A Greenish Thumb

Jay and I are what might be described as food snobs. We like to eat whole, healthy foods, which means that I make most things from scratch, even tortillas. The simplest explanation is that if I make it, I know what’s in it. A few years ago, when our oldest daughter was four, she went through a severe tantrum phase and showed signs of what I feared might be ADHD. The nurse practitioner at the medical office where I worked at the time pointed me toward some research about the correlation between food additives and sugar and the rise in behavioral problems in children. I read the research, threw out all the processed food in the house, and switched to an organic, all-natural diet. Within a week, the tantrums ceased. Within two, Breanna was like a different child. We never went back and over the years I’ve learned how to really cook, the way our grandmothers did.

This year, Jay and I decided to take our organic lifestyle to the next level and put in a small backyard garden, just a couple of 4×4 raised beds and some herbs in pots. We’d done some reading, talked to a couple of gardeners selling vegetables at the farmer’s market, but we figured the best way to really learn how to go about it was to just do it, a trial by fire. We called it the “great experiment” and vowed to take note of what worked and what didn’t and not get too upset if the whole thing was an epic failure.

Now, the sad part is, I really should know what I’m doing. My grandmother always had a substantial vegetable garden, and my dad has always had a garden. He grows everything from corn to tomatoes and squash, and my stepmother puts it all up, as the saying goes, meaning she cans or freezes it. I grew up helping in the garden, but unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention. I merely pulled what they said pull, hoed where they said hoe, and ran off to play as soon as released from indentured servitude.

Every summer and fall, my grandmother canned vegetables. I sat in her kitchen and watched, pitching in where told. Again, I paid little to no attention to what she did. I perched on my stool, out of the way, until sent to fetch more jars, and otherwise gazed out the window and daydreamed. I’m kicking myself now.

We bought our cedar 2×4’s to provide the boundaries of the plots. I purchased more bags of organic gardening soil than I care to count, and we methodically dug the grass out of the area down to the red Georgia clay and filled it in with the soil. I bought organic seeds for two varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, watermelons, pole beans, okra, and zucchini. I purchased two kale plants, already started, from a man at the farmer’s market and took meticulous notes on everything he said to do for their care. A friend down the street started more herbs than she needed and gave me her extras. We were set. Some of you are doing the math right now, and if you know anything about gardening, you know we were already in trouble.

I started some of the seeds in pots in our sunroom. When they were big enough, I took them out to the garden and transplanted them alongside more seeds sown directly into the dirt. I wanted to see which way worked best and produced the hardiest plants. Initially, I was concerned the transplants wouldn’t take. They looked kind of droopy, but now at a couple of months in, I can’t tell which is which.

What we really didn’t know, which would’ve been helpful information, is how big the plants would get and which were helpful to one another and which weren’t. Knowing nothing about proper placement, we just started planting. We put the cucumbers and tomatoes, in cages, along the back edges. We did know that much. We put the zucchini and kale in the middle on one side, and the watermelons and carrots in the middle and along the edges of the other side.

We got a lot of rain in April. The six zucchini plants flourished; then, began to take on the size and appearance of something from the Jurassic period. They completely overshadowed the kale and began encroaching on the cucumbers. We’d failed to thin our plants, and to make matters worse, we’d caged them. You see, zucchini  should really be planted on a hill or a mound. We didn’t have a hill and had no way of making a hill, or actually we just didn’t understand what was meant by “plant on a hill.” I’d seen some magazine at the grocery store about gardening in small spaces. It showed a lovely picture of a patio garden with vegetable plants in pots, one of which was a zucchini plant with a tomato cage around it. I didn’t read the article, just flipped though while I waited in line, skimming here and there, but that’s what gave me the bright idea of caging the zucchini.

