Nonfiction by Rachel Niemann
The first time I grew my own garden, I learned how to take care of things. I learned how to see things through. I also became a baby killer.
Before that, I’d start a sewing project, furiously cut, pin, and sew, and when it was about 85 percent finished, the project would find itself in a storage bin, never to be seen again. Or else I would write a short story; I’d work on it for a couple of weeks and then, after I’d have someone else read it, the process would be too painful to continue. And then there was the time I was making book-boxes, and the time I was brewing my own kombucha… you catch my drift.
My first gardening attempt changed those patterns—for the most part. I’m an urbanite. Milwaukee is my home, so how, you might ask, could I maintain a sprawling, flourishing garden? You may have heard of Growing Power, Sweetwater Organics, or Milwaukee rooftop gardens; commercial urban farms are a growing force in this city, but you might not have heard of another, less publicized force: backyard gardens.
Urban homesteading is a big deal here. Milwaukee is rich with unknown communities growing all sorts of things if you only go looking, whether it’s food or creativity, and it’s surprising how the two often mix. Did you know it’s possible to raise chickens within the city limit, in your own backyard? Yes, chickens! You just need to get a permit. Did you know that if you don’t have a backyard, you can rent a plot from Milwaukee Urban Gardens? Did you know that it’s also legal to kill babies? Plant babies—I’m talking about plant babies—seedlings.
The neighbors aren’t too put off about what’s going on in my backyard. Well, whenever I took the coffee grounds and vegetable scraps out to the compost pile, one of my next-door neighbors used to shout, “It’s illegal to throw trash in the yard!” But one day my housemate explained that this “trash” would decompose and become food for the garden soil, and that mixing compost in the soil would yield a more abundant, flavorful harvest. Our neighbor continued to protest, but was finally persuaded when we shared our tomatoes with her in August. She even let us have her picnic table when she moved out the next summer.
My father was a master gardener, but I never felt compelled to grow my own garden until after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It convinced me that gardening was not so far removed from the life of a writer and an academic—so maybe I could try it, too. I also felt a personal duty to seek out and grow underrepresented vegetables such as purple cauliflower and candy cane beets; about 80% of the varieties of fruits and vegetables that our great grandparents used to grow are now extinct due to bioengineering and commercial agriculture. The surviving varieties are known as heirlooms, and some of them trace back hundreds of years.
When a friend of mine from the co-op gave me some heirloom tomato seeds, I knew it was time. The names caused a chill of anticipation to roll up my spine. Pink Flamingo. Yellow Rainbow. Russian Persimmon. My father also gave me some Chocolate Cherry and Roma tomato seedlings. Inspired, I bought more seeds from the Outpost Natural Foods co-op in Bayview: red, orange and green bell peppers, some Black Beauty eggplants, snow peas, carnival carrots, one lone German Green Zebra tomato seedling, and basil. Lots of basil. Lots and lots of basil.
The extra-large package of basil seeds contained an appealing mixture of different types: sweet, Genovese, giant, red, cinnamon, purple, and Thai lemon basil. I wanted to leave room for a certain margin of error, in case some of them didn’t do well, so I planted them all.
I transferred the seedlings outdoors just before it rained almost continually for two weeks, and the growing season that followed was wet and hot. In the peak of July, the tomato and basil plants often grew several inches from morning to afternoon. I went out to the garden several times a day to pluck the flowers off the tops of the basil in order to keep the leaves sweet and flavorful. You really should harvest the entire plant once that starts happening to any great degree, as the leaves begin to turn bitter otherwise