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I just wrote this for a job application I’m hoping to finish tonight. (The ad asks for a writing sample regarding a situation I’m in that exhorts the reader to take an action. Isn’t that what a cover letter is? Situation: I need a new job. Action: Hire me.) But it occurred to me that it’s really pretty much my mission statement for this blog, if you take out the bits about the weeds and the baby and the fruit trees and the mulch and the weeds. So:

Big Boy. Better Boy. Early Girl. Beefsteak.

If you grow tomatoes at all, you probably recognize these as some of the most commonly available tomato plants available from nurseries every spring. They grow well; they’re easy to care for; and everyone grows them. This is partly because they’re what people know and grew up with, and partly because that’s all that’s available at nurseries. With the recent upswing in interest in gardening in general and heirloom tomatoes in particular, that’s changing somewhat; you might see a dozen, or maybe even two dozen, varieties available at any given nursery.

But there are literally hundreds of tomato varieties out there. Have you ever tried a Cosmonaut Volkov? A Persimmon? A Zapotec Pleated? If you haven’t planted them yourself, chances are you haven’t. And chances are you won’t find those varieties in a nursery, even if you find the better-known heirlooms (Brandywine, Purple Cherokee, and Mortgage Lifter, for example). The only way to even try to experience the wonderful range of tomato variety is to start them from seed.

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed. A sunny windowsill, a bag of potting soil, and a few Jiffy or Dixie cups are all you need. Other vegetables are equally easy to grow from seed, and their marvelous varieties equally passed over. Take green beans, for example. Every gardener has seen Kentucky Wonders and Blue Lakes, and they’re great producers and great-tasting. But what about Trionfo Violettos, which are equally tasty, deep purple, and wildly productive (as well as much easier to see among the bean foliage)? Everyone has seen purple eggplant, but what about eggplant that’s white as a ghost, or apple green, or purple-and-pink striped?

Gardeners often buy plants from nurseries because they’re easy, hardy, and convenient. Growing your own takes more planning and a little more work. But it yields more interesting plants with different flavors and textures for less money, and it’s been part of gardening over the world and since cultivation began: saving seeds from the best plants, and growing new plants from them. Pick up a packet of seeds this spring: a tomato you’ve never heard of, an herb variety that intrigues you, a melon you can’t get at the grocery store or the farmer’s market. Plant them, and see what new worlds of taste and color open up before you. Grow diversity. Grow the world. Grow from seed.

(P.S. Hire me.)

I have a feeling I’m going to have either a very slow or a very late garden this year. Or both. It’s, what, the 10th? I should have planted peppers and onions, what, 9 days ago? Of course this is only according to last year’s schedule, since I haven’t bothered to update it for this year’s plants. I hope I don’t have a lot that isn’t listed in last year’s schedule. I’m not sure why this is–whether it’s lack of energy or lack of interest. I do still want a garden,  but I’m not so sure I want to garden, not right now. I blame L.E.O. (the fetus). I can’t blame the dishes because they’re finally done, and the mice are, I think–I hope–finally locked out of the kitchen. (We got behind the stove and sealed up the unfinished wall back there with insulation and plaster. I heard horrible scritching noises this morning while I was making my lunch, though, so we’re going to have to figure out how they got into the walls in the first place, too.) Maybe I’ll plant this weekend. I can’t afford to buy pepper plants (and I wouldn’t find the ones I want at the nursery  anyway), but I could always start the onions outside. Exactly how lazy a gardener can I be and still be a gardener? Stay tuned to find out.

I have finally planted those dratted broccoli seeds. No, there’s no reason it should have taken me this long. It wasn’t that hard to go find the tape (for the labels). I think what prompted it was Eric’s saying “What are these huge things growing on the counter?” and realizing that the walking onions had noticeably grown since I got them, and I was supposed to plant broccoli at approximately the same time I got them. Sigh. The bulbils are doing well, too–starting to grow their first green leaves. I hope it warms up outside before they get too big for their jugs.

However, with broccoli out of the way, snow still on the ground, and Saturday’s Seed Swap still to come, I think I’m out of material. Luckily others are not. Tomorrow I have the pleasure of hosting my first-ever guest post. I feel like a real blogger, or something. I also wrote a guest post a few weeks ago for Thomas at Happy Farming and completely forgot to mention it; I hereby do so. For someone who likes to write, I’ve been pretty scatterbrained about it lately. For someone who likes to garden, I’ve been pretty scatterbrained about it lately. But I’m hoping both of these things will change. Even adding those broccoli seeds to those little containers of soil and patting them down reminded me of the things I love about gardening, and how much it’s worth it to get out of my chair and go do it.

