03 December 2012

How Does My Garden Grow?

Long after I had left the proverbial nest, my parents started a vegetable garden in the backyard. They grew great big Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, sugar snap peas, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, squash, you name it. I think my moment of epiphany came one day when my mother was preparing dinner (grilled salmon with roasted new potatoes) and sent my father out to harvest some sugar snap peas. He brought in a bagful, she sauteed them in butter, and served what became one of those memorable meals the family would talk about for years later. Everything was delicious, but it was those peas, those just-off-the-vine, sweet sugar snaps that clinched the deal. I’ve wanted a garden of my own ever since.

American Gothic lives!
Mary, Mary, quite contrary . . . 

Unfortunately, I lived in apartments for about 20 years, so whatever ambitious gardening plans I might have had were put on hold. Couldn’t even set a couple of potted herbs out on the windowsills — co-ops have Rules, after all — so I bided my time. And just when I was getting stiff-jointed and cranky, just when my back pains made it all but impossible to bend down, let alone plant, weed and harvest, that’s when Mark and I bought a house where it was really tempting to play the farmer in the dell at long last. I was undaunted and ready to plunge ahead, even if it hurt. At first we didn’t know where to put the garden. How were we going to "plow the North 40" on a property built on a steep incline? The only level area lay alongside the beach some 68 steps down from the house (not to mention 68 steps back up). No dice. I tried planting some herbs in a narrow strip of dirt alongside our kitchen, but they never got enough sun. No dice. Then I thought, let's use the jardineiras, deep planters built onto the outside walls of our terrace. But these jardineiras hang some eight meters above the ground. No way was I going to be able to handle a garden there. No dice. Then along came Sandoval.

Jardineiras in the sky

Sandoval is our new caseiro, or caretaker, now a mere eight months into his job. He grew up on a farm in the northeastern state of Bahia. His nostalgia for farming and my desire for a vegetable garden were a match made in heaven. Sandoval is young and nimble and fearless, and jumps in and out of those jardineiras like an Olympic gymnast on the balance beam. And he makes it down those 68 steps and back up without a huff or a puff. It took ten years, but we’ve begun to harvest our first crops.

So far, we’re doing pretty well in that "North 40" by the beach. Sandoval’s been nursing various fruit trees, like banana, sugar apple, passion fruit and avocado. Our successes up in the jardineiras have been three varieties of lettuces, green and red peppers, cherry tomatoes, kale, beets and carrots. As for my kitchen herbs, we’ve been harvesting parsley and cilantro, but are watching oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme with some trepidation. They’re looking a bit frail. Our failures, on the other hand, have been many: zucchini, melon, cucumber, eggplant, turnip, scallion, pumpkin and green beans have all turned to mulch. But we keep on buying seeds, and Sandoval keeps on planting them. There’s something wonderfully visceral and satisfying about picking your own peck of peppers to pickle — not to mention pulling up your own carrots. Right, Miz Scarlett?

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