For years, I have yearned to be a gardener. How could I not want to have the power to strew seeds upon the earth, water just enough, and watch green leaves unfurl toward the sun? It’s magic, I tell you. Magic.
But me? As a kid I killed every tiny sunflower that sprouted in a Dixie cup from grade school. House plants must have formed an association to stay away from me, since I killed so many of them inadvertently. And planting a garden — a square space of planned rows with lovely greens and good things to eat — and seeing the hope turn into dinner? It has, until this year, eluded me.
Here on Vashon, being good at gardening is almost a requirement for living on the island. All spring and summer, the weekends are booked with garden tours, open houses to enormous gardens filled with spiraling copper raised beds lavish with French herbs and exotic plants. Almost everyone has a garden worthy of a spread in Sunset magazine.
(As you drive on the island, you’ll see gardens in big cages all around you. We’re not imprisoning our plants. The deer rule this place. There’s a family of five of that lives among the handful of yards on the gravel road where we live. If we don’t build tall fences, they chew down everything. Gardens are fiercely protected spaces here.)
However, since we moved to Vashon, my dream of a glowing garden has been a failure every time.
There were the stray herbs in pots. A handful of small strawberries from a patch of dirt that sprouted them spontaneously. Some Swiss chard leaves. A few bunches of lettuce that turned out to be edible. And tiny German butterball potatoes no bigger than my thumb. Those were my sole accomplishments in the garden.
They were, however, enough to make me keep trying.
This year we have artichokes. Artichokes are growing in my garden! There are gorgeous heirloom lettuces, more than I can eat, even with my daily salad for lunch. There are onion sprouts, baby kale, glossy green leaves of Swiss chard that grow every day, snap peas and snow pea tendrils climbing the fence toward the sun, and broccoli. I’m actually growing broccoli.
And spinach. Oh my, the spinach.
The day we returned from our trip to New York and Italy, Danny stopped the car in the driveway and I immediately walked to the garden. I froze when I saw it.
Holy hell. We have a lot of spinach.
Seriously, does anyone need a bunch of organic spinach? Because we have about 35 left, and we’ve been eating and eating it for days. Spinach pesto will be part of our dinner all winter long.
What happened this year?
I let go.
In the years past, I have planned and thought and talked and asked questions and researched online. I’ve drawn up drawings of where everything should go. I’ve pestered my gardening friends with questions. I’ve carefully studied the growing tips in at least three books before planting starts.
This year, I turned off my targeting computer and listened to Obi Wan Kenobi. Trust the force, Luke.
Instead of planning, I planted.
Always before, I was imagining the final outcome. Lucy and I are going to wake up in the morning and eat peas, first thing after sunrise. That happened a couple of times in our old garden. But not much. On the way there, I fretted about the ending instead of enjoying it.
This year, in March, I started putting my hands in cold soil. I dug up old plants and weeds. I amended the earth and watered and then I forgot it. A few weeks later, I threw some seeds in the ground. I’m not kidding. I kind of just threw them and patted them down. I planted more.
Every day, I spent 3o minutes in the garden. After a long winter, my skin wanted to feel the sunlight. I just worked, every day, until I had worked for 30 minutes. I dug and pulled and hoed and said hello to the worms and planted some seeds and stood up, wiped off my knees, and went inside. I left the garden where it was.
I did that every day for months.
And one day, I looked around and there were things growing. Baby green leaves and tiny sprouts of broccoli. Little red leaves of lettuce. Going out to the garage one evening, I thought, “Man, it’s cold.” So I cut off the bottoms of the plastic jugs that once contained filtered water we had in the recycling bin and put them over the lettuce and broccoli sprouts to keep them warm. That’s when I knew I had the bug, when I made little warm hoods for my plant sprouts.
I think, this year, I just enjoyed it.
And I’ll refrain from turning this into a metaphor for anything else.
All I know is that enjoying this, thoroughly, has meant that Lucy and I are in the garden, eating snow peas for breakfast, every morning.
One of my favorite discoveries of the garden this year? Broccoli leaves.
Our plants have grown stalky and tall, the broccoli florets still tiny. While we were gone, the leaves took all the sunlight and grew enormous. I looked at them the other day and thought, “Wait, those look like collard greens.”
I’d never eaten broccoli leaves before. Dope that I am, I wondered if they were poisonous. I googled recipes for broccoli leaves from the garden, which yielded lots of good advice, before I stripped them from the plant.
Turns out they’re a little like young collard leaves and a little like dark lacinato kale. You heard it hear first, people. Eat broccoli leaves. Slice them into thin ribbons — even thinner than the ones you see pictured — and throw them in a hot pan with oil. Chile flakes, a little garlic, a tumble of sea salt. Shake them in the pan until they are wilted and soft. Done.
After we grow so tired of spinach we feel like Popeye in the middle of a hallucination, we’re going to start having sautéed broccoli greens for breakfast every morning.
It’s an eat-from-the-garden kind of year.