Tuesday, July 27, 1999

curse of the garden

Recently I have come to feel the full weight of an ancient curse God once levied upon humanity.

It's worse than the curse of Tutankhamen, worse than the mummy's curse that legend credits with the fate of the Titanic. This one's a real doozy: Children are destined to do the same thing their parents did.

Now you should understand that at my parents' home in Saunders Station, Pa., my father has a huge garden, I would guess 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep. Dad loves that garden, and spends several hours in it every weekend, pulling weeds, watering the plants and generally avoiding any housecleaning.

One summer in the mid-1980s, Dad planted three rows of Swiss chard. For the entire summer those bitter leaves showed up in everything we ate. We had Swiss chard salad, Swiss chard sandwiches, Swiss chard casserole, Swiss chard on our hamburgers, Swiss chard with our cereal, and Swiss chard in our pancakes.

Dinner became a screaming match as the four of us would shout in unison, "No! Not Swiss chard again!" and Dad would say, "It's good for you; have a no-thank-you helping." (No-thank-you helpings were my parents' way of making us eat things they knew we hated. I once tried to outsmart Dad by asking for a thank-you helping, and regretted it immediately. To this day, I insist on serving myself lest I make the mistake again.)

Relief finally came that summer when we offered to help Dad weed the garden. First we weeded out the actual offender, followed shortly afterward by anything that looked remotely like it. Many innocent plants were martyred for the great cause before we felt safe.

"Carrots?"

"Dunno. Could be related. Rip 'em out."

"Tomatoes?"

"Don't take any chances."

Dad still plants the stuff, but only half a row, and he never serves it to Mom or to us when we visit. He's probably afraid that if he tries, we'll soak his garden in gasoline and burn the whole thing down.

Now one of the other things I should note about Dad's garden is that it's made entirely of red clay. Red clay, to the horticulturally challenged, is really bad for growing things. It has virtually none of the nutrients plants need to grow up healthy.

Dad's solution was to conscript my two older brothers, and later my younger brother and myself, to dig a compost pit. Into that pit went pulled weeds; old litter from our menagerie of rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils (they themselves eventually were composted separately in small cardboard boxes buried throughout the back yard); raked leaves; bad produce and other organic waste.

The result of 20 years of composting is that Dad's garden now rises noticeably above the surrounding yard. This is handy in the spring, when rain turns the yard into a swamp, but it makes life difficult for the local topographers, who have to update their maps every couple years to show the steady increase in elevation.

The irony is this: Even with all the composted leaves, egg shells, potato peels and God knows what else, Dad's garden is still made of red clay. It's fertile clay now -- he gets better produce than some farmers -- but it's still clay, as he found last summer when the sun dried it up and nearly killed the entire garden.

Despite my childhood travails in Dad's garden, I was thrilled to discover when Natasha and I moved into our new house that the previous owners had planted a garden in the back yard themselves. There are a few things in there I could do without -- like the brussels sprouts -- but there also are tomatoes, onions and a few herbs I'd never heard of.

As I was saying, the curse is coming to fulfillment and I am following in Dad's footsteps, albeit without the benefit of forced labor.

This past weekend I dug my very own compost pit. It's not as big as the pits we dug for Dad since our yard is smaller and since he's not here to make me dig it any deeper, but it should be big enough.

"It looks like you're digging a grave," Natasha said as she stood over me in the hole.

"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "Hey, could you do me a favor and lie down in this for a minute? I want to see if it's long enough."

She muttered something inarticulate and walked away.

I was feeling proud of myself for having done something so useful, so I called my younger brother Ward, who said I'd have been better off with some above-ground palettes. Such a set-up helps aerate the compost, encouraging actual decay instead of just putrefaction.

"You only dug one because Dad had them when we were kids," he said. To his credit, Ward not only was right, but also tried to share my pride. "Well, how big is it?" he asked.

"Probably about 5 feet long, about 2½ feet deep and about as wide," said I.

"That's it?" he said, and started laughing like a howler monkey. "I thought you dug a big hole or something, the way you were talking about how long it took you!"

I thought of getting even somehow, but it's all right. Ward is two years younger than me, and I figure it's just a matter of time before the Curse of the Garden catches up with him. And when that happens, I'll be ready to help him out. You see, I know where I can some seeds for Swiss chard ...

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