I eat most of my fruit with one hand, while I’m doing other things: reading at work, putting away dishes, reading at home. Oranges take two hands to peel but one to eat. A few fruits take two hands, and I don’t eat them often because I don’t want to spare the time, the attention, the extra hand. Grapefruit is one; I used to eat halves with a spoon but now I only ever handle them the way my mom did when I was small: peel away the tough peel, split the globe into halves, pull the delicate inner skin away from the sour flesh and either put pieces of it into a bowl or eat it straight off the pith. Asian pears are another. It’s their time of the year and our tree did well, so for the only month or so of the year I have as many as I want. It’s possible to eat them like a regular pear, but the skin is tough and fibrous, and it gets in the way of the taste. So I peel them.

I had one for breakfast today (after a paratha–it was an unconventional breakfast because we had no potatoes, no eggs, and no bread in the house), sitting at my desk chair while Eric shopped for Zen alarm clocks, a bowl of peel in my lap, a paring knife in my hand. I peel the skin off in thin strips, then cut into the white body of the fruit (Moby Dick-like, only more appealing), slipping pieces into my mouth to crunch and catch the juice. It’s a very slow way to eat a piece of fruit. I’m a fast eater, and I don’t generally like to devote a lot of time to the actual consumption of food, though I don’t mind spending time preparing it. But it does make me value the food more: I’m not distracted by the book I’m reading, or other things in the room, or other food on my plate. I give my attention to the way the flesh gives way under the knife, the grainy texture in my mouth, the suddenly abundant juice when I bite. It’s me and the fruit, each consuming the other.

We’ve had a good carrot crop so far and have been delighted as usual with the flavor (except that the purple ones have less of it). There are still plenty in the ground, awaiting frost. Earlier in the summer I started pulling a few carrots at a time and putting them in a bag in the fridge, to be handy when we wanted them. Then we hit tomato season, and we’ve barely touched the carrot bag in almost two months.

I pulled out the bag the other day for peanut-sesame noodles with cucumber and peppers, which also includes grated carrot (and is extremely tasty). And found that the carroty flavor had faded, leaving mainly some crunchy sweetness and not a lot else. In short: I had grocery-store carrots on my hands. I could discern the actual carrot taste, but it was faint.

It took two months to happen, though. So how long do grocery-store carrots sit before they’re purchased?

We had another flash thunderstorm last night with high winds. My greenhouse tipped over again. I had moved it to a more sheltered spot, facing the house, but apparently that wasn’t enough. Three broken pots and several once-again-upturned plants later, I’ve finally gotten the message that this thing isn’t for use in this type of climate in the summer. It’s warm enough that I don’t need it anyway. I’ll put the extra pots on the porch steps and put the greenhouse away until fall, when the thunderstorms stop and it’s cool enough to make a difference and I’m no longer depressed when looking at it.

So let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about how long that bag of spinach has lasted in my fridge. It’s been a week, and it’s still firm and sweet and whole (if lighter–I used some for pizza and salads). I had feared that it would quickly turn slimy and dark, the way bagged spinach does when you leave it in the fridge for a few days. I wonder how long that spinach sits in the bag before it gets to Kroger or Costco.

Let’s talk about my lettuce. I’m growing so much lettuce. We don’t eat that much salad and we don’t have much of anyone to give it away to. Why did I grow so much? At least it’s pretty–especially the Lolla Rossa and the Freckles–and it makes my garden look lush. As I improve as a gardener I’m sure…fairly sure…that I will learn to apportion my garden space more appropriately for what we actually want to eat, not just what’s easy and pretty to grow.

Let’s talk about my unwillingness to do things in the garden other than plant, weed, and water. And even that last one is sporadic. My mother-in-law wanted to know why I wouldn’t buy soaker hoses. I told her they were expensive, and when she didn’t like that, that I don’t like them. Which I don’t; it would be inconvenient to put them in the vegetable garden at least, and they’re so slow, and I’d have to remember to turn them on, and then off several hours later. And I really like the idea of letting the plants build character, so to speak, by making them fend for themselves unless things get really bad.

I know gardening is by definition a disruption of nature, but I vaguely feel that if a plant can’t hack it out in the yard with the natural sun and rain and wind (greenhouses notwithstanding) and even bugs, maybe I shouldn’t be growing it. And though I know I would improve my plants and my yields by, say, fertilizing, or trimming, or paying more attention to support (or weeding), or doing something about the damn ants and aphids, I’m curiously indifferent. Maybe I would be more active if I were truly gardening for my life. Maybe I’m hopelessly lazy. I like my laissez-faire approach to gardening. But do the plants?

