There are mornings when I put my slow oats on the stove, pour a cup of coffee, and head out into the garden just to see, and to grab a handful of blueberries for the oatmeal. And on the way to the blueberries, which are back next to the shed—it’s almost like clockwork—something will pull me off my path. Lately it’s been the beds right out the back door, beds I’ve been tending for the last three years, building the soil with cover crops or mulch or all the leaves I can rake up in the fall.
There are eight beds in all, and the front two on each side are planted thick with perennials, plants that come back every year. In the south bed there’s false indigo (a native plant that feeds the soil with nitrogen that it makes), lemon balm (a mint that is so delicious and fragrant and will, in no time, take over my whole life), Egyptian onions (an onion that forms onion bulblets at the top of its stem, bulblets that will fall over and root, hence this plants other name—walking onion), two little native plum trees (maybe Chickasaw?), and an Asian persimmon tree. In the north bed there is another Persimmon tree, more false indigo, comfrey (a plant that mines nutrients from deep in the soil and feeds the upper layers of the soil), French sorrel (a tangy green), a few strawberries, and a lily like the one my mother grew in front of our apartment when we were kids. We planted this one together two years ago. These beds are planted dense. If you didn’t know what was growing there, you wouldn’t know what was growing there. Some days I’m ok with that. Some days I think, “goddamn, I need to make these things legible.” Mostly, though, I just look at these beds for a minute, maybe grab a strawberry or two if it’s June, pinch the lemon balm and smell my fingers, have a gentle look-see at the recently planted persimmons (one’s a bit scrawny and leans over like an old man), and curse the weeds that, though I don’t really want them there, are at least keeping all the open ground nice and covered up, which is evident when I try to rip some up and find bugs and beetles galore thriving in the moist, dark ecosystem down there. But I need to get over to those berries.
So I head past the second beds: on the south, rampant with Jerusalem Artichokes (or sunchokes), called by some fartichokes because whatever it is that gives them a low-glycemic index also…you get the idea. I’ve had them roasted, mixed in with potatoes or turnips, and they’re pretty tasty. But they’re extremely aggressive, and I thought that was ok when I planted them, or maybe I thought, this tiny little thing? They pop their pretty little heads up all over the place (I planted one two years ago, it looked like a mix of a potato and a piece of ginger or something and I probably have cut down something like 200 of them since), growing, eventually, to about 7ft tall with beautiful yellow flowers. They’re related to sunflowers and look like it. I might pick up my sickle and wack a few of these, especially the ones getting way too out of bounds, making the walking paths a sunchoke row. Or I might just kick em or stomp em. It hurt a little to cut them down at first, but, although they’re beautiful and edible and ultimately a wonderfully useful plant (the tubers store right in the soil, so if you had no food some winter, you could dig them up), they’re in the wrong place, and we wrestle. I won’t win. A bit further in that bed is some celery, which I don’t particularly like, and I don’t really know why I planted it. Though it looks good, and I snap off a piece, tear off the leaves, and nibble. At the end of this row, tucked into another row that runs perpendicular and has Nanking cherries (a bush cherry that grows to about 6-10 ft and tastes between a tart and sweet cherry) and two grape vines, is a little patch of alpine strawberries. This is an amazing little fruit; they taste, when they’re completely ripe, like strawberries mixed with a little pineapple. I think that’s the taste. It’s a miracle, and they grow throughout the summer, unlike my regular strawberry patch. And they’re tiny, the size of your pinkynail—the only taste you get from them is powerful and precise.
The north bed is planted, in an unusually orderly fashion, with regular strawberries. This is their first year, and they’re just getting their roots in the soil. I try hard to keep the “weeds” out, because it seems that at this stage the competition might be tough on the little things. But when I yank dandelions I just leave them on top of the soil so the nutrients the dandelions bring up (like comfrey) don’t get wasted. That seems like a good, healthy addition to the mulch to me. And maybe I’ll eat a couple of those leaves, which are healthy as hell and bitterer than hell. That’ll get you off to a good start. And in between the rows of strawberries are rows of onions. They go well together, evidently. That means they grow well together. Probably the onions drive away pests that bug strawberries. They’re good like that. There are a few rogue onions in flower in this bed, which in this case means I planted them last fall, thought they didn’t make it, and after coming back from a 3 week trip back east, during which it rained and got warm here in Bloomington, they were about 5 feet tall with beautiful, globular seed heads at the tops of thick stalks. I guess they didn’t die. I might decide that the strawberries need a little water, and so head over to the pump, and pass my piddly nursery and my container plants.
I recently split a night blooming jasmine into about 30 plants, both dividing the roots and rooting almost all of the cuttings I took when I pruned it. This plant, when in bloom, smells so good your pants will fall down. And it only shares its scent at night. If you wake up real early, in the dark, you wake up in heaven. If you wake just after the sun does, you smell the plant’s ghost lingering. I check to see how these things are doing, studying the leaves on a few of the plants, and the stems, to see if there’s any new growth, maybe even just tiny green buds on the lower stem. I’m just looking to see if they’ve made it, which they mostly have—even the ones that looked completely dead and withered for about a week after I planted them, the ones I almost yanked and chucked. Now their leaves are pert and shiny, all that good moisture traveling on through the stem and those leaves. They’ll make a lot of people happy, those plants. I’ll pot them up in September or so and pass them along.
And right next to these are the 8 or so fig cuttings I took from the fig patches at my friend’s childhood home, a place I spent hours and hours—one of the last connections I have to where I grew up. These cuttings were a bit emotional, as I think they’ll be the last cuttings I get from those stands. The Laus have moved, and it appears that other people had moved in. These cuttings are looking a little shabby. Some I took of new, green growth, which may not have been right. Others were cut with a bigger portion of woody stem, which Mr. Lau had me do that first time we took cuttings with his pick. But if I’ve learned something about the fig, it’s that it’s a survivor. I’ve planted fig cuttings and they looked like little more than sticks for six months, then sure enough, in May or June, you see the little hand of its leaves reaching up. There’s scarcely a more beautiful thing. I pick up each pot and look down on the stem for that tell-tale bud, that dot of green pushing from the stick. I might even dig a bit into the potting soil to see if the bud’s down there, which, with a fig, it often seems to be.
On the wall above these plants is my container garden—two tomatoes, some peas (I was trying it out, it didn’t work that well, though I’ve had a nice handful of sweet peas a few times), rosemary, and arugula. The arugula has bolted: started flowering and producing seed. I usually think of bolting as being a little bit disappointing. You know, that’s kind of the end of the plant. But I love when arugula bolts because I get to nibble on the papery white flowers that carry the leave’s spice but also, you have to pay attention, have a tiny splash of sweetness. Oh, and the cilantro, which was so abundant, and has gone, also, to flower in this heat. If you’ve never seen the congregation of insects hovering over an umbelliferous plant (blooms like an umbrella: dill, parsley, cilantro), you have something to look forward to: wasps whose bodies seem straight out of a science fiction movie; bees or flies (I can’t always keep them straight) so metallic and green that you can almost make out your reflection in their tiny bodies. And if you close your eyes and listen, you know something good is happening. I check out the parsley between the Asian pear tree and herb bed that’s gone to seed (it’s a biennial, which means every other year it sets seed, shooting up from its 6-12 inches to a 5 ft plant) just past the strawberries. It’s collapsed now but is still craning its neck up toward the sun. Like the cilantro, but moreso, the parsley flowers hum.
The delicate yellow blooms on the collard plants that overwintered have fewer pollinators (maybe because the flowers are small and could only accommodate one bug at a time?), but are beautiful in this morning light. Like the parley, the collards went from being probably 18 inches high to at my eye level. And beneath the flowers all the seed pods swell straight down the stems. I’ll collect some of this seed, but I hope some of these will just plant themselves, after which I can move them around where I want them. These flowers, like the arugula, are also subtly sweet, and delicious. In this bed I have some sage, lemon thyme, some other thyme, and two lavender plants sending up their narrow, spiky leaves. Most times I need to get on my knees and give these a squeeze, put their scents in the air. Sometimes down like this, looking at the mulch or breathing in the fragrance of thyme or finding that impossibly sweet berry or studying the bizarre juncture of the wasp’s thorax and weapon or fingering the discolored leaves or the lima bean’s pale leaf just busting from the suitcase of its seed it or packing soil where a squirrel’s dug a hole or watching a cat plunge her face in the catmint or a cardinal couple like flecks of fire in the shimmering tree or following the spider hauling her gargantuan egg sack or the industrious ant colony beneath the clump of leaves or the pear tree’s leaves whispering or the swollen lily on the brink of opening whose smell will forever bring my mother into the garden or the long necks of some reedy grass lilting in the breeze or the volunteer tomato peeking between the rhubarb plants, sometimes I see myself, on my knees, head titled, coffee cup long empty and tossed in the path, on my knees.
Ross Gay’s books are Bringing the Shovel Down (Pitt, 2011) and Against Which (CavanKerry, 2006). He teaches at Indiana University and in the Low-Residency program at Drew University. Ross is also on the board of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a volunteer-run, publicly owned orchard. A certified permaculture designer, organic gardening educator, and kettlebell instructor (seriously), Ross is currently at work on a book about African American farming and gardening.