Who could have predicted the percentage of pleasure in the back corner of a quarter-acre lot? When we talk of commercial real estate, we use the language of profitability: so many ridiculous dollars per square foot in value.
I weigh the square footage of my garden, instead, in pleasure units per annum, and I am a wealthy woman.
The garden produces pleasure at a rate far greater than the sum of its parts. Through my cultivation, I live history and I plan for the future; it’s a living record of failures and hopes. I began this garden by digging out the dirt and forming the growing plots and subsidizing the soil with every bit of dirt capital I had. It has evolved over the last six years and its topography traces the story of my life.
Exhibit A: This square foot is ruled by a fat clump of chives with now fading lavender puffballs with papery feathers that I planted when I established the herb row six years ago. It gave me volunteer ‘Seascape’ strawberries (2) that are darker and sweeter than my main crop ‘Bentons’ that are better for jam. It also killed off two generations of lemon thyme, never hardy, prompting me to move a new pricey start to the middle where the sun will establish it more firmly. It is coddling three shiso seedlings, all marked by slug attacks at the seed leaves, the red shiso the worst of the lot. I need the red shiso to experiment further furikake, a dried crumbly topping for rice, since the stuff last year wasn’t quite right without salt. The green gets salted and used as wraps for summer barbecue.
Exhibit B: This shady square foot is tayberries, now nearly as long as my thumb, which I planted after marveling at them at the market three years ago. The tayberries, yes, that the squirrels have been eating, I’ve discovered, after crowing that those little rascals have been leaving my strawberries alone this year. The tayberries are threatened, too, by a patch of mint rooted in a deep-set plastic pot to contain it, tucked far back in the shady corner of my garden, but longing to colonize new, more fruitful lands. And the terrible threat of losing the sun: the elderberry planted to shade the glorious fragile ‘Virginia Richards’ rhody (since discovered to not have the proper sun trajectory) and hide a sagging gutter on the neighbors’ garage (since fixed, since moved out) is now 15 feet tall, and shading the tayberries instead.
Exhibit C: And this square foot, anchoring the potato bed ringed in cedar logs from the branch that fell in the winter storm two years ago, has an Italian fennel sentinel, the fronds used for gravlax and fish and salads. Its pollen I cultivate for fig jam for the ‘Desert Queen’ fig that — please! — is rallying with leaf buds now after the freeze that wiped out fig season for the year and killed many fig trees wholesale. The sentinel guards three ‘Marechal Foch’ grape scions and four little apples: ‘Karmijn,’ ‘Esopus Spitzenberg,’ ‘Canadian Strawberry’ and ‘Pendragon,’ all rare, all volatile, all fighting the fleeting nature of life and the suffering that reminds us it will be over too soon.
But the garden is more than just a record of a personal past, and, as a hedonist, I hesitate to say this, but it’s more than just pleasure. It’s resistance and power.
One example will have to suffice. Because I cook from my garden, I am free to experiment with the idea of a salad. Yes, a salad. Something that’s drummed into us by industry as the paragon of a healthy meal. It’s a diet meal. It’s a female meal. It’s the kind of meal we should not only eat but exclaim delightfully over, Oh, it’s so fresh and healthy and I feel so good while eating it!
And we do this while we are masticating over-processed bagged mesclun made of differently shaped little leaves that all taste exactly the same. Do they harbor e. coli? We don’t know. What matters is that we bought it, and when we buy it, we buy into values that promote performing fitness as a marker of class. The open secret is that these salads don’t create pleasure. They traffic in anxiety. They separate the growers from the consumers with an idea of what we *should* eat, not what we *can* eat if we can just…
…wander out into the garden with not even the faintest anxious pressure for ‘eating healthy’ or ‘being fit.’ I eat my salad in the morning. I bundle a sour sorrel leaf and an odd little papalo leaf around a gooseberry and a tiny carrot. I smush a strawberry on a tender escarole, slightly bitter, and wrap it burrito-like around a rattail radish pod. I make a sandwich out of two pea pods, two leaves of tarragon, and a beet leaf. I pick pale yellow collard flowers and pink-white radish flowers and purple johnny-jump-ups and magenta and pale pink pea flowers and eat them as a chaser for the tip of a garlic scape.
Not a single one of these can be eaten in a restaurant or out of season, or really, in someone else’s garden. It is mine. My salad is the product of my labor, my fiddling, and my palate that hungers for bittersweetness.
My labor is worth very little to nothing, all the institutions in my life tell me. But in its nothingness, it’s everything to me, because I cultivate hope each year and breed out failure and have momentary, seasonal, nearly unique and nearly wholly my own momentary pleasure and joy in living. There is nothing more valuable in the world.
Images (top to bottom): lovage, tayberries, haskapberries, garlic scapes, raspberries, gooseberries, Bruno Jupiter Bright, kitten extraordinaire, growing in the kale bed.