My empire of dirt

Growing a garden and growing mad, or "The Cost Of These Greens"

“How much are you actually spending on these tomatoes?”

No one’s actually asked me that, to be clear. My wife knows intuitively when I need to be corralled and when I need to be allowed to run into the sunset like Homer Simpson after eating an insanity pepper. Planning a garden is more the latter than the former, so there’s no one to actually ask that question of me other than the little nagging voice of reason in my head, a lone die-hard still fighting a war that’s been lost years ago.

It’s a valid question, though.

After a decade living in stereotypically shoebox-sized New York City apartments after college and a couple of years renting after a move to Kentucky, one of the things I was most excited for in buying a house and having a yard was that I could finally plant a garden. There’s some biological imperative that appears — right around the time your lower back and ability to successfully process a night of drinking disappear, in my experience — that fills you with a deep need to become a small-scale vegetable farmer.

The first year, I was ambitious. I looked up everything that supposedly grew in this climate zone, and planted two of each. A Noah’s Ark of vegetables. There would be tomatoes. Lettuce and kale. Radishes and beets. Spring onions. Herbs. Hot peppers. Cucumbers. Squash. Of course, I crammed all of this into a raised garden bed far too small for such a density and variety of planting, but I’d just spent years storing my pots and pans on a shoe rack in the living room. What did I know about giving things room to breathe?

It looked positive from the start. The romaine lettuce popped right up, and I made a Caesar salad within the first two weeks. It was fresh, unbelievably crisp and green. There’s something incredible about making a salad with lettuce still warm from the sun. I felt like Caesar himself, the all-powerful and beloved emperor for whom I assume everything worked out great. (I’m still catching up on my Shakespeare. No spoilers!) Within days of plucking those leaves off, more had popped up in their place. This was going to go on all summer. Truly, my salad days had arrived.

A week later, the lettuce was three feet tall. I did not know lettuce was supposed to do that.

[does a cursory Google search]

Lettuce is not supposed to do that.

Apparently it’s too hot in Kentucky for lettuce to thrive? Okay, well, at least I’ve still got the kale. I can do kale Caesar salads. I’ll look up a recipe for that tomorrow. [twelve hours pass] Something has eaten the kale overnight. The radishes refused to emerge from their trench; the beets emerged all at once and killed each other, a twenty-car pileup of beets. That’s okay. I’m not sure what I was going to do with beets anyway.

Then there’s the squash. You see, every seed packet or planter tag gives you recommendations for proper spacing of your plants. Most things, you’ll want to give them a foot or two — with squash, the general recommendation is three feet apart. This is not true. If you give the squash three feet, they will take three feet. They will merge. They will form a squash Voltron, and they will come for your house. Have you ever seen Annihilation? That’s what growing squash is like, and it’s also an apt description of what they did to the rest of the garden. They swarmed over the peppers like an advancing army seizing defenseless farmland. They strangled the cucumbers, a shocking act of vegetable fratricide. The herbs were airlifted out into pots, the last survivors of the bloodbath. The squash’s murderous masterwork was only complete when they overgrew themselves and died off having only produced three actual squash. It was like the end of Se7en, except that there was nothing in the box. 

I wanted to put vegetables in that box. 

The tomatoes did okay, though. Okay, next year, I’m focusing on tomatoes. No squash. Never again.

The tomatoes, though, begat their own war. It was me against the squirrels. A fuzzy menace ready to strike at any moment, angling to brazenly steal my beautiful heirloom babies at the exact moment they turn ripe. I would give no quarter to these tree-dwelling guerillas. I would become as pathologically obsessed with repelling them as the dog is, but unlike the dog, I knew I could never sleep. If I curled up in a warm spot of sun, my tomatoes would be undefended. There would be no peace without security. I built a six-foot tall cage from wood and chicken wire. I dubbed it the Squirrel Defense Initiative. It kept the peace, and the tomatoes thrived. Pasta sauces. Caprese salads. Margarita pizzas. Sliced thick and sprinkled with salt. We are a tomato household now; it will always be tomato season.

This year? This year, it’s time to go bigger. And better. I tripled the size of the garden’s footprint; the SDI will need to be replaced with an even grander edifice. Bags and bags of fancy store-bought dirt; as much as can be fit in the back of a Honda CR-V. while cutting a covert, mask-wearing curbside deal behind Home Depot. It feels like I’m running drugs or weapons, and it costs almost as much. But I need that good dirt. I’m even home-brewing dirt. I purchased a fancy compost tumbler online, one that promises to turn my coffee grounds, onion peels and carrot tops into premium, nutritious, single-malt dirt. I just need to carefully monitor the pH and moisture content of my dirt, checking on it daily. Hourly, perhaps. Hold on, I need to go check on my dirt. I’ll be right back. Okay, I’m back. It looks like dirt.

All day I think about dirt.

Of course, it’s not just about the dirt, and it’s not about the tomatoes. I love my tomatoes, but at the rate I’m spending to coddle, nurture and protect them, I could buy all the tomatoes I’d ever need, the finest heirloom varieties from the best organic farms in the area. There’s something more, though, something that’s compelling me to wage these wars in the backyard, against squirrels and birds, against the wind and the rain and drought. I have to feel like I contributed to making something.

Now, this might seem a patently ridiculous statement — not only am I an architect, but I’m also a father to two small children. I have obviously contributed to making something, though my instrumentality in either is somewhat questionable. Buildings take years to rise, and a single person’s impact on it is hard to measure when you consider the consultants, the contractors, the code officials, the users. As for the children? They’re a work in progress. I love them and think the world of them, they’re brilliant and charming but it’ll be years before it’s clear how much and in what ways I’ve screwed them up. 

The garden offers the promise of a single season of results. Put a seed or a plant in the soil. Give it water and light, Protect it from its enemies, rodent or avian. Wait. Watch. Water again. If everything goes right, you’ll have something delicious and fortifying to show for your work, something you can display on Instagram like the artist it makes you. If things go wrong, you’ll likely know exactly where you’ve failed, and you can learn from it. Apply the lessons to your next try, your next season.

If only everything in life could be so clear. 

(Seriously, do not plant squash.)

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)