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Ralph Gardner Jr: Growing Local Hors d’Oeuvres

The first homegrown cherry tomato of the season with Hawaiian black lava salt and refreshments
Ralph Gardner Jr.

Last holiday season I received an advent calendar from the Burpee company. Instead of chocolate, or whatever treat is typically secreted behind the twenty-five doors of an advent calendar, this one contained seeds: beets, basil, tomatoes, poppies, cauliflower, radishes, watermelon.

I’d have preferred chocolates, but since I was now the owner of lots of seed packets I decided to do something I’d never done before – grow vegetables from scratch.

The reason for my inexperience is that I grew up in the city. And I come from generations of city people. They never cultivated anything either. So it’s not as if I had a grandfather or grandmother who served as a repository of farming knowledge.

My wife was somewhat better informed; if only to the extent of coaching me that if I wanted to grow a plant from seed the first step was to buy seed trays and soil.

I did as instructed, watered, and -- low and behold -- within a week or so delicate shoots began to emerge.

Come May, I removed the slender seedlings from the flats and planted them in the four raised beds in our garden. I’m not sure whether, or which ones, survived because I bowed to popular demand and purchased plants at a local farm store that looked like they stood a reasonable chance of surviving long enough to bear something edible.

But whether it’s seeds I grew from scratch or young plants I bought in a store doesn’t really matter. The point is to participate in the wonders of nature. And as marvelous, even miraculous, as the experience is I suspect it’s heightened by the fact that, as I said, I’m a city boy, the product of concrete and tall buildings, of parks and playgrounds, rather than fertilizer and harrowed fields.

Each morning when I go down to our garden to see what’s grown or changed overnight, it’s like living a second childhood.

And watering is a daily way of nurturing living things, something my family will testify I’ve never exhibited a pronounced talent for.

I spoke to a writer recently, another city kid who bought a house upstate. She told me she finds it hard to work on her screenplay because she’d rather be weeding.

There are actually similarities between gardening and writing – attention to detail being the most prominent. The difference is that you don’t feel under any pressure to come up with bright ideas in the garden. The sun and soil have already taken care of that.

Lawn mowing may have been my first adult experience of partnering with the Earth. I discovered I loved mowing. It’s similar to writing in that you wrestle to exert control over a tiny corner of the universe.

I doubt I’d feel the same way if I’d lived in a house with a front lawn as a kid and been forced to mow it before I could go out and play. I deduce, from watching fifties TV shows such as “Leave It To Beaver,” that that’s the sort of chores suburban and country kids are forced to suffer.

But because I never had to do anything more strenuous than clean up my room, I’m able to see mowing as a creative endeavor. Sometimes I mow in one direction, sometimes the other. Occasionally I’ll mow in circles.

But the point is that once it’s done, it’s perfect, or close enough. Writing, on the other hand, can always be improved.

There’s a scene in the W.C. Fields movie “It’s a Gift” where Harold Bissonette, played by the comedian, abandons his grocery store, and drives to California to buy an orange grove. A lot happens in between, including Fields suffering the scorn of his family, who consider him a sucker.

But Fields has the last laugh – it turns out the barren plot of land he bought is wanted by a developer to build a racetrack – and the final scene shows him plucking oranges from a tree on his veranda, and squeezing fresh juice, fortified with booze from his flask. His nagging wife and bratty son having departed for town in their shiny new car, leaving him in peace.

I can relate – minus the nagging wife and bratty son. Because one of the pleasures of last summer was picking cherry tomatoes from our garden, sprinkling them with Hawaiian black lava salt – I liked the visual of black salt against red or yellow tomatoes – and enjoying them as a healthy snack during cocktail hour.

My first cherry tomatoes of the season are due to ripen any moment. There’s also a flowering mystery vine I just discovered snaking through one of the planting beds. Might a watermelon seed have survived to tell about it?

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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