Thursday, September 13, 2007

What blooms

Our backyard garden was born of a whim. Tired of staring at the rubbish heap outside his backdoor, our downstairs neighbour Curtis ventured out one spring day to purchase seedlings. He came home with lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, peppers and melons, but then he left them on the back step for three days.

We understood the sudden death of Curtis's gardening enthusiasm. Our house has been under construction as long as we've lived here, the backyard serving as a receptacle for all the refuse. An eyesore, with piles of bricks, pieces of toilet, old pipes, kitchen cupboards, and artifactual empty beer bottles. We are a blot in an otherwise lovely row of backyards, so well-tended by our Portuguese neighbours. The yard had become embarrassing, but ameliorating the situation seemed to require forces beyond our capabilities. A few seedlings in the face of such general awfulness would be no weapon, we thought. And so we were all quite content to let Curtis's seedlings wilt away and die.

It was surprising, then, to wake up one morning and look out the window to see the seedlings planted. My husband Stuart and I consulted Curtis who knew nothing about it, which left only the possibility that our neighbour next-door had been as embarrassed by our backyard as we were. It appeared that he'd snuck over in the early morning and started the job, determined not to let the seedlings go to waste. Maneuvering his way around the detritus, he had planted tidy rows of vegetables, and now it seemed we had a garden after all.

Of course, the lettuce would be ready first, but we didn't know that then. We didn't know anything then, until somebody told us. We would learn quickly, however, that seven lettuce plants were probably more roughage three people could handle.

Lettuce was king throughout June, and our regular weeding and watering were paying off— the garden was growing. The old man next door who'd started it all liked to poke his head over the fence from time-to-time, observe the work we were doing, and to tell us, in his limited English, "It is good."

And it was good, we thought. A garden was a neat trick, and finally we had a backyard we could be proud of. Everything in the garden appeared to be thriving— and then the lettuce bolted.

Bolting, I have since learned, is the process by which a plant goes to seed when faced with danger, in this case the onset of summer heat. In this last-ditch attempt at propagation, our lettuces suddenly grew tall with a thick ugly stalk and their leaves became too bitter for eating. Lettuce season was finished, finally, and we were a bit grateful at a reprieve from green salad.

So that was bolting. Never before have I learned so much in such a short time as I have from our garden. We also learned the way cucumbers grow with their yellow blossom at one end and the stem at the other, and that until they're ripe they are spiky to the touch. We learned, with regret, that carrots in clay soil won't grow downwards, and turn into a horrible mangled knot of root instead. We learned not to put the barbecue so close to the tomato plant, and that in spite of burns, tomatoes will persevere.

We learned that a melon plant can take over the entire garden, its vine spreading wherever there is room to grow, wrapping merciless tentacles around everything in its wake. That red peppers come into season later than green peppers, quite obviously it seems now, because of the additional sunlight and energy necessary for its fruit to blush.

Our garden was blooming, and although the lettuce was gone, we had the rest of the salad. Even though we had to pick the workmen's cigarette butts out of the tomato plants, and I kept finding bent nails in the soil.

We knew we were doing particularly well the day the boy next door— the old man's grandson— called over the fence to tell us that our garden was cool. "I like it," he said. "It's way better than the rats that used to be back there."

Recently I read that it is difficult to grow watermelon. Apparently watermelon are quite sensitive to wind, require enormous amounts of sunlight, but if you provide them with a great deal of care and attention, your own may prosper. Which I found surprising considering the gorgeous melons nearly ready-to-eat in our own little laissez-faire patch of earth. We have had ample beginners' luck, it seems, but then never has a garden needed it more.

It was August soon and the cantaloupe was ready. One afternoon we cut the first one open, revealing the perfection of its orange flesh, dark green around the edges, and the miraculous mess of seeds inside. We were sitting down to eat and I was about to devour my half, just like all the melons I'd taken for granted before, when I realized that only moments ago, here had been a living thing. A dramatic realization— food comes from somewhere— though of course I ate that melon all the same. But I didn't just eat it, rather I savoured it. I appreciated it. And without a doubt, the melon tasted better for it.

This summer we've learned what a long haul it is to the table, even if it's only the distance from the yard.