The Rural Life

Every year, I watch for the signs that spring, glorious spring, is returning to the farm. I await the gangs of fat robins that peck and twitch about the fields on their twiggy old-man legs. I look for the pale daffodils and vibrant purple henbit pushing up through the hard ground. I notice the naked tree line beside the Bogue Chitto River filling out in verdant shades of lime and pistachio.

But mainly, I know spring is nigh when my lover gets that old, familiar look in his eye.

No, not that old look.

I’m talking about the look that can only mean one thing: Harvey’s got vegetable gardens on the brain.

Actually, “garden” sounds too wimpy to describe our family’s adventures in produce. To me, “garden” implies something small, cute and manageable — a scene out of a seed catalog with smiling women in gauzy dresses gathering succulent foodstuffs into wicker baskets. That’s the kind of garden I want. The kind of garden my husband usually has in mind, however, is on another level entirely. These operations call to mind descriptions more along the lines of, oh, “Armstrong International Airport” or, better yet, “Texas.”

I forget exactly how ginormous our very first so-called “garden” was. I only know that the following year — after I beseeched Harvey to bring it down to human scale — we wound up with 50 tomato plants on the first row.

This is what happens when a farmer mistakes himself for a mere gardener. In my experience, a man who goes around with his thought processes dialed up to 225 acres just cannot be trusted to lay out a garden that is small, cute and manageable.

I’m sure this has some folks wondering, “Yeah, so what’s your problem?” And, yes, I realize it’s a luxury to have enough land to grow vegetables and a husband who is willing and able to do it.  Like everyone else who has ever tasted real, garden-fresh fare, I am also aware that half of that stuff on your grocer’s produce aisle is a sorry substitute.

That is most especially true of tomatoes. If I were on death row and ordering my last meal, a tomato sandwich would probably be near the top of my list.  But the tomato would have to be a tangy, juicy, thin-skinned, vine-ripened baby, preferably on white bread with salt, pepper and enough mayo to make a cardiologist cry. If they brought me one of those grainy pink tennis balls the grocery store calls tomatoes, I’d just have to face eternity on an empty stomach.

Tomatoes aren’t the only commercially grown vegetables that pale in comparison to the homegrown version. The first time Harvey planted potatoes, I questioned why anyone would go to all that trouble when a lifetime supply of Idaho’s best can be had for a few bucks at any supermarket. Now that I’ve learned how exquisitely tender and flavorful freshly dug potatoes are, however, I will never again be quite as content with the store-bought kind. The Green Giant fails to excite me now that I’ve had sweet corn straight off the stalk. I kid you not: The yellow-and-white variety Harvey grows is divine enough to eat right there in the field without boiling, buttering or salting.

So my quibble with gardening most definitely isn’t with the results. It’s with everything that has to happen between the bright promise of planting season and the tomato sandwich in June, which is not a little. I’ve observed that our enthusiasm for day-in, day-out garden maintenance tends to wane as the Louisiana heat and humidity set in. Nor does it help that vegetable season coincides with early hay season, which is how we earn our paycheck. One of those undertakings is bound to suffer, and it’s not hard to figure out which one.

When you look at it that way, on the other hand, those USS Nimitz-size garden plots of Harvey’s start to make sense. Based on sheer volume, odds are that at least a few plants will prosper and bear fruit in spite of the halfhearted care they receive.  At times, to our own surprise, we’ve been inundated with more veggies than we could eat or give away.  That’s both a blessing and another occasion when gardeners are prone to take leave of their senses.

Long will I remember the time I was six months pregnant and we decided it was imperative to salvage the last of our green bean crop. For reasons I’ve forgotten or blocked out, the job fell to me alone. Until that day, I had never canned anything in my life. But after spending what seemed like hours in the 95 degree heat, leaning over my bulging belly to reach beans growing a foot off the ground, I wasn’t willing to let a single one go to waste. Thus, I spent the remainder of the afternoon at a friend’s, boiling jars and washing and snapping and sorting beans. To thank her, I insisted we split the final product. We each netted 4 quarts. I tried not to think about the fact that I could have gotten almost the same results by driving to Winn Dixie in my air-conditioned car and forking out $2.

It’s taken me many summers to figure this out, but you don’t plant a garden because it’s easier or cheaper than buying vegetables from a store. Really, you don’t even do it because the vegetables are so mouthwatering or because it’s fun. You plant a garden because spring, glorious spring, clouds your judgment and allows you to kid yourself that, this summer, things really will be different.

I guess springtime is to vegetable gardening what fat, grinning babies are to labor pains. They both make you forget everything except the good parts. Don’t try to tell me that was an accident. I know for a fact that God pulled a fast one when he thought up springtime, and farmers are the biggest suckers of all.