The 10 Bentley kids did the vegetable coaxing at the end of hoe handles, but only because my notoriously stern grandfather had and used a bigger stick. There was no way in the world he was going pay good money for undistilled consumables.
Dad, then, had a hard time seeing gardening as a hobby. It was a chore that put food on the table. He planted gardens during the leanest times of my boyhood, but treated them a small farms that would ease the grocery budget. He even tried to introduce us to a frost-fighting, north country favorite – Swiss chard. My brother and I drew the line there. We would hoe the weeds, but not eat something with the culinary appeal of pond scum. Or kale.
But when I was in about seventh grade, I caught the Green Plague. I was a voracious reader who became fascinated by stories of farm life, huge vegetables and loan between your toes. Dad thought I had gone mad when tilled and planted a plot near the house. I’m sure he chuckled, however, while I was learning that pulling weeds and
watering is no where near as fun as planting.
My new love affair with gardening even survived my freshman year, when I came down with appendicitis a few weeks after planting what had to be the biggest and most boring garden in the county. I wasn’t very good at planning harvests, so I just planted two entire packets of Big Boy tomato seeds, a couple of net bags full of onion bulbs and everything in the bonus-size of packet of zucchini seeds.
The vast rows were just looking magazine-perfect when my innards invited me to the hospital for a week. Mom ensured me that my brother “volunteered” to take care of the garden through my lengthy recovery. Mark’s translation of that was he would turn the sprinklers on a couple times a week.
By the time I was well enough to amble out to the garden, the Johnson grass was taller than anything I had planted. Still, I could see the tomato plants poking through the grass and the onions were holding their own. For the life of me, however, I couldn’t figure out where zucchini went.
I ended up with so many onions and tomatoes that I sold several crates to a restaurant. Right about then, I also found the zucchini. One morning there were dozens of bright orange, rock-hard and inedible gourds laughing at me.
- I no longer let zucchini plants congregate, but I’ve never recovered from the Green Plague:
- I spent more time and money on my first drip irrigation system than I ever did at the supermarket.
- I spit in the face of northern Idaho’s chilly summers by running electrical heat tapes under my tomato bed, which was planted with a “storage” variety that could be picked green and ripened inside.
- I scratched out a garden bed in the rocky Sierra soil when we lived at Lake Tahoe – then wept like a baby when it snowed on Father’s Day.
- I was damned-Yankee aghast to find that all of the garden stores in San Antonio closed after Mother’s Day. Then I watched my new garden burn up in the Texas summer.
- I tapped Cecile’s artistic eye to design and build beautiful beds for our expansive new home in Missouri.
Then came the big shock. When we decided to downsize, I told Cecile that I didn’t really need a garden anymore and we could buy that wonderful hillside house with no lawn – and no garden.
I lied, of course. What is a life without soil under your finger nails. You just must be creative. I am very satisfied to grown my tomatoes in large clay pots – set up on a railing where the groundhogs can’t get to them. But the squirrels still can.
I also have a 4x15 raised bed on the south side of the house. Not much grows in the shade of the adjacent oak and black walnut, but I get to watch a few beans, squash and zinnias reach for the sun just before that groundhog comes home for dinner.
That’s OK. Despite my heritage, I will never see gardening as a larder-filling chore. It’s an opportunity to share. Share a meal with friends or family. Share your crop with the wildlife. Share your experiences with other gardeners.
But most of all, it is an opportunity to share a piece of your soul with Nature.