Just as soon as there’s even a hint that the last freeze has passed, out they come. There are swarms of them. They burrow into the ground. They descend upon plants, especially the biggest and healthiest specimens, until soon only the spindly, weak ones remain.
I’m speaking, of course, of gardeners.
The most enthusiastic are tomato growers. They know of the magic week in late July, when everyone is hungry for the perfect fruit but most people don’t have ripe ones yet. The gardener who has tomatoes before anyone else does is, briefly, very popular. These monomaniacal persons are risk takers: They will go ahead and plant, on the hope that the last freeze really has come and gone. If the weather turns against them, they can always replant. There are, too, ways of covering the baby plants if the forecast is troublesome.
Even on a weekday afternoon they are there, at places where plants are sold. They know their hybrids, and they have their favorites: Big Boy, Golden Jubilee, Beefsteak. Some favor the little tomatoes, the cherries and grapes and plums, but others know that one can purchase decent examples of these at the grocery store, while the perfect slicing tomato can be gotten only in its home-grown form.
“Have you seen any Early Girls?” asks a lady whose attire suggests that she is a nurse when not overcome by the urge to plant. “There are only Big Boy and Better Boy over here.” Gender equality is important in the tomato patch.
If you watch, you’ll quickly confirm that the tomato is the anchor of most gardens. Pepper plants, brussels sprouts, beans, onion sets — these are eyed critically, purchased carefully. Tomatoes are gotten with a sense of wild abandon.
But gardening is far more than buying plants at the store or the farmers market. It is an annual religious rite.
When I was growing up we had a big garden. No, a huge garden. It began each fall, when the old garden was plowed under, leaving a rough, almost impassable acre for the winter. Come spring, the disc was attached to the little garden tractor. This array of sharp metal discs, a foot in diameter, would break up the huge clods left by plowing. It was a bumpy ride.
If we had been especially energetic, we would have already spread a little compost over the garden, a labor-intensive job that got nutrients deep into the soil. Usually, the compost would get spread only after the disc had been applied — it was a lot easier to pull the little trailer over ground whose plow furrows had been knocked down.
Then came the harrow. This thing had strong steel teeth that combed the soil to a depth of a few inches. It would work in the compost, break up the soil to the consistency of pie dough before you put your hands in it, and was among the most satisfying of tasks. The more one dragged the harrow over the soil, the nicer it got.
At the end of the process, the ground felt good to walk on. Those who advertise trick mattresses on television would do better among gardeners if they said their products feel like walking barefoot over a perfectly prepared garden. Getting the ground just right is almost an end in itself.
That is especially true around here, where there is a lot of clay and one must grow one’s own dirt. Adding nutrients and other good things, such as sharp sand, every year makes the patch get better and better.
For many people, though, the whole tractor process is more than their small gardens can use. These persons turn the soil with shovels and hoes, usually developing some impressive blisters before remembering that gloves are a good idea. Perhaps a little gas -powered or electric tiller is employed. The ground feels just as good afterwards as if they had applied the full industrial gardening treatment.
Carefully, rows are laid out, if there are any row plants planned, things like some kinds of beans and, of course, sweet corn. The experienced gardener can do this to perfect depth with the corner of the hoe. Some people grow radishes, though I don’t understand why. (We did it; I didn’t understand it then, either.) Beets make more sense; their leaves are tasty and nutritious and for those who like them the roots are rich and easily preserved and pickled. But the tomatoes are the rulers of the garden.
After a strenuous day or two of digging and planting, the gardener can rest, the hoe handle providing support, looking come sunset over all that he or she has accomplished and pronouncing it good.
But there remains one more ritual, an incantation that can be uttered only after this year’s garden is in, when muscles and lower back are sore and satisfaction is high. Surveying the patch, the gardener utters the holy words:
“Next year we’ll …”
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.