Watching grass, and other things, grow
by Victoria Stoppiello
I've been watching the grass grow, an expression that embodies the soul of idleness. When you're a gardener, however, "watching the grass grow" can be both your pain and your joy. When it is literally the grass growing, it's a pain, because you have to mow it again. When it's your snow peas, their daily progress is your joy.
Each morning, I look out the kitchen window at the western part of our yard. Large trees form a back drop. Planted as a hedge before I was born, they are 30 feet tall. In front of them are a gigantic rhododendron, an old-fashioned snowball shrub, a rosa rugosa, and a mixture of native plants including twinberry and salmonberry. Then there's the five-foot tall row of boysenberries running perpendicular to the backdrop, forming a protected and private nook with a picnic table.
Closer to the house is a large vegetable bed, rimmed with flowers - columbine, California poppy, and Shasta daisies. In the vegetable bed are the aforementioned peas. In a few days they metamorphosed from indiscernible specks to two-inch plants with leaves. Nearby is a virtual field of kale which volunteered from our compost. That's okay; young kale thinnings are good in salads. Interspersed are cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and rows of spinach.
A raised bed to the south is devoted to garlic. It's a crop we've raised since our first season here and we have its horticulture down to a set of simple steps. Garlic has a peculiar culture: You stop watering it at summer solstice, so you really can't grow anything else with it. After the garlic is pulled between late July and Labor Day, however, the bed is a great place for delicate plants typically assaulted by slugs, which seem to be repelled by the fumes from garlic roots remaining in the soil.
Further south is another raised bed, a chaotic mixture of lettuce, flowers, Swiss chard, strawberries, zucchini, broccoli, and onions. This bed flows seamlessly toward the street where, along the sidewalk, vegetables give way totally to flowers: cosmos, yarrow, lavender, rosemary, candy tuft, spirea, various sedums, alyssum, an occasional sweet William or calendula, and more daisies, columbine, and poppies.
Near the garlic bed is a heart-shaped raised bed, holding three kinds of chives, perennial onion, oregano, and our favorite variety of strawberries. Other beds here and there hold fuchsias, roses, and lavatera. Next to the shop is a makeshift greennhouse with tomatoes, basil, and a bell pepper plant, all in pots.
We have several serious gardener friends, one of whom is a Ph.D. microbiologist who grows seeds for a living as part of the Seeds of Change organization. This man is an adamant organic gardener, seed collector, and propagator who releases new varieties to the public domain. Alan's fear is that plant patenting will limit diversity and bio-engineering can introduce dangerous traits - the terminator gene, for example, that makes seed infertile, or Bt-corn that kills the larvae of Monarch butterflies as well as its target, the corn borer. Concerned about loss of diversity in the global plant community, Alan believes we can increase diversity through our backyard gardening methods, using open pollinator seeds and allowing similar varieties to cross-pollinate naturally.
So every morning I look out the kitchen window and see a changing scene of, yes, grass growing to my chagrin, but other things growing too, snow peas and all the rest. But I have a problem. I don't like thinning and composting the excess. Yes, I will eat what I grow, but when they're in the ground, young plants are like ducklings, puppies, and human babies, fragile and showing the exuberance of expanding life. I find myself apologizing for inadvertently stepping on or breaking a small plant.
Alan used to water his greenhouse and seed beds with an automatic drip irrigation system, but he dismantled it. Now he waters everything by hand. "That way," he said, "I can look at each plant to see how it's doing and sense what it needs."
The other day I pulled all the dead leaves from the strawberry bed, added soil, and watered it deeply. A few hours later I showed my work to my husband. The strawberry plants were transformed, holding their leaves and flowers upright in a manner that almost spoke of pride: "I'm alive and you love me." When you see a change in your plants like this, you have to wonder, "What level of consciousness is this? If plants could talk, what would I hear?"