Green Stuff

One of the most pleasing occurrences over the last year was that I planted a garden last spring for the first time in nearly two decades.

Now, I’m not a row-gardener. In fact, I almost didn’t become a gardener at all because in about 1993, I got the urge to plant some veggies. I spoke with the wisest old timer I knew, my father, seeking to gather some of that old-time mojo on the subject.

“The most important thing you need to know about gardening, boy,” he said, “is that when the garden needs tending, that’s when the fish are biting.”

This was my father’s paradigm in virtually all things. The minor nuisances, major debacles and currents of life were all viewed in reference to fishing. Since I understood this was his mindset, I forged on, thinking the old man was just being cynical.

“Plant them tomatoes way up on the stem,” he said when I returned home after buying plants. “They’ll set out roots and get stronger, make better tomatoes.”

“Don’t water them peppers too much,” he advised. “Peppers don’t like to get their feet too wet.”

My mother, upon hearing all this, frowned and said to him, “ Mais , what do you know about gardening, you?”

Dad harrumphed. “I grew a garden once.”

Mom laughed. She said, “Nah, you poked a hole in the ground, threw some seeds in it, covered it up and went fishing!”

I did plant, and it was marvelous. Life got in the way, and I gave it in favor of more pressing things. Granted, the old man was right: the more pressing thing was fishing, as it turns out. Give him props.

So last winter I decided I wanted to plant a raised-bed, organic garden. I do not like pesticides or artificial fertilizers. I wanted to “go natural.” I built four raised beds, eight-inch wood sides, after tilling up a plot of land in the back yard. I set wood walkways between the four beds, arranged in a square, and around the perimeter because I may enjoy getting my hands dirty in the garden, I don’t want to be sloshing around in mud. It’s a good thing, too, because as you are all aware, we had monsoons every single day through spring and most of summer.

I loaded the beds with tilled soil, organic compost and organic humus until they were mixed and full. This I planted with heirloom tomatoes bearing such wonderful names as Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Pruden’s Purple and the like. These 100+ year old tomatoes have something no modern tomato possesses: a little something called “taste.” These are the old varieties that were bred into the new hybrids that taste like cardboard and digest like peat moss. One taste of an heirloom and it’s hard to go back. I also planted snap beans, eggplant, watermelon, sweet peppers, green onions, yellow crookneck squash, cucumbers, the works.

It rained so much I firmly believed the entire garden would float off to Jeanerette before I got the first cherry tomato, but we made it through. Organic gardening is tough in this climate, but it is not impossible. I lost very little, and Suze and I enjoyed a remarkable harvest.

Tomatoes, you may or may not know, were native to the Andes Mountains area of South America. When the Spaniards arrived on their holy crusade to enslave and murder the indigenous population, they also found tomato vines on the sides of the mountains stretching out for hundreds and hundreds of miles. These were grape-sized tomatoes, they were wild as wild can be, and 99.99 percent of them were yellow. The conquistadors took some back to Spain, and they worked their way to the rest of Europe where they were considered a delicacy.

Over time, a recessive gene for red was discovered, and being more pleasing to the European eye, despite the fact that they did not like red men as fondly as red tomatoes, bread out most of the genes for yellow. They also bred for size and vigor, among other traits.

Meanwhile, back in America, the descendants of the Pilgrims and such believed tomatoes were poisonous, in much the same way they regarded the red men gallivanting around their forts and settlements whooping and hollering and trying to scare them and their chimney pipe hats back across the ocean before they ruined the neighborhood. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that tomatoes were regularly consumed in America, and by then, the neighborhood was pretty much a lost cause and the Indians had been foreclosed on.

Which begs the question, so far as Europe is concerned: what the heck did those Italians eat with their pasta before the conquistadors moved into South America and “discovered” the tomato?

Anyway, every day after work, my “winding down” session when I got home was to grab a small stogie, a glass of honey-sweetened Luzianne tea, and go tend to the garden, or if it didn’t need tending, just sit down in the shade and perform the ritual of “garden-looking.”

Garden-looking shares its bloodline with many cousins, among them being “boat-building-looking,” “grass-cutting-looking,” “cleaning-house-looking” and my very favorite of all, “about-to-throw-a-fly-at-a-fish-looking.” It has relaxing, medicinal, spiritual and with the proper replacement for honey-sweetened tea, certain, uhm , “therapeutic” qualities.

I am readying my fall garden now; I never attempted a fall garden before, but Suze and I have plans for broccoli, brussel sprouts, a few cabbages and more. The good thing about this is , creek fishing is no good during winter.

Oddly, I have only fished twice this year. Once late winter before the monsoons began, and again a few weeks ago on Fires Creek in Clay County, North Carolina. I caught a rainbow trout exactly as long as my middle finger, which I found somehow appropriate. I missed three or four more, which I believe were smaller than the tiny insect-mimicking dry fly I was casting at them.

The Appalachians have beat my tail so far as fishing goes. I caught numerous trout in Montana, and a few in Arkansas, but those ancient old hog-backed hills eat my lunch. No matter, I’ll figure it out at some point before I go to Happy Hunting Ground. Or so I hope.

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