Even worse, and this is where my real ignorance shows, I didn’t understand what the seed packets meant by “thinning.” I figured it out fairly quickly and in plenty of time to do it, but the thing was I just couldn’t stand the thought of pulling up any of my little baby plants. They were all doing so well, and it was difficult, impossible even, to tell which were the hardiest or best producers. Jay being the big softy that he is where I’m concerned said, “Just leave them, and let’s see what happens.” As far as the tomatoes went, no harm no foul. They’re all doing well and producing well. Although the sweeties turned out to be the size of cherry tomatoes, which was disappointing since I thought I’d planted the ones I typically buy on the vine, which are about medium. Oh, well. But the zucchini really should have been thinned because as the blooms began to turn into fruit, we discovered they were staying skinny and only about four inches long. Then, they’d start to shrivel. The only one producing proper looking zucchini was the only one not caged. It had come up later and had therefore escaped. It flopped over on the ground, and it finally dawned on me that as long as I forced the others upright, they’d never properly produce.

This really was a pickle. The plants were huge, completely enveloping the cages, and there was no way to uncage them without ripping them out of the ground. Jay said, “Well, now we know.” But I couldn’t just accept defeat. One night after watering, I stood looking at those humungous plants, and thought, “I’m doing more harm than good.” I started pulling. I pulled up four plants and managed to uncage one while still leaving it in the ground. I apologized to them before throwing them over the fence and into the wood line. Fortunately, the gamble seems to have worked, and now the remaining two plants are flowering and green again. They have yet to produce.

As for the herbs, once again, my ignorance got the best of me. I had basil, parsley, chives, thyme, dill, and cilantro. I planted all of them together in a large bushel basket. I don’t use much dill or cilantro, and they kind of got away from me, growing tall and flowering. One day, I noticed that the cilantro looked like cilantro at the base but took on a distinctly dill-like appearance as it neared the top. I did some research. Turns out, they are actually part of the same plant family and will cross-pollinate. I’d inadvertently grown “dillantro.” I, of course, had to taste it. I pulled it up immediately, once the spitting and gagging abated. I cut back the dill, hung it to dry in the basement, and replanted some cilantro in a separate pot well away from the dill.

We ran out of space in our raised beds; so, we put the okra and beans in a little 3×4 section by the back steps that only ever grew weeds. Of course, we tilled it and mixed in generous amounts of the gardening soil. The okra came up within a couple days, but the beans took awhile. Finally, I spotted little sprouts in the general vicinity of where I’d placed the bean seeds. The plant was about six inches tall when Jay’s dad came for a visit. He has extensive gardening experience, having grown up in a large mountain family on a small farm. He surveyed the plants and told us where and how to cut the suckers off the tomatoes and when to pick the cucumbers. Then, he looked over the okra and beans. He pointed to my bean plant. “What’s that?” he asked. “Beans,” I replied. He tilted his head to the side and took a drag on his cigarette, probably debating how to the break the bad news. “Naw, that’s grass,” he stated and sauntered away to sit in the shade. He’s a good man for not laughing out loud. I don’t know how he did it.


Un-Common Courtesy

Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, then you have good manners.” People today only seem sensitively aware of their own feelings. For the past 20 or so years, thanks to the push to build “self-esteem” in children, we’ve created a culture of proverbial monsters. You see it everywhere. People so self-involved they barely notice there are other people on the planet, much less have any idea they should care about them. They run into you without saying excuse me. They loudly curse in public places. They go around everywhere talking on the phone, even while at dinner with other people. I overheard a woman talking to someone on the phone while she was using the restroom!

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity in essence equated it with a God complex. He wrote, “The moment you have a self at all, there is the possibility of putting yourself first – wanting to be the centre – wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race.” It’s an interesting point. One that gives me chills, but what both Post and Lewis were driving at is if you care at all about others and how your behavior affects them, you’ll treat them with courtesy.

As I drove my children to ballet class the other day, a man in a pick-up truck, missing his driver’s side mirror and with two tires going flat, sped past me on the right and cut over into my lane barely missing my front bumper. He never signaled. He didn’t look. His right hand held a large smart phone up to his ear. His left arm lay on the open window. So, my question is: What was he using to steer? Ten years ago, that would have made me mad enough to spit. I probably would’ve called the police and given them his tag number. Now, it’s become so common place, I just shook my head and kept driving.

