Spring and nothing but buttons and charcoal briquettes left where snowmen stood so recently. Rhubarb like little red fists pushing up out of the ground among the ruins of last’s year’s prodigious foliage. A young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. A middle-aged guy’s thoughts, too — sure, love — but also thoughts of dirt, and before long beet greens, lettuce as well, a few odd asparagus spears, maybe a cool June morning with a carefully cuff-wiped radish hot in the mouth.
The Buddhists say that the source of all unhappiness can be found in the difference between expectation and reality, so in that way my garden is the very definition of unhappiness. Then again, the Buddhists also say that nothing is real, so I guess I don’t have to worry: my garden is imaginary in any case, something I dreamed in another life, back when sunset was at 3:45 and I napped on the couch with a seed catalogue over my face. It’s nothing but potential now, scruffy and beaten down, old straw and oak leaves, not even the garlic emergent, not yet.
I only actually got my seed order in (to Fedco over in Waterville, 45 miles straight east) at the last minute, faxed it in, in fact, late in the afternoon on the last possible day, March 20. I’m not much of a faxer, but after some struggles getting the old machine plugged into the phone jack properly, and after a series of strange, fast busy signals (why would it be so hard for me to remember to dial a 1 first?), after collecting eight or nine fax reports (FAILED!), I managed to feed the order sheet through, get the phone number right, add all the proper numerical prefixes, punch send.
Of course, just then the phone rang.
Elysia answered: it was Mary Rodgers, mother of Elysia’s best friends, a pair of redheaded twins named Phoebe and Isabelle, and a great gardener and herder of chickens (those eggs! Deep orangey yolks and flavor like memory itself).
She can be businesslike: “Bill, it’s the Fedco deadline today and I don’t want to pay the extra for a small order. Also it’s two bucks extra for the fax—did you send yours in yet?”
Mary and I had talked a few months earlier about how we were going to be on time this year, do it by mail, be first in line for the coolest seeds, save the fax bux. On the phone we mourned our good intentions briefly, praised our uncanny deadline awareness, exclaimed at length over the clearly meaningful and surely cosmic coincidence of her call interrupting the very fax in question. On the basis of the omen, we scheduled a play date for the girls the next day, for which they’d need snow suits, hard to remember now, just three weeks later and forty degrees warmer, even with the woods still full of former drifts.
Off the phone, I put my math skills on the line, adding Mary’s eight bucks worth of seeds to our seventy or so, and re-totted the arithmetic, including the tax, a genuine feat for the likes of me, added a donation for MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association) for good luck, and finally got the fax sent off. The catalogue clearly states that one mustn’t re-send the fax (they call some of us “Nervous Nellies,” ha!), but you know? What if they didn’t get it? What if that fax got lost in the ether somehow? What if it were too blurry to read? What if a, like, a seed-warehouse watchdog at the other end grabbed my order and rushed out into the yard with it? Using all my moral and psychic strength, I kept myself from pushing send again.
Eleven days later, snow melting all the while, here came our seeds. A note in the little cheerful maraca of a box explained that we’d find some substitutions (I’d approved substitutions, believing in luck): many items at the very late date I’d entered my order were out of stock. Fedco and other seed retailers have had a record-breaking year, which they attribute to more and more people taking an interest in gardening and seed saving, also to the poor economy. I’d add one more thing—the bracing idea in the backs of all our minds that everything’s about to come apart.
Elysia immediately began dividing up the seeds. (Mary’s order was 100% substitutions, which I haven’t yet had the heart to tell her, though I suppose I better before she reads this.) All the flowers except the bread-seed poppies? Elysia’s. All the rainbow mixes (carrots, lettuce, radishes, chard, sunflowers)? Elysia’s. All the cucurbits except Howden Pumpkin? Elysia’s. All the boring vegetables like beets? Daddy’s. Once again I gave the hopeful talk that the garden was ours, a family enterprise, rewards for one and all. She agreed: “The whole garden is ours, except for my part. This year I want half.”
“But honey, it’s a huge garden.”
“Half,” she said. “And don’t worry, you can help me. I’m really going to need your help.”
[She’s just come into the playroom where I’m working at the family computer and read the above over my shoulder, offers the following corrections: “He has the cucumbers, two kinds. And two kinds of melons. And the acorn squash, which we are going to share. I only have two melons and one pumpkin. The butternut squash was out of stock because Daddy faxed everything so late. But last year we had volunteers in the compost pile! Which turned out to be butternut squash and gourds. The gourds are Daddy’s.]
She also observes that no one’s going to know what cucurbits are.
To which I can only reply: Well, now they will.
I have closed the playroom door, shooed her back to her paper flowers. She’s hosting an Easter party this weekend, and making decorations, a whole garden of colorful paper flowers hanging from the parlor ceiling.
Thoughts of love, love: the whole gardening game is more fun and fulfilling now that Elysia’s taking an interest. I mean she’s always found it interesting, but at eight she’s turning into a real gardening buddy and advisor, even a catalyst. Oh, at three she’d come out and plant her radish seeds by the broadcast method, then trample them, re-dig them, refuse to believe the plants, when they emerged, had anything to do with the seeds — she wanted those seeds back—and finally, big moment, bite into the first radish, a bright Cherry Belle, and spit it out screaming: too spicy. At four she first declared a certain section of the garden hers, a plot maybe a yard square, planted it by throwing seeds at it, later stood in the tomato patch gobbling Sun-Gold cherry tomatoes till her lips burned with the acid. At five she’d see me in the asparagus, beginning of May, rush down the yard to stand with me and eat raw spears, those thousand garden flavors, accuse me of sneaking them.
Guilty as charged.
At six and seven, increasing interest and commitment, five minutes of concentration growing to fifteen minutes, then twenty, even an occasional hour here and there. I’d give her one plant from each flat of tomatoes, peppers, leeks, and so on, and somehow, hers would always be the biggest producers when the time came, even crowded as they were into her free-form beds. She’d bury a seed potato here, another one there, and somehow the Colorado beetles never found her out.
But this year, we’re really partners in the enterprise. She’s full of questions, full of advice, full of beans, too, and very excited about the harvest to come. The soil needs to drain, still has plates of ice beneath, but we’ve already prepared a lettuce patch, just a small area at the edge of the garden, dug in with compost. We’ll plant it this weekend, if all goes well, maybe before the Easter party. Back in the fall we found a big old window in its casing under a “free” sign on a lawn in Skowhegan, never painted, and we’ll use it as a cold frame, just lay it over a corner of the lettuce patch — first pickings.
“The cold frame is mine,” Elysia reminds me.
Well, of course it is, of course.
She’s down there with the Windex right now, making sure the sun shines in.
Writer Bill Roorbach lives in Farmington and is the author of Temple Stream, Into Wood and other books and essays.