I think I’m growing the world’s largest tomato plant. I’m not kidding, it’s huge—big, thick stalks shooting off from an impossibly large inner trunk. I would say stem, but it’s beyond that now, we’re working with a tomato tree. I’m both surprised and delighted—I love my garden intensely, obsessively, kind of possessively, so much so that it feels more like a new old friend than a garden. It’s a familiar refuge and a place of discovery for me, because everything’s always changing, getting bigger, things die and things come up in unexpected places. This is all good for me, a kind of maintained chaos that feels comfortable. I like taking care of the plants, nurturing, I like being a part of the process of having something grow. The tomato plant, though, is something else. At first I thought it was just me, thinking that my tomato plant was the greatest tomato plant of all time because it was mine and I was starry-eyed with pride, but then I kept showing it to people who would invariably say, oh my god, and I started measuring how much it grew during the day between when I watered at 6:30 in the morning and when I got home from work at 4—it was averaging about an inch and a half a day, I kid you not. That was just in height, not even counting how far it grew out. It swallowed the tomato cage I bought it, a good sturdy one from my favorite guy at Ace. I think about the tomato plant a lot, which means I end up talking about it a lot too. Rachelle patiently hears out my daily reports of the tomato plant that could not be stopped, and Darren hears out my conspiracy theories of how I think the tomato plant might be the first of mother earth’s uprisings against us and how it might end up taking over—first the pole beans growing next to it, then the rest of the box, the yard, the house, the neighborhood and finally, the whole world.
He gently suggested I stop spending so much time in the garden by myself.
But that’s part of the allure, I think, of a really good garden. They are places that inspire flights of the imagination that might not take off otherwise, bring us closer to a whisper in the ground we couldn’t hear otherwise. Sometimes I think about the sheer amount of energy in a garden—not in a like a hippy dippy spiritual way, I’ll get to that in a second—but in the sense that there is a lot of energy in a seed, and there are so many seeds, and they’re all moving up, it has yet to cease to amaze me. That really is a kind of magic, don’t you think?
I’ve known a few really great gardens in my life, apart from my own precious plot of land I’ve been so tenderly cultivating. One is my Grandma Verdell’s—it was in her neighbor’s yard, Ruthie’s (or maybe Ruth Ann? This was before I could read so I’m a little hazy on names/dates/places), and I remember it very, very vaguely. We were still pretty little kids, I think, in the height of our American Girl doll phase, but this is the first garden I have any memory of. We used to have boxes on the side of our house at Pennywood, but my Grandma’s was sprawling, an enormous landscape of green and leafy pocked with the bright red or lighter green of vegetables. There was a legitimate vegetable hauling basket that we would fill, and sometimes we had tea parties with Ruthie on her back porch. I kind of remember her having a croaky voice.
I also remember, more clearly than anything else, my Grandma’s hands would always have dirt under the fingernails, and I think I remember it so well because she was always showing us how to do something, or what something looked like, and at that age we were about hand height on her so I always was watching her hands. I think of anyone I know, I can picture my Grandma’s hands the best, down to the shade of her tan and the age spots she probably wouldn’t want me to mention. But! Here we are.
The second garden is also one from my childhood, and it belonged to my older sister’s friend Maddie’s mom and dad, Marcia and Kevin. It was really their whole yard and house that were our mystery, our play pen, filled with the whimsy that childhood imagination is made of, so we loved it. They created a world that was like something out of a book, I think I loved it especially because I was so quiet and almost painfully shy at that age that their house offered an escape that I normally only could find in a book. We would wander around for hours in their yard, and make up games, and try and dig a hole to China (I’m not kidding, the bare patch is still there). So much of that place was Marcia—she was inexpressibly kind to me and encouraged in us every kind of creativity you could think of, including growing things. She had a wild garden, I remember it towering over us when we were kids because everything grew so tall, even though they fought an endless battle against the deer. And there they cultivated not just the vegetables but all kinds of growth—no bare patch was left neglected, the whole place was teeming with plant life and wonder and mystery. They created a whole world that always felt safe to me, but wonderful too, with so much possibility. I think about their yard and garden a lot, and I hope I can someday suffuse my own yard, and my life, and the life of someone other little kid with the kind of belief and magic that they did for me. Marcia died a little while ago but I think about her all the time, and I have especially with spring and summer here. Seasons of renewal, of new life, and of all the lives that Marcia cultivated while she was still here physically.
The third garden is my Dad’s, and this is one I helped build, kind of—I read an incredible amount on permaculture and helped plan what it would look like. Now it’s a space of his own making, but it still feels familiar to me. I watered it a lot in high school and when I was home in the summer time, and that’s where I learned how good strawberries are when they’re still warm from the sun and that nothing compares to a raspberry off the vine. Practically speaking too, that’s where I learned most of what I actually know about plants and how to kill slugs. That’s probably also where I picked up the obsessive/possessive piece of gardening—nothing like a Hobson to really show you what it means to focus on something!
So you see how, when I’m in my garden, admiring the tomato plant that may take over the world, I’m not just in my garden, but I’m remembering all the other places too, all the other gardens that let me in and showed me a home. When I see dirt under my own fingernails I am a part of a proud tradition of women who weren’t afraid of a little dirt, when I talk to my plants I am nurturing in a way that someone nurtured me, and when I make everyone come see my garden (including my Dad) I am proud in a way that someone showed me how to be. Which is all fine and good—until that tomato plant really does take over.