when it was finally time was a simple boyish pleasure. Garlic, on the other hand, seemed far more stately than its onion counterparts. A member of the lily family, with many other bulbed and cormed plants, garlic seemed to possess a grace common to the more oft-admired lilies. I also liked the idea that I could still be eating from the harvest months after pulling the plants out of the ground.

The decline of this garden started this past summer after several successful winter and summer seasons. I’m not sure why, but my motivation seemed to dwindle while that of the slugs, gophers and birds reached an all-time peak. I would occasionally muster up some inspiration, plants a few seedlings only to have them removed entirely by a Stellar’s Jay or evaporated over the course of several nights by the local gastropods.

This past weekend I gathered enough inspiration to not only plant a garden but also fortify it with bird netting and pellet sized booby-traps for the slugs. Hopefully this will lead to success. I still went outside this morning half-expecting my new plants to be gone or severely damaged. Contained in my fortified vegetable garden are peas, broccoli, Chinese cabbage and chard. I also planted some non-edibles on the theory that caring for something with no material gain attached to it is good for the soul. (Although, last time I planted something with no economic value, it was an Astilbe that my roommate removed as a weed—poetic justice for all, except the two Astilbes.) Among these are a rush, a grass and a sedge. I have taught several classes of sixth graders the difference between these superficially similar families by quoting the poem “Sedges have sides, rushes are round, grasses have nodes and willows abound.” Now I have an example of each. The grass is Festuca Idahoensis. Festucas, or fescues, are my favorite genus of grass because their bluish gray shades remind me that California’s grasslands used to be dominated by these colors. I cheated somewhat with my non-edible plants, buying Foxglove that is nearly ready to bloom, but I need some early successes for positive reinforcement. Early successes would be a great bellwether.