Happy Earth Day. I don’t know if it really qualifies for a “Happy,” but that’s what you say when annual events come around. (Do people say “Happy Dia De Los Muertos”? I mean, substituting the appropriate word for ‘happy.’ I never took a Romance language. I’m told it’s a joyous holiday so they very well may.)

I haven’t paid real attention to Earth Day in previous years. I can’t promise I will now, either. I don’t pay a lot of attention to media, and I tend to think that what happens between the annual events–the everyday actions that people take–matters more than a day’s worth of celebrity cameos and online games for kids.

But I do look forward to all the posts about it. I don’t feel versed enough in current scientific thinking and the plethora of opinion and advice to discuss the topic of climate change and our environmental impact; but I’m thinking and reading and learning–and hoping. I just got back from Katie’s post on the day, and wanted to repeat what I commented there, my favorite quote.

“Never doubt the ability of a small group of concerned citizens to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

That’s Margaret Mead, and the quote appears in many slightly different versions, so I don’t know what her exact sentence was (I favor this one, obviously), but no matter how it’s phrased, my eyes always prickle when I think of it. Thinking about Earth Day, in the context that we need it because the state of the planet is getting so bad and nobody’s paying attention otherwise, is a bit despair-inducing; but hearing about people, all around the world, who know that change needs to happen and are doing it and spreading the word lifts my spirits. We can change the world.

However, my only world-changing activity today (unless something I do at work results in a medical breakthrough that saves millions of lives in a totally unforeseen way) is to work in my garden. The Golden Sweet peas and the scallions are coming up outdoors, the borage and thyme are coming up indoors, and it’s time to plant brassicas and start getting the rest of the vegetable garden ready for sunflowers and beans and tomatoes. Maybe that’s enough for one day.

I love the idea of a White House vegetable garden, as described in this article about the resurgence of vegetable gardens. I’m sure they could have a red/white/blue theme, even in vegetables. It’s intriguing that overall gardening sales are down but vegetable and herb gardening sales are up. Where are all those flower gardeners and yardeners going? The article itself is a little disjointed–I didn’t see a cohesive narrative so much as a couple of glimpses of current trends and the writer’s thoughts–but the information is interesting.

I’m glad vegetable gardening is getting more popular, though not terribly surprised; I imagine it will continue doing so as long as current economic problems last. But popular is good. For one thing, it means more seeds and plants and other products available to me in stores. For another, I suspect it’s better for the people doing the vegetable gardening.

(I also love the idea of dissecting a smoker’s lung. I dissected an owl pellet and a spiny dogfish shark in sixth grade. Those were fun too, but an actual human lung? Extremely cool.)

Michael Pollan weighed in on that last. I wholeheartedly agree that getting people to garden is more than getting them to do something about their food supply: it shows them that a little work and care on their part will provide them with some of the most basic necessities of life, that nature really works, that their own small actions really can make a difference. I felt that last year. I’m starting to feel it this year. In today’s atmosphere of recession and climate change and manufactured-goods-are-poisoning-us and general worry, feeling I have the skills and power to make a difference–in my own life and in the good of the world–means a lot to me.

I bet it would mean a lot to others, too. I find myself wanting to proselytize people around me to gardening. And if they grow their own vegetables I won’t be able to unload my excess produce on them, so it can’t be for selfish reasons. I think it’s this: I’d like to share the victory inherent in bringing up a plant and harvesting food from it. Everyone needs a little victory in their lives.

“I think it’s interesting that you took up gardening,” Eric told me sleepily as we settled into bed last night. “It’s another aspect of your…” He yawned. “Creativity.” Then he wanted to know whether it would be better to make salsa and can it, or just can the tomatoes and make salsa from the tomatoes when we want it, so we discussed that as I wriggled my toes in delight that he’s thinking about these things.

But I thought his first comment was interesting, since gardening isn’t something I really thought of as creative. Like counted cross-stitch: you do the work but the pattern was there all along. I have a lot of hobbies, and I could theoretically be called creative for all of them (except WoW), but I at least wouldn’t. Which is funny; I started out in cross-stitch, but rapidly grew bored with it precisely because it’s not creative. Knitting is like that too, at least to the level I do it: pick a yarn, pick a pattern, maybe change a cable or alter a hem, but essentially follow a prescribed set of steps because I don’t know enough to do more. I like producing something useful–like vegetables–but the process is more serene than interesting.

