The cover of the Fedco Seeds 2011 catalog is still hanging on the bulletin board in my kitchen. It is black and white newsprint (spattered with God knows what) and features a line drawing of a field of seed potatoes overlaid by the image of a farmer at harvest time holding up a potato plant laden with potatoes. The caption reads "THIS IS NOT A FANCY PICTURE BUT AN ACTUAL REALITY." When this arrived in my mailbox three years ago a light bulb went off. Do you ever have those moments when you read or hear something that hits the nail on the head of a feeling or thought that has yet to truly gel in your mind? Like, a real definitive moment?
Well, this was it for me. For years I had been pouring over catalogs and garden/home magazines (in particular) and feeling inadequate, jealous, and just plain shitty that what I had going on didn't seem to add up. I had weeds! My patio chairs were chipping paint! I had a hideous plastic baby pool in the acre and a half of overgrown lawn which was strewn with chewed up old recycling bits my puppy scattered everywhere while no one was looking!!!!
The Fedco cover set me free! I was like, FUCK IT! I am so sorry (Mom and Dad, in particular) but I just have to let it fly right now. I promise that after I get this off my chest I'll go back to being ladylike. But the PRESSURE that magazines, and the internet, and social media puts on a gal (and her flowers!) to look like a single, perfect moment in time, all the time, is just total bullshit in so many ways.
A garden changes on a daily, if not hourly basis. Blossoms open, blossoms close, some blossoms die. It may rain a perfect rain the night before (not too hard but enough to soak the soil) and your plants are verdant and lush and picture perfect, or they get creamed by a downpour. Maybe it's too hot and everything wilts by midday, or you have a beautiful bed of lettuce that is, upon closer inspection, inundated with baby slugs. Your 'Polar Bear' zinnias may be so huge and amazing but then you take a picture and your vanity diminishes it for you because you have man hands.
I had been so fixated on having everything look and BE just so I had missed the point. Why was I growing anything in the first place... just for a PHOTO OP!? Who cares if my baby butterhead is laced with baby slugs? I'll rinse them off. I will have a fresh, delicious, salad as organic and local as you can get to feed my family. And the currency with which it was acquired was not dollars, but my own physical brawn and botanical know-how. And THAT is REAL. My hands are muscular and dirty because I WORK WITH THEM and by doing so get to ultimately connect to the pulse of everything, not to mention put food on my family's table. The garden might look like crap on a late summer afternoon because we've had a full day of hot sun which is fueling photosynthesis and MAKING THINGS GROW.
My garden does not exist in a two dimensional plane. My garden is in the world. Insects are pollinating the flowers. The wind is blowing and as I brush against the tomato foliage the scent that is emitted is one of my all time favorites. I am engaging all of my senses and most of the time it is the ones that cannot be captured in a fancy picture that are the most intense. The soft tuft of a dusty miller leaf that makes you want to snuggle with it; the smell of Moonflowers when they open for the evening; the ungodly STENCH of the wheelbarrow muck as I empty out old weeds that have been sitting in stagnant rainwater on a hot day; the pungent taste of fresh mustard greens; beautiful birdsong.... and wait.... what's that.... is there a faint "mama' off in the distance... oh God is that coming from the depths of the house.... Flint needs a wipe?! How long has he been sitting on the potty yelling trying to get my attention???
The children add their own unique dimension. I want to mother. I want to work with plants and flowers. Do I want to do both simultaneously? Rarely. I know they are precious and that it all goes by so fast blah blah blah. I am who I am! I'm a workin' dog. The frustration of having to, let's say, stop (for the bazillionth time) and clean up your toddler who has been rooting around in the barn and then planting the "charcoal seeds" he found there in his sandbox can one day make you laugh, another make you cry (and not in a good way).
What should take about an hour in the garden will wind up taking all day, and then it may not be done at all. You parents know what I'm sayin'. And it's my own damn fault that I try to do as much as I do so I should just leave it at that. In all fairness, they are older now. I don't ACTUALLY have toddlers anymore. Looking back I have no earthly idea how I managed to grow everything I did while they were that young. I know I was making home life a living Hell half the time, INSISTING on making bread and butter squash pickles while the babies tugged at my thighs, but that's just the type of girl that I am. Luckily I am the one behind the lens so you don't see the madness in my eyes! I have been going through the roughly 4,000 pictures on this computer and downsizing my library in hopes of seeing this ancient machine make it through another year. Reliving their youngest years has made me very nostalgic, and yes... what a pretty picture it paints.
Time is fleeting. Just as a few snapshots could never even scratch the surface of the experience of early motherhood and a move to the country, so will they never scratch the surface of the experience of gardening or of being in the garden. I can't tell you how many times I have taken a picture of a flower to later trash it as it just isn't doing the blossom, or my experience of it, justice. Well, duh. Being in a garden, surrounded by life and the taming of nature, taps into something fundamental in our biology. I say this as if it were fact, but I believe it to be so! Our species EVOLVED by giving up our nomadic and foraging ways and by setting roots; creating a home place and growing our own food. It is a mixture of this interconnectedness to survival and just flat out awe that plants do what they do that keeps me totally hooked. The wonder of watching a seed in May become a 7 foot tall plant by late August that is bearing FRUIT will never get old for me. No picture can match that reality. No picture can show the upwelling of pride and gratitude (mixed with a twinge of loss) that I experience when harvesting a crop en masse.
And at the same time the picture won't tell you this was the only significant winter squash harvest my Vermont garden has ever provided! And here y'all were feeling all inadequate!! The squash vine borers have completely foiled me. I'm committed to organic growing, but brushing their sticky copper eggs off the undersides of the leaves, or squishing the millions of squash bugs by hand after they have hatched is pretty gross and entirely time consuming. I have much more pressing matters on my hands.
Like hungry firemen.
And Oh do I have WEEDS!!! I am but one person. One person who is also taking care of two little people, a naughty naughty dog, and a 3200 square foot vegetable garden plus many a flower bed, pots, greenhouse, houseplants. I do not have hired help. This 160 year old farmhouse is not "restored". This is not my weekend home.
Country living is rough around the edges. The magazine won't lead you to believe so but it is. I mean, COME ON, wellies should never be so clean if you are actually wearing them to WORK IN!!! And while I'm at it, a mudroom is just that. One pair of perfectly worn in cowboy boots by the back door is just impossible, unless you are a single cowboy, in which case what is this fixation with antique baskets and why are you living in upstate New York? Our society's obsession with this organic "lifestyle" all packaged up and tied with fancy bailing twine (and a hefty price tag) is ridiculous. Try living it. Visit your local organic farm. Volunteer for a day and you'll see what I mean. You may find that those knee high, unventilated wellies aren't so practical after all and those Jeruselum artichokes you just paid $8.00 a pound for at the natural market actually grow like WEEDS!
Okay, let me jump down off my high (rare breed draft) horse now. I just need to address all of this heading into the 2014 growing season. Before inundating you yet once again with fancy pictures of my garden and flowers, I need to check in and make sure you know this blog is not to be show-offy. I've had the occasional Facebook follower make a comment that after looking at my pictures they felt their garden was "less than" in some way. That is the LAST thing I want to do by sharing my life in pictures. The fact is that I work really hard and I live out in the country where days will go by and the only people I've talked to or shared any gardening with still need help wiping their own ass, to put it bluntly. This blog is an act of preservation; both of the hard work, love, and dedication that I see eaten, go to seed, cut and arranged, or ultimately stolen by jack frost year after year; and of myself.
And that is an actual reality.