On this blog I mostly write about books and book travel, dogs and family. But you know what has me jazzed lately?
Yes, that simple, age-old pursuit of sticking hands in dirt and nurturing seeds into plants and plants into harvests. I’ve always had a passion for it, ever since I was a kid. As I described in The Longest Trip Home, I used to be my father’s yardwork sidekick, helping him cut grass, rake leaves, pull weeds, and trim hedges. Then in ninth grade, I sprouted some popcorn seeds on my windowsill and watched them grow all winter. (Yeah, I was growing some other things, too, but you have to read the book for that.) My windowsill popcorn led me to dig up part of the backyard. “You want to do what?” Dad asked with some agitation, sensing another lame-brain kid idea that would become his headache. But he relented, and in my square of soil I planted tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, herbs, and lettuce. I was hooked.
All through high school and college, I kept that summer garden going. Dad’s fears were never realized; I stuck with my little plot, keeping it weeded and tidy and hauling in a surprising amount of food. Mom, one of the world’s great cooks, was thrilled. She made good use of the backyard produce I brought in each day. One of her great garden creations was a dish we called eggplant pizza. She would sauté eggplant slabs in olive oil, then top each with a slice of tomato, fresh herbs and swiss cheese and placed it under the broiler. Who knew such a dreaded vegetable could be so delicious?
After college, I continued to find whatever bit of soil I could around the various rentals I lived in, planting a few tomatoes and whatever else I could fit. Then I moved to Florida, married Jenny and settled into our first house on Churchill Road in West Palm Beach. The first thing I did was plant a garden, using all the knowledge I had acquired since that first effort back when I was 14. The whole bloody thing was fried to a crisp within weeks. Florida, I learned, played by its own set of rules. For one thing, you planted vegetables not in the spring but in the fall. This way the tender plants avoided the scorching summer sun. For another the sandy soil needed serious amending to nurture anything other than sand fleas. I began reading Organic Gardening magazine, learned how to compost, and how to repel insects without chemicals.
In one of those life twists no one could predict, a decade later I found myself moving my family to Pennsylvania to become editor of that magazine. While at Organic Gardening, I did what you’d expect: I gardened with abandon, on a grand scale. We now owned two acres of land, and I dug up plenty of it for flower and vegetable beds. I grew everything from corn on the cob to purple potatoes to giant pumpkins to heirloom melons. And tomatoes. So many of them, we ate all we could, canned as many as we had jars for, and gave the rest away.
One year led to another. I left the gardening magazine for the Philadelphia Inquirer, but kept the big garden going. Until 2004 when I began to work on my first book, Marley & Me. Suddenly, I had a new preoccupation — and not a lot of time for toiling in the soil. After the book came out and became a bestseller, and then a movie, the time crunch only grew. I spent weeks on the road, and the garden beds filled with weeds, sad orphans of neglect.
This is a long way of saying that, six years later, the gardener in me is back. We live in a new home now, just a few miles from our old place, and with even more land to dig up. My life has calmed down considerably, and this past winter I found myself back to my old snowbound preoccupation of perusing the seed catalogs, which are to gardening what pornography is to sex. As soon as the ground thawed, I sent a soil sample off to Penn State University and was thrilled all out of proportion to the news that the earth beneath my feet is pretty close to perfect, not too acid, not too base, and needed no amendments other than good old fashioned compost.
As I write this, the daylilies and sedums and other perennials are all poking their heads up, and the peas I sowed on St. Patrick’s Day are just breaking ground. The daffodils are in bloom, and the cardoon and and rhubarb and oregano and tarragon made it through the winter and are back, too. Down in the cellar beneath a row of fluorescent lights, some 200 vegetable seedlings are enjoying a pampered introduction to life. They better not get too comfortable. In a few weeks they are going to find the world is a harsh and hostile place, filled with bitter winds, scorching sun, and ravenous predators. (I have a love-hate relationship with the scores of deer and groundhogs around here). But my little charges have my assurance I’ll do everything in my power to help them through it. First up: a new fence worthy of Leavenworth.
And that’s what’s happening on this end. The promise of a new spring. It’s good to be back.