“I hold the firm belief that the purpose of a garden is to give happiness and repose of mind.” — Gertrude Jekyll
I suspect Ms. Jekyll, a famous English gardener, had in mind those billowy, almost overblown cottage gardens when she made this comment. While I am not aware of her travels, perhaps she had also seen those formal French parterres, defined by rigidly erect Italian cypress standing like sentinels guarding their lane. Maybe she was also thinking of that contrived look popularized in the Victorian era with the long smooth lines of sheared hedges with topiaries as accents, intersecting each other in obtuse angles and perpendiculars; or those once highly favored knot gardens with their complex, wondrous geometry. Possibly she preferred the raucous, disorganized appearance of the natural garden with its indeterminate splendor and cacophony of color. Her options were just as horticulturally varied as they are today for the term ‘gardening’ encompasses many forms and preferences…formal or informal, exotic versus native, perennial, annual or combinations thereof; theme gardens of fragrance, colors, or textures, etc.
For me, I enjoy them all, particularly if I’m not the one to have to spend untold hours on shearing those amazing topiaries. But now it’s spring and I can think of no prettier sight for my soul than a vegetable garden. In the suburban area where I live, that sort of gardening is at risk of becoming an archaic art. Most people when they mention they want to grow a few vegetables mean they are content with a four foot by four foot spot with the obligatory ‘Better Boy’ tomato plants. While I don’t feel “old”, the fact is that I am a senior citizen and the whiteness on top of my head (aided by gravitational pull, no doubt) is gradually persuading the rest of my bodily hair to convert to its color. Neither do I understand or get excited about the game of soccer and, admittedly, have had a somewhat awkward adjustment to the computer age. Recognizing these anachronistic characteristics is only reinforced by the fact that the only real vegetable gardens in my area seem to be cultivated by folks more ‘mature’ than myself. The proximity and plentifulness of Kroger and Publix supermarkets in our region seems to displace the need for home grown produce. The vegetable garden grown for sustenance and pleasure is increasingly infrequent here and only more readily seen in the countryside.
At our former home, we lived on six acres and I had a traditional “row crop” garden that was almost twelve thousand square feet in area. I could never resist the urge to grow far more than our family of five could consume and I finally resorted to putting up a vegetable stand that had an honor system for payment. Most summers produced a bounty of several hundred dollars in nickels, dimes, and quarters along with an occasional note of appreciation.
When we moved to our current residence, I read Mel Bartholomew’s book on Square Foot Gardening and became a convert to the raised bed method. Clearing a growth of hardwoods by hand gave me a deeper sense of appreciation (along with calluses) for ancestors who did the same aided only by their back and any beast that was handy. I now have ten beds each about eighty feet long and with a four foot interior width. Raised beds have many advantages over the traditional row crop method, not the least of which is the efficient use of space and low soil compaction.
Most people who look at my garden promptly remark, “That looks like a lot of work!” And while I understand their concern for effort, my activities there are not the type of toil that I associate with monetary compensation. Rather, I get solace and comfort to which Gertrude Jekyll referred, particularly at this time of year. I have said and thought many times that I think there is nothing more beautiful than a vegetable garden at its peak.
In this part of the world June tends to be the optimum time for veggie gardens as most plants start to decline after they have accomplished their main purpose in life – which is to reproduce themselves (an unfortunate similarity occurs in humans). In that climax of growth, I love to see squash with its rambunctious, tropical look; pole beans with lettuce slumbering below in leafy shade, clambering vigorously up the string trellis, searching for the sky with twisting runners. Corn marches with military precision in straight rows three abreast, pumpkin and winter squash vines scrambling in irregular disarray at its feet. Potato plants with their rich green foliage and bright purple flowers only hint at the buried treasure gripped by their roots. English peas cascade down the metal fencing dripping their fruit in pale green, hard-to-see pods. Okra, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas, young yet, eagerly await the hot July sun to fire their rampant growth. Tomato plants bear hard green marbles of fruit, hopeful to become red, yellow, or pink softballs (sometimes chipmunks beat me to ‘em), and give off their wondrous distinctive odor when their foliage is brushed. Cucumbers, peppers, cilantro, dill, garlic, and tomatilloes all claim their block of space in individual unordered groups as though they are on parade.
As always I try and pay attention to the need for crop rotation and planting companions. Reminiscent of the way my grandmother gardened, I have interspersed sunflowers, zinnias, and nasturtium up front near the garden gate where they are most readily seen. Around the perimeter of the raised beds are groups of red raspberries, blueberries, and, of course, strawberries, all poised to bear their progeny as the spring, and then summer, urge their fruit to ripen. Fig trees, with their tree-like height, reside in an almost regal manner at the back of the garden as though positioned to keep watch over their domain.
And so it is the first of June, and I sit on one of the timbers that defines the edge of a raised bed. It is early morning, and the sun is beginning to establish its presence at the west end of the garden, having barely eclipsed the roof line of our home. I have just finished the first picking of one of the several dried bean varieties that I grow. This particular one is called ‘Black Coco’ and I am shelling it so I can complete the drying process in my food dehydrator. The legumes spill and roll into my container like fat and lazy, purple-black jelly beans.
My overall stillness encourages a nearby pair of Carolina wrens in search of insects, to explore the wire frames just a few feet away from me that support the tomato plants. A dragonfly on patrol, cruises fiercely up and down the path between the raised beds. Although the air is still and cool, an early cicada interrupts the morning quiet with his rising trill, announcing the beginning of what will be a hot day. My garden cat, Tigger, has vacated his napping spot from under a huge crookneck squash leaf and prances about, tail furling and unfurling, waiting for my hand to be free so he can receive some attention. Black bumblebees stumble groggily in their first erratic flights, seeking receptive blossoms while a lone Southern toad with careful solitary hops begins his search for a cool and secret site to spend the day.
I know the dark, crumbly soil is alive with toiling worms, patient grubs, and innumerable critters too small to be seen by the naked eye. I am surrounded by the quiet and unmistakable progress of living things, their growth not discernible but surely felt. There is an almost indescribable feeling of serenity; a sense of peace that although seemingly brief, seeps into my subconscious to serve as a foundation for the rest of the day’s activities. I’m confident Ms. Jekyll would agree this bountiful scene, in which I am privileged to participate, nourishes not only the physical body but also certainly “gives happiness and repose of mind”.