This was my dream: I wanted vines obscenely thick with tomatoes, a constellation of what my friend John calls his "red suns of August." Early Girls and Romas; don't forget peppers and some cucumbers snaking around my feet as well, and a long hedge of basil. I wanted to walk into the garden, maybe barefoot in the summer heat, and casually and gently drape my hand over a basil plant and then bring its leaves up to my nose to savor the fragrance. I would keep a shaker of salt on my bench and make a dinner of sun-warmed tomatoes. The juice would dribble down my chin and I would rinse off under the bracing cool of the hose. I wanted a garden. I should have known better.
soil was full of rusty nails and potshards and broken glass. My
first eager spadeful bit into what looked like chunks of melted car
battery, along with bricks and lengths of wire. No earthworms, no
rich humus black as coffee grounds. All those things which my
gardening books and magazines said were desirable in garden soil
were absent unless I had overlooked the chapter on "The importance
of scrap metal," or "Horseshoes as an iron source."
My wife, Carolyn, and I worked for small market
farmers when we were in college, growing nearly everything from
flowers and eggplants to expensive salad mixes full of weeds and
bound for chic Bay Area restaurants. We got our hands dirty those
years, and despite the backaches and sunburns we learned to love
it. But now, living in the high desert of eastern Oregon, we had
our work cut out for us.
Carolyn started flats
full of vegetables, including little pots of herbs and peppers
which, until we could trust the weather, we kept in the warm and
damp of the laundry room. Occasionally I crept into the room and
watched the first tiny leaves suddenly burst from the soil. With
each sprout, I sighed like some proud father. During the day I went
to work building raised beds and a cold frame of scrap lumber and
hauling truckloads of clean, dark topsoil from the riverbank. The
barn floor was a rich source of compost, though from the stack of
library books I pored over at night, I learned of the devious weed
seeds within just waiting to sprout.
runs late at 4,200 feet above sea level, and it wasn't until the
hot heart of summer that we planted a half-dozen of the tomato
plants and peppers in raised beds and placed trays of lettuce in
the cold frame.
As an act of faith, Carolyn
moved the tender basil outside every day, and the delicate plants,
though a bit confused by their mobility, slowly reached for the
high summer sun. Some afternoons, she and I knelt in the garden,
pulling at weeds until the soil left bruises on our knees and
turned our skin to orange rind.
California my father tended a garden like some beautiful jungle
when I was a young boy. In a 20-foot-square plot tucked behind a
leaning picket-and-wire fence in the corner of the yard, he grew
bushels of tomatoes and beans, and always a zucchini. In those few
feet of earth for the golden months of summer he
Midsummer, he would pay us a dime for
every tomato worm we picked off the vines; some years my sister and
I made a small fortune in candy money. I remember their vivid
colors, that peculiar false eye, the menacing horn on their backs
rising to our fingers as we flung each worm into a Folger's can. A
writhing green mass, their numbers seemed to multiply on the smooth
mirror of the can's bottom. When I go home now, at age 32, the pay
has climbed to $1.
came a mid-July frost. In the diffuse morning light, the tomato
plants shriveled black and tiny. The plants seemed to writhe in
pain. And during that same night hungry deer discovered our garden.
On my knees I sank two fingers into a hoofprint in the yielding
soil of the tomato bed they had trampled while eating
As quick as that, the dream was
Gardens are, among other things, a turning
away from fluorescent grocery-store aisles. A bountiful and
productive garden is a taming of the wild - perhaps our first
exposure as children to nature, a chance to hold a fat, green worm
as it squirms in our fingers, to play in the mud and clay or do
battle with an intrusive, but elusive ground
I walk out into the yard and look at
the tiny plants. Dead, bare; they rattle in the slight breeze. But
the dream isn't over. Just across the fence my neighbor is
finishing a second cutting of alfalfa - the air is moist and heavy
with the stink of life as the swather cuts through the bright green
fields, a string of gulls trailing the huge machine as if it's a
ship he is piloting. As I watch him, and then lose sight of the
swather as it tops a small rise, I start to understand what my
father was after all those summers. I'll try
Gardening serves its own high purpose.
Wherever they are, gardens give us back the generous gift of our
innocence. In the garden I have learned the boldness of the deer -
how they bed down unseen in the tall oats until nightfall, and then
walk near the front porch of the house to pick at tender young
plants. Deer move through my dreams, silent as
Sean Gillihan lives in
Klamath Falls, Oregon.