Victory garden

I'm finally making my little piece of the world just a little greener

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For 17 years, we have grown almost nothing in our yard except what came with the house when we bought it. This summer, though, my husband and I agreed: The time had come to stick a thumb in the dirt and see if it came out green.

Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).

Up until now, our idea of gardening has been getting rid of things, not adding them. Plants have always grown on our city plot with no urging from us, so it never seemed necessary to do anything except pull a few weeds after a heavy rain or whack away at overgrown bushes we couldn't identify and didn't want to.

Occasionally, we'd make a futile attempt to rip out the maple shoots that quadrupled before our eyes, and whose roots, I swear, have journeyed to the center of the Earth with intent to colonize.

But this year, something inside went "click." All those articles about decreasing one's carbon footprint by using locally grown food finally sank in. And what could be more local than the plot of crabgrass right outside the door, which thus far has existed for the sole purpose of being mowed? Couldn't it be put to better use?

We'd already started paying attention to those "product of" labels at the grocery store, indicating produce shipped in from Chile or Malaysia, with all the attendant transportation cost, not to mention the ozone-depleting, glacier-melting, polar-bear-killing, monster-bacteria-growing, hurricane-intensifying, EPA-denying warming of the planet.

Add skyrocketing oil prices and their staggering toll on the grocery bill, the recent spate of salmonella poisoning and the extreme difficulty of tracing tainted food back to its source ... suddenly it seemed time to try growing a few of our own veggies, just to see if we could.

We'd start small and if it went well, do a little bit more next year. None of this William Alexander stuff for us. He's the guy who wrote "The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost his Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden."

"Perfect" was not our goal here. We just wanted a few things that tasted good, wouldn't poison us and made a tiny contribution to a greener world. If the experiment bombed, no big loss; the crabgrass would be glad to take over again.

Having no idea where to begin, we consulted a gardening consultant.

Then we planted several food items: tomato sauce, gazpacho and pesto. Or, as they appear in the garden: tomatoes, basil, parsley and oregano.

This quartet is now sprouting like mad in a little patch of ground, and it makes me happy every time I look at it.

I couldn't believe how easy it was, mainly because someone else dug up the plot and mushed in all the good-earth stuff to enhance cultivation. I guess I could learn about soil and mulch and all those things that real gardeners seem to know, and at some point maybe I will. But this year, all I wanted to do was stick the plants in the dirt and let them do their thing.

Now I find myself coming home from work each night and marveling at how fast the stalks and leaves have shot up and proliferated with basically no effort on our part. Mother Nature helped too, providing so much rain in the early weeks that we didn't have to water.

We've got several varieties of tomatoes going, none of which I could name without checking the little plastic ID bracelets that were stuck in the containers when we brought them home from the nursery.

After just a few weeks, they're bursting out of their cages and sprouting little green bulbs. Patience not being my strong suit, I can hardly wait for them to ripen, although I will.

None of this would be worth noting for most people. A lot of my friends have beautiful gardens bursting with food and flowers, and I've always enjoyed sitting in them, sipping beer and talking about the rotten state of the world -- all that color and fragrance has a way of calming one's blood pressure. Just this week, in fact, a group of us were discussing the political landscape when someone brought up Florida's butterfly ballots in the 2000 election. Only the gorgeous garden prevented an outbreak of hyperventilation.

Still, I never wanted to do the work that precedes this kind of payoff. It was all too intimidating. In fact, I actively avoided the subject. Whenever I found myself among avid gardeners discussing beans and roses, shrubs and fertilizers, trellises, herbs and seed catalogs -- which was often -- my mind would wander off to theme songs of old television shows.

The others were discussing soil quality (smooth, chunky or whipped), compost materials (do coffee grounds really produce carrots that keep you up all night?) and spinning tales about the hosta that got away. I was mentally revisiting Maverick on his trail from Natchez to New Orleans, livin' on jacks and queens, or Cathy who's lived most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Barclay Square. The big finish was the Rice Krispies jingle (geese cackle, feathers tickle, belts buckle, beets pickle but Crackle makes the world go 'round).

Well, that was then. Now it doesn't seem as if cereal contributes anything to the revolving of the planet. Overcoming my resistance to gardening, however, does feel like a minor victory.

I'm not silly enough to weigh down a few tomato plants with the heavy burden of social responsibility. It just feels good to have taken one small, tasty step in the right direction.



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