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Eating my Backyard

(post, Trista Cornelius)

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I read once that eating plants is like eating sunshine.  Lacking the ability to photosynthesize, humans acquire energy from the sun by eating plants.  I like the idea, and eating a tomato still warm from the afternoon sun feels close to eating pure energy.  After cutting meat and dairy from my diet revealed to me the endless variety and flavors of plants, I started to grow as much food in our tiny backyard as possible.  Call it "edible landscaping" if you want.  I like the whimsical term, making me think of my house as gingerbread trimmed in peppermint and licorice, mesmerizing the Hansels and Gretels who walk by.  "Landscaping," however, suggests design and a plan for pretty scenes in the yard.  This I subsume to "edible."  Even if I manage to turn every square foot into food, it will be a humble harvest.  Still, I take great pride in that little mound of vegetables.

Maybe this avocation is no different than my do-it-yourself-home-fixer-upper friends.  You know, the ones who visit Home Depot weekly and talk about PVC pipe and C-clamps in the hallways at work, explaining on Monday how they installed a new toilet, laid tile, refinished their wood floors.  Maybe it’s the same, but I don’t think so, only because I’m so very much not a do-it-yourselfer.  Plus, I notice a tone in the conversations among the do-it-yourselfers, a tinge of exhaustion or exasperation when they debate which kind of screws to use for the deck they’re repairing the coming weekend.  I notice sighing, scratching of heads, and a reluctant shuffle toward the weekend, the Home Depot trip the only part that excites them.  The few other gardeners I know talk differently, hushed, almost reverential, keeping their experience to themselves, a gleam in their eye when they find someone else who understands.  Gardeners talk more like wizards or chemists, sharing knowledge of how their garden grows but still mystified by it all the same.

Sometimes the carrots pull up perfectly cylindrical, orange, and sweet.  Sometimes the broccoli succumbs to a nocturnal, voracious worm or caterpillar.  Nevertheless, it all goes back into the soil, leaving a legacy for the next crop to contend with, everything resolutely chugging along whether sleet, or hail, or warm spring days and moderate nights.  Amazingly, some of my favorite foods begin as a speck of a seed, half the size of a lady bug’s spot.  How does this turn into a leafy, robust bouquet of basil?

That miniscule seed renews my optimism, and teaches me about quiet strength, resilience, and power.  The diminutive seed makes me feel less small.  Growing food makes me feel useful, and a little bit powerful, like a wizard—seed in soil and "poof" dinner!  The process even supports creatures who have the evolutionary luck to dine on color, on flowers, alluring pistons and stamens, fuzzy pollen, and intoxicating nectar.  I came across a bumble bee drunk on dahlia juice one day.  It lounged in the shade of a petal, legs dangling on either side of a leaf stem, pollen particles stuck to his disheveled hairs.  I swear I heard a slow buzzed, "Duuuuude..." as I studied the blissed out fellow.  

The garden can be stressful, too, because of so much I do not know, like why the bell peppers rot from the bottom before maturing, or what causes the white film on the rainbow chard leaves.  But even so, its abundance inspires me and illustrates the kinds of energy I seek—the carrot and the squash, sort of a spin on Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare.  Carrots take forever to mature.  Plant the tiny seeds in June, find tiny green "V" shapes coming up in the soil by July, harvest carrots in September.  They must be one of the slowest foods to grow, but they do grow, a little bit each day, harvesting water and sun to build their fibers tightly.  Below the carrots, in a much smaller raised bed we call the "Lentil Rental," I planted squash—kobucha and hubbard—basically similar to pumpkins.  After a few days, the seeds sprouted large, fully formed leaves.  A few weeks later, each plant sent out vines with tendrils wrapping themselves around any other stem or stalk, crawling up and out enthusiastically.  One vine grew four inches in one day, all while producing trumpet-sized orange flowers so soft and succulent bees linger too long and get trapped in them at night when they close up.  Squash live a fast, inspired but short life, planted months after the carrots but harvested at the same time.  

Watching my food grow shows me how much energy it takes to simply be alive, that maybe I pack too much into each day, not giving myself enough time to live, to repair from the day before and put it all back into order for the next day.  

My experience of gardening little resembles the summer ads for Adirondack chairs and sprinklers—everything trimmed but lush, quiet and peaceful, a cup of iced tea and a magazine waiting in the shade to refresh the gardener.  Growing food means grit under my fingernails and toenails, blisters on my palms, a smell of bitter leaves in my hair, lots of sweat and frustration.  It frequently means giving in, saying “you win” and letting it be when the vines I cut back last weekend grow twice as long by the next weekend, the weeds frolic healthily with the vegetables, and the bees and hummingbirds buzz my ears telling me to back off, this is their playground.  It’s a lesson in letting go even while tending.  And always, no matter how zapped a day leaves me or how expertly a patch of weeds infuriates me, a glance at the garden from the kitchen door deepens my breathing, dusts me off, and cheers me up enough to get on with the day, leaving me with a lasting image of a squash blossom just opened, lamplight yellow in the fading light, confident of its purpose and place in the world, determined to carry out its mission with gusto.