Friday, September 4, 2009

A Gardening Tragedy

Each day, like Don Corleone in his old age, I like to go into my garden and spend a little time among my tomatoes. I don't really do much to them while I'm out there, unless I need to water. Partly I don't know what to do to them! Mostly I just walk among them, look at their leaves, examine the ripening fruit—enjoy their company.

But at this time of year the plants are definitely starting to die. It's not so much the wilting and the spotting of the leaves or the reddening of the fruit. It's as if their entire stature has started to shrink. They're a lot thinner through the middle. They seem to be all stem and fruit and less and less leafy liveliness. They're really more of skeletons than anything. I can't help but wonder if I did all I could during this growing season. I'm aware that the answer is, most likely, no. But that's okay. I've committed greater crimes in my garden, one of the more venal of which I will describe at this time. I do this not so much out of a sense of expiation as an acknowledgement that sinning seems to be such a central part of me and my gardening habits.

This story has to do with the Great Snowstorm of 2008 in Seattle, an event so momentous it seems to have cost us our otherwise wonderful mayor, Greg Nickels, as well as shaved several years off the lives of the majority of our citizens. I'm sorry, but coming from Michigan, a few inches of snow in December, no snowplows or not, does not a tragedy make. The story that follows, however, does.

Long before the snow came, around this time last year, my wife and I set out in the garden several types of lettuces, greens, and other winter vegetables. By the time December rolled around, they were doing swimmingly. We had been eating wonderful lettuces and greens for months, picking them one minute, eating them the next. Enter into the picture several inches of snow. Our lettuces became buried under a soft bed of white. We flew back East for Christmas (where there was real snow!), and by the time we returned to Seattle in early January it was the grey, dreary, snowless place we have come to call home.

Before we even got into the house, suitcases in tow, I went straight for where the plants had been. Several lesser varieties of lettuce, such as frilly frisee and that primadonna of Italian lettuces, lolla rossa, were gone completely. Gone without a trace. It was as if something had just zapped them out of existence, wiped them, quite literally, off the face of the earth. Some of the hardier varieties, your more quotidian romaine, were still there, but not long for this world. Imagine a head of lettuce lying completely flat on the ground. It was one-dimensional, each of its leaves spread out like a child's drawing of a flower. I lifted a limp leaf, hoping against hope that I might revive it. There was nothing left to do.

But standing in the back of the bunch were several plants I had all but forgotten about back in the fall. At that innocent time, slugs had all but eaten them to stumps. But there they were now, several sturdy, healthy, proud collard greens. It was a triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. I felt victorious. I monitored their progress for the rest of the winter. They were knee high when we decided to reap their benefits and cut them down. It was early spring, around the time I started to build my raised beds, and there wasn't room for them anyway. I had one very, very full shopping bag of the freshest collard greens I had ever seen.

I proceeded to stuff them into the back of the refrigerator, behind the milk jug and the water pitcher. And there they sat, week after week. That's right. One of the worst things that I do as a gardener is spend time growing things, only to throw them out later after they go bad.

A couple of things should be noted about collard greens. When properly stored, as mine were, they take a long time to go bad. Two, I personally love to cook them. After cooking in New Orleans for a year, where I learned to fix them with lots of bacon, brown sugar, and Abita amber, they have become a household staple several times of year. I've cooked them for parties and even catering events. I've been told on several occasions that they were the best collards that someone had ever tasted. And I knew it. Most collard greens are bland and boring. Mine roared with life, and flavor.

Why did I let them go to waste? I don't know. Each week my wife asked me to cook them. Each week I grew more and more apoplectic about them. I tried to pretend they weren't back there. Finally I took the bag and threw it directly into the trash can, not bothering to open it up and see them in their wilted state, not bothering to honor them with the food waste bin which sits adjacent to our regular trash.

"What happened to the collard greens?" my wife said one winter day, noting their absence almost immediately.

"I don't know," I answered meekly.

"What do you mean you don't know?" she responded rather logically.

I honestly didn't know, and I still don't. I have no excuses. Every time I try to come up with one, it just seems to fall apart, as if buried by you know what.

Will I ever be able to bring myself to grow collard greens again? Let's add that to the list of unanswerable questions. I seem to have a garden full of them at this point.

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