OP-ED

Growing a gardener

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I like the general idea of having a garden. It's just the gardening that's a little inconvenient. But don't tell our neighbor, Peter.

I marvel at the ability of our neighbors who train black-eyed Susans to climb a trellis as their thin tendrils reach towards the sun, coax sunflowers out of the earth that tower over me, and grow hydrangeas as big as my head.

Or the neighbors like Peter, who specialize in produce, whose vegetable gardens are prolific enough to provide a neighborhood salad bar. Every variety of lettuce or cucumber known to mankind thrives in their gardens. Beans of every type, even purple, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, and the herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are abundant.

But, gardening does have its drawbacks.

There's the dirt, for example. It's been a while since I dug a hole in my mom's flowerbed to see China, after a Saturday morning cartoon demonstration made it appear quite easy. Nowadays dirt is, well, dirty. I don't even like my garden gloves to get dirty.

Then there are the earthworms, the little creatures who are our friends in the garden, churning the dirt about and mixing it up for a perfect ratio of air and soil, although I could probably aerate the soil just as easily with my high heels, but then they'd get, well, dirty. There is also the fear of accidentally filleting one of the little worm friends with my garden spade, before it has the opportunity to try to make it across the sidewalk before the morning dew evaporates, and is scorched by the sun or ends up on the menu as the early bird breakfast special.

Next, we come to the maintenance aspect of gardening. Once the seeds have been planted, the dirt raked into place, a little water added, the wire cage put up (none of this by me) I retire from the garden and promptly file it in the back of my mind. Some time later the fact that we have a garden might pop into my head, usually after a heat spell or thunderstorm: "I wonder how my garden is doing." at which point it might resemble a compost pile.

However, with a neighbor like Peter, it's hard not to like gardening. This is the third season he has knocked on our back door, and said, "Hey, I have a few extra seedlings; why don't we plant them?" So my husband and I walk out to the garden shed where I'm certain I'll find a spade left by the previous owner. "Let's plant these by the chives," Peter suggests. (Those are chives? I thought they were purple flowers.)

We follow him to the garden. Pretty soon Peter is demonstrating with the small shovel, much like the cartoon character did when he dug a labyrinth to the East. Placing the small plant inside the newly dug hole, Peter directs, "Now you make a little moat," as we watch him do it. He just happens to have enough chicken wire to create little domes for each seedling. At this point I haven't even gotten my hands dirty, and I decide I really do like gardening.

A couple days later, Peter makes a house call. While I pour myself a cup of tea in the kitchen, I notice Peter's car pull into my driveway. Peter disappears into my back yard, returning to his car a few moments later, before driving away. There is a small gift on my back porch. It's a plastic cup of tiny colorful granules. "What is this?" I wonder. Then the phone rings. "Hi, this is Peter. I left some plant fertilizer on your back porch." He even delivers.

One day last summer, after a heat wave or thunderstorm, I ventured out to the garden. Beneath the zucchini leaves, I discovered a water pipe I'd never noticed before. Parting the leaves, I took a closer look. It was a zucchini as big as my forearm.

It was very gratifying to pick. So this is what farmers feel at the harvest! I twisted the vegetable until I heard the vine snap at the stem. Inside the house I gently washed it. The garden is not my domain, but the kitchen is. With a cheese grater, a little oil, vanilla, sugar, cinnamon, and flour, the giant zucchini was transformed into a giant loaf of warm zucchini bread.

I left my offering on Peter's porch.

A freelance writer and occasional contributor to these pages, Erin O’Brien lives in Warwick

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