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Digging in the Dirt

The seed catalogs have been arriving in the mail. I tend to collect them, take them to bed with me, and peer at images of heirloom varieties and newly cultivated hybrids in the soft light of the bedside lamp that inspires garden dreams. It’s been my habit of stashing the catalogs under the bed that has earned them a moniker given in jest yet holding much truth—plant porn. The pictures are all so tantalizing … great round tomatoes, sturdy zucchini, curvaceous eggplant. I want to order more plant varieties than I could ever hope to grow in my two small garden plots, and unless my husband allows me to take over even more of the yard or I get the hang of vertical and container-based gardening, I’m at my square footage max. Last year, I failed to show much restraint after winning a decorative planter full of seed packs at a fundraiser for the local community college’s wildlife program. Overwhelmed with choices, I set up my miniature greenhouses on the washer and dryer by the windows of the daylight basement and lorded over more than 200 little crannies of dirt each with two to three seeds buried inside. The oil furnace kept things nice and warm, I misted just enough to maintain dewy drops of condensation, and on cloudy days I switched on a single grow light to keep the germination process moving along.

And germinate those seeds did, and I—too soft-hearted to cull the weaklings—coddled them all, divided their tiny root systems using bamboo skewers, and, as they grew, moved them into individual larger pots. Again, I point out the fact that I live not on a farm, but within city limits. There were plants in the basement, plants on the sun porch, plants in the driveway. The tomatoes were the most aggressive and prolific. I sent my husband to work with twenty of them, each labeled with its heirloom variety. I put ten or so out on the sidewalk in front of our house with a sign that said “free.” I took some to friends in South Carolina. I forced some on friends who came by to drop off fresh figs. Still, I had a dozen tomato plants in the ground to tend, plus the peppers, squash, zucchini, chard, lettuce, and basil, the directly sown potatoes, radishes, cucumbers, red and yellow onions, the volunteer dill, cilantro, and butternut squash, plus the unwieldy Rumbo squash that roamed across the backyard fence, its tendrils clinging and climbing their way up and over anything in its path. Never mind the attention needed to keep the rest of the landscape vaguely in check—iris, roses, lavender, sage, rosemary, daylilies, crepe myrtle, sedum, gangly butterfly bushes, clematis, azaleas, hydrangea, hosta, ferns, and various other whatnots.

My only growing salvation—last year and at any time—is that I am a low-fuss gardener. I do not fertilize. What cannot be accomplished with rich soil, a layer of mulch, adequate light, good watering, a bit of pruning or pinching, and, at most, a sprinkle of BT is not done. Though I baby my seedlings, a dying plant will be judiciously sacrificed to preserve the health of the rest. I can—and if determined, will—grow another.

Gardening is both my exercise and mental therapy of choice. When I am in the garden, nothing else exists. There are no deadlines, no bills to pay, no telephones or emails. It's just me conversing with the dirt, the bugs, the weeds, the roots, the leaves, the sun, the breeze. I never wear gloves. I can't stand to—I want to be able to directly feel what I touch; doing so keeps me mindful. I refuse to grow too old to play in the water from the garden hose, which my hound, Bruce, greatly enjoys. Any day that it's nice outside and I am lucky enough to be unencumbered and at home, my husband—dogged by a desk job—encourages me, "You should go dig." It never ceases to amaze me what solace I unearth. 

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