Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gardening is a labor of love

A rare 80-degree day in mid-April in New England, my husband searches for the blue wheelbarrow in the barn and ambles over to our kitchen garden. He begins to clear away the remains of last year’s crop in the raised eight-by-eight bed and uncovers bright green shoots of chives and thriving strawberry plants inching to cover lost ground.

He wants to add another raised bed this year, more space for tomatoes. Last year I canned about 20 bottles, and I can imagine even more Mason jars filled with huge tomato chunks swimming in juice lining up on the basement pantry shelves.

My husband hoes, while I find my planner, a spiral-bound journal where I record every detail of my gardening experiment.

I smile when I read: “Purchases – 16  tomato plants (Goliath) and 4 dill for $11; Burpee Dark Seeded Early Perfection Pea, $1.79; and Burpee Bush Blue Lake 274 Garden Bean for $1.59; May 1 – Planted 2 rows of beans near fence, east to west for maximum sun.”

I learned from the best.

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau built a cabin at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., where he lived for two years, two months and two days. There he worked his small plot of land and recorded his observations of the natural world.

“It was a singular experience that long acquaintance which I cultivated with beans, what with planting, and hoeing, and harvesting, and threshing, and picking over and selling them – the last was the hardest of all – I might add eating, for I did taste. I was determined to know beans.”

I chuckle when I read his expense list: “For a hoe, 54 cents; plowing, harrowing, and furrowing, $7.50 (too much); beans for seed, 12 cents; potatoes, $1.33; peas, 40 cents; turnip seed, 6 cents; white line for crow fence, 2 cents; horse cultivator and boy three hours, $1.00; horse and cart to get crop, 75 cents; in all, $14.72.”

His investment and labor would yield 9 bushes and 12 quarts of beans sold for $16.94; five bushes of large potatoes for $2.50; 9 bushels of small potatoes for $2.25; grass for $1.00; stalks for 75 cents; in all, $23.44, leaving a “pecuniary profit” of $8. 71.

At our Fogland summer house in Tiverton, R.I., we are surrounded by gardens.

My mother plants a tiny garden behind the shed that in some years yields more produce than my kitchen garden. The fertile soil and moist sea breeze combine to provide the perfect environment to grow tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers and herbs.

Our yard also backs up to farmland that in some years sprouts potatoes and pumpkins or just lies fallow.

Every neighboring cottage contains a flower or vegetable plot.

Gardening is a labor of love in these parts, according to the master.

“Meanwhile my beans, the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted, were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest has grown considerable before the latest were in the ground; indeed they were not easily to be put off,” wrote Thoreau. “What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted.”    

Gardens stretch to the sea near our summer place in Tiverton, R.I.

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