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June 2, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 40




Tom Roberts Secrets to successful gardening

Tom Roberts NCR editor

One of my most vivid memories of my grandfather on my father's side sees him walking out of a large garden, between the pole beans, which dwarfed him by several feet. He was very short and he usually was smoking either his pipe or one of those foul smelling little Italian cigars that look like twigs.

On his face is one of those self-satisfied looks that comes with knowing something deep and perpetual, a kind of family or cultural secret. There was a kind of transcendence to his gait. See how my garden grows.

Every year it did, in abundance. Beans and tomatoes and peppers, onions, squash, and all sorts of greens that found their way into salads and soups.

My father could grow a mean garden, too. And his two brothers still garden. They seem to do it with such nonchalance, presuming a harvest and knowing what to do with all the produce as it begins coming ripe all at once. Something, I think, was passed on genetically from ancestral Italian villages along the Adriatic -- some instinct, some sense of what soil can do and how to treat young plants. And it is done with none of the fussiness of gardening shows and demonstrations. It is simply done.

I remember doing a story once on a German farmer who raised simply the best winesap apples I have ever tasted. He had a large orchard operation. He was in his 70s, at least, with a wonderfully craggy face, that same self-satisfied bearing and a disarming economy of language.

"So is there a secret to this?" I asked, or some such banality.

I'll never forget his response. "Thing's want to grow." And after I pressed him a bit, he added, "You've got to do the winter pruning."

An expert grower of sweet corn, walking briskly through rows of the stuff and snapping off ears occasionally to sample them raw, snapped back at a similar question: "It took me years to develop all of this," sweeping over acres of tassles, "and I'm going to tell you my secret?"

See, people who do this for a reason, who live by it, or who, in their genetic memory know centuries of feeding themselves long before supermarkets and the like, don't give up the secrets easily. I have a sense that there's a certain cache in the mystery and a feeling that if they were to reveal too much they would be betraying some deal they've made with the elements and the soil and the plants.

My own attempts to plug into this stream of understanding happens annually, usually in pitiful little plots that begin with great promise and, along the way of dry spells, bugs, rabbits, icky diseases that shrivel leaves and other disasters, the potential drains away. So I might have a good year for tomatoes one season and peppers the next. Squash, which I think would thrive in concrete, is always available as consolation to the really despondent gardener.

If I can't tap into the deep mystery understood by those for whom gardening is more than a suburban diversion, I can at least attest to another kind of transcendence I've experienced. In the early years of family, the garden served as a kind of extra room, one where kids didn't spend much time. They always got to plant something they wanted to grow (except the year that one said he wanted to plant tacos) and they'd show up for the harvest.

In between, it was a kind of adult sand box where one could go scratch around in the dirt, looking busy and productive. But often the work was secondary to daydreaming, or emptying the mind or even praying. It was a place where thoughts also turned to those who went before, to ancestors whose survival depended on understanding how this most elemental exchange between us and mother earth occurs.

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