Quilting, on the other hand, I do creatively. I’ve never made a quilt from anybody else’s pattern. That, I think, would be like cross-stitch, except that again the end product is useful (if you don’t give it to somebody who considers it “too good to use,” that is). But my favorite part is designing the pattern. Do I want pictures or abstract designs? Do I want blocky geometry or smooth lines? How will the quilting add to the end effect? I consider myself a much better quilter than knitter (even though my execution is arguably less good) because I think about quilting on this higher level and am much more adaptable when things go wrong.

(I’m getting back to gardening soon, I swear.)

Similarly, I spent half an hour last night tweaking my recipe for Eric’s rye bread. (Incidentally, this involved solving four equations for four variables. Never tell me math isn’t useful.) He loves rye bread for his daily sandwiches, but he’s never had the perfect rye bread, so I decided to make him some. I’m on my fourth iteration. I’ve done enough bread-baking and read enough of the theory (yes, there’s theory) to grasp what to do when he says “it needs to be softer” or “it’s too chewy.” I’d classify my bread-baking skills with my quilting skills, mainly because of that adaptability and capacity for independent design. I don’t have it nearly as much for other crafts.

My gardening skills are, I think, somewhere between those two states–following instructions and being able to improvise. I’m still consulting books and the Internet and the backs of seed packets, but I’m slowly internalizing a bunch of information on what to plant when and why. I wouldn’t necessarily know what to do if I found, say, leaf curl on a random plant, but I do know why good soil is important. I’m learning what vegetables belong to what families, how they reproduce, what fruits when, why certain kinds of plants need certain care. I’m hardly an expert, but I think I’ll eventually get there.

But I’m not sure I see gardening as creative. Or at least not vegetable gardening. Flower gardening, I could see: the putting together of different colors, shapes, sizes, scents in all the different months of the year. There’s some of that in vegetable gardening, too–succession planting, companion planting, interplanting for either aesthetics or functionality. But I’m not really making anything in my garden other than the structure I call a garden; those higher-level skills are, perhaps, the seeds of mastery, rather than creativity. I see gardening as functional, meditative, perhaps crafty–but not creative.  I sow the seeds, pull the weeds, pick off the bugs; but the pattern was there all along.

I can’t remember where I found this article. Regardless, it gives me twin feelings of smugness–see! This isn’t a weird hobby, it’s a perfectly valid occupation and a good survival tactic for current economic times!–and worry. “Egg prices were 19.5% higher in June 2007 than they were the previous June…apples 11.7%, dried beans 11.5% and white bread 9.6%.” Notwithstanding that we don’t eat white bread (and in fact I’m making most of our bread these days, probably all of it once I find the perfect toasting bread and try out a tortilla recipe or two), those numbers make me unhappy.

I tracked my garden expenses last year purely to see whether gardening was going to cost me more than it provided. The answer was no. This year, with my garden infrastructure mostly in place (well, for the established plot; the new one needs a little work) and my seed costs lower due to saving and trading, I should be able to save much more money overall. And I’m afraid I’ll need to. As I mentioned, Eric lost his job recently, so we’re living on my salary now, which is enough to make ends meet but not by much. We’ve also got his summer tuition to pay for to get him the last couple of classes for his integrated-science certification and his master’s degree, which will greatly increase his chances of employment later on. He’ll get a job in the fall whether it’s teaching or not, but until then, he’s student-teaching and so things are tight, and we’re going to have to either take a big loss on some stocks we have or take out a loan.

I’ve been worried about money, careers, the economy, the future in general lately. I’m sure many people have. And knowing that everything, including food, is getting more expensive very quickly and will probably get much worse doesn’t help.

I’m very glad that I’m already a gardener, of course. I may not be a great one, but I have the basics down; I have a seed stash and a little knowledge on how to renew it; I have a set of canning jars; I have the willingness to eat what I cook and to cook what I have on hand. I’m hardly ready to feed the two of us on the garden alone, but I’m ready to help. I hadn’t planned to track my expenses and production this year, but I’m thinking I will, in part so that I can plan better for years after. Probably the economy and our job situation will get better (historically, they always have, but I’m feeling morbid and paranoid these days–maybe it’s the snow); but if they don’t, I and my shovel and my Hutterite beans will be ready.

I may not be able to actually garden right now–did I mention there’s another snowstorm expected tomorrow? GRUMBLE GRUMBLE–but should the weather ever cooperate, I’ll be taking some stress off of us this year by taking some expenses off the budget. And I’ve got my husband convinced that I’m spoiling him by doing so. This gardener is doing all right. Now all I’ve got to do is figure out how to get him to eat squash.

Flowers and even fruit are only the beginning. In the seed lies the life and the future.

Marion Zimmer Bradley

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