By Tina Traster
The 124 square feet of space I added to my home is a jumble of colors, a bouquet
of fragrances. It started out orderly in the spring, but by late summer it has
become as chaotic as my 6-year-old daughter's bedroom. It needs constant
tending, rethinking, uprooting.
I have been plucking basil, dill, parsley and red and romaine lettuce since mid-May from our fenced-in patch. I harvested white and violet florets of cauliflower, Cubanelle peppers and bulbs of yellow, red and white onions in mid-July. Voluptuous yellow tomatoes are aching to be picked; more than 100 bulbs of garlic are loosening from the soil. I have enough onion and garlic to last through January. The potatoes and carrots will be ready in late August.
Overwhelmed by this generous bounty, I toss fresh onions and herbs in everything but our breakfast cereal: pasta sauces, frittatas, tortillas, fish sauces and stir fries. I use garlic scapes, olive oil, salt and asiago cheese to make pesto. I can't keep up with the basil plant; it is the roadrunner of herbs.
It fascinates this recently transplanted Upper West Sider to watch things grow, particularly those planted with uncertain hands. The closest I'd come to farming in my city days were trips to the farmers' markets.
Here, at our mountaintop "farm" in Rockland County, I spend summer mornings sniffing, squeezing, clipping, plucking, weeding and watering basketfuls of fresh produce. When I return to the house, my cats leap onto the kitchen counter and paw at the 20-inch-long onion bulb shoots. I scrub the soil off the delicate bulbs and then out from under my fingernails.
Our onions would have harvested sooner, but the delivery from the Burpee seed company was six weeks late. When we called to complain, the harried order-taker apologized and said they were backed up because they have never been bombarded with so many orders.
Backyard gardening is catching on in suburbia.
The National Gardening Association says that consumer spending on vegetable gardens is up 25 percent from two years ago. Back in vogue is the term "victory garden," or "war garden," which was the label given to the edible gardens Americans grew during the world wars to take the pressure off the national food supply.
There is no shortage of reasons to grow a backyard garden these days: the delight of fresh food, saving money, aiding the planet.
Plus, there's the peace of mind that comes from knowing how your food is grown, given the recent outbreaks of salmonella that have been blamed, perhaps wrongly, on spinach, tomatoes and peppers.
But I've found more personal reasons to garden, too.
My garden grows metaphors. In the lettuce that has gone to seed I see the book idea I toyed with for ages but no longer seems timely or relevant. The skinny skyward beanpole is my young daughter shooting up.
In the cauliflower I find the joy of an accident. My husband thought he bought broccoli plants. We planted the cauliflower anyway and discovered we like it.
My garden is a gift store. I enjoy bringing herbs, tomatoes and onions as an offering of friendship when I'm invited to someone's house.
My garden is better than the gym. Digging, planting, hoeing, yanking - this is much safer than road rage, too. That weed, ugh, is a pesky editor. That one over there is my unbearable tax bill that came in yesterday's mail. And those over there are my stubborn parents.
My garden is also a place to meditate. I go there late in the day when the patch is shaded. I contemplate on the resilience of nature. I am humbled by the greatness of these shapes and colors and aromas.
Last year, our first as backyard gardeners, we made our share of mistakes. Unsuccessful pumpkins and watermelons commandeered too much space. We didn't stake the tomatoes or peppers, and they grew into a tangle of vines.
This year the garden is like an organized spice rack. Everything has its place. Each crop sits in a ringed enclosure of stones. The tomatoes and peppers have latched onto wooden stakes.
The other day, I slid my hand down the stalk of the tomato plant and smelled my fingers. The sweet earthiness brought me back to last year's ad hoc garden - to our rookie mishaps.
But I smiled because my garden has not only given me food, pleasure and learning - it's given me a basketful of memories, too.
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