I drive like an old granny woman, as my sister would say. I do the speed limit. I signal. I look twice before I merge. I check my rearview mirror every couple of minutes because I like to know what’s going on behind me as well as up ahead. I keep both hands on the wheel. I drive this way not only because it’s correct and legal, but because I carry precious cargo, because I am precious to my family, and because other people are precious to someone, too. I am not the only parent on the road, and I’m not the only one carrying children. “Horrible” doesn’t begin to describe how I would feel if some action of mine caused the death or injury of my children or someone else. People today routinely drive with a reckless abandon that demonstrates their utter and complete disregard for anyone except themselves.

The lack of common courtesy isn’t just seen on the road or in the failure to use “please” and “thank you.” It’s infiltrated every aspect of life. People no longer hold the door for one another. Only older men ever stand and offer their seat to a woman. Once the generation of men born prior to 1970 die, I fear that particular custom will be extinct. Today, a young boy of about 10 was approaching me on the sidewalk. Just before we came abreast of each other, he dropped his bottle of water, and it rolled into my path. I bent, picked it up, and handed it to him. He took it without a word and kept walking. I was affronted, but, once again, just shook my head. The next time something like that happens, I’ll do the same. Perhaps my small act of courtesy will make an impression and be paid forward.

One of my greatest pet peeves is dress. It is not, nor has it ever been, appropriate to go out in public and conduct business in pajamas. Nor is it appropriate to attend an official ceremony in anything other than that which the formality of the occasion demands. My family and I attended a Memorial Day wreath laying ceremony. The stewards of the event and all the honored guests were dressed in full military dress or the civilian equivalent, but more than half the attendees were in shorts and tee shirts. It’s wrong. It’s disrespectful, and it’s rude, but that too has become commonplace. They filed down the aisle and took their seats with not a moment’s hesitation.

Jay and I took our children to the ballet recently. Jay wore a coat and tie, and the girls and I wore dresses. I even carried an evening bag. The usher who gave us a program actually stopped us to say thank you for dressing appropriately. He said, “People have no idea how to dress for an evening out anymore.” He  was sadly correct. The outfits ran the gamut from ripped jeans to full-length evening gowns. I am reminded of the scene from Sabrina, the original with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, where Sabrina refuses to go to dinner and the theatre with Linus because she’s wearing (gasp!) pants and not an evening dress.

My mother works for the government. She is a paralegal and daily comes into contact with judges and attorneys and on occasion goes to court, as do her co-workers. However, in her office, the dress code basically amounts to being covered. People literally come to work in all manner of dress, including pajama pants, flimsy tee shirts, and flip flops. My mother wouldn’t be caught dead dressed like that at work or anywhere else. She grew up in the era when little girls and women wore dresses and men wore shirts and ties in public. She dresses in business attire for work, just as she always has, but she was recently reprimanded for “setting the bar too high” by a supervisor three decades her junior who wore jeans, a tank top, and the requisite flip flops. I have difficulty wrapping my mind around that. How does an employee get chastised for looking too nice?

When I was a child, the way we dressed to go anywhere would today be considered dressy. I miss those days. I hate going to the store and having to stand behind someone with their pants so baggy their underwear is showing or worse, their backside. That actually happened recently. A man was leaning on the customer service counter at a store with his pants slid half way down his bottom. Another customer, a woman, went over to him and whispered something to him, and he pulled them up. He didn’t bother to apologize or excuse himself to her or any of the rest of us. Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe it really is plain old selfishness. Perhaps there is a general lack of pride and dignity in one’s appearance, but whatever it is that is causing such laxity among the populace with regards to personal grooming, it needs correction. As Woodrow F. Call said in Lonesome Dove, “I hate rude behavior in a man. Won’t tolerate it.”