Archive for August, 2008

The Accidental Gardener

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

If you’ve followed my back-story at all, you know I am a pretty enthusiastic gardener. Or was, at any rate. So enthusiastic, in fact, I quit a dream job as a section-front metropolitan newspaper columnist to try my hand as editor of Organic Gardening magazine. In Marley & Me, I describe how I quickly realized that career move was a mistake – that it is never a good idea to try to blend your hobby with your vocation. What I didn’t say in the book was that during those years I was at OG (1999-2002) I threw myself into gardening with abandon. I planted big perennial beds. I sprouted hard-to-grow seeds in my basement over heating mats and beneath fluorescent lights. I tilled up large swaths of the backyard and planted corn and tomatoes and garlic and melons and pumpkins and squash and beans. I fussed over giant piles of decomposing green matter — the stuff of compost — stirring and fluffing and adding pinches of water and various ingredients like a chef perfecting a soufflé. I picked tomatoes by the bushel and experimented with the best way to preserve them, cooking them down into sauces that I canned and froze.
The gardening part of the job was a blast. It was the “putting out the magazine” part that wasn’t tremendously challenging or rewarding.

Flash forward six years. I found my way to another columnist job –at the Philadelphia Inquirer — then on to write Marley & Me, and now to have just finished my new book, The Longest Trip Home, which comes out October 21. Along the way, I got mighty busy and more or less let the gardening go. It was a luxury I no longer had time for. I kept up on the weeding and trimming, but stopped planting vegetables and annual flowers, except for a few tomatoes and zinnias. I even returned several garden beds to lawn.
This fallen-away gardener has only one thing to say: Thank goodness for volunteer seedlings and steadfast perennials. Even in my gardening hiatus, I am still finding pleasant surprises around our property because of those two gifts. The perennial beds come back every year, even when ignored, giving me a bounty of flowers to cut — peonies, phlox, purple coneflower, daisies, Joe Pye weed, bee balm, and on and on – and good things to eat — rhubarb, fennel, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, grapes. I just came back from a stroll around the property with a bucket of fat, juicy blackberries, at once sweet and tart. My neighbor Digger Dan (he is the guy in Marley & Me who warns me about naming chickens) gave me canes he dug up from his garden several years ago. In the fall there will be apples and pears, too.

The volunteer seedlings — basically any plant that comes up from a seed dropped from last year’s plants or fallen fruit — also offer surprises. Snaking through a bed of ornamental grasses by the driveway, I found a giant pumpkin vine. I followed it for twenty feet before discovering two plump green pumpkins. They are already nearly the size of basketballs, so by Halloween they should be memorable. Various flowers have also come up from last year’s seeds, including a number of sunflowers, bachelor buttons, and marigolds. My philosophy is to let things grow where they sprout. It’s bedlam out there, but in a happy sort of way.
This season, I did find time to put in six tomato plants (now coming on strong), six kale plants (I love the crinkly blue-green leaves sautéed in olive oil and garlic), a couple rows of garlic (just harvested), and my two favorite annual flowers – sunflowers and zinnias. Of course, the neighbors give us more zucchini than we can use.
Anyway, that’s it from eastern Pennsylvania on this muggy August evening. Hope everyone is similarly enjoying the summer. Thanks for all the notes about the new book and the cover. I appreciate all of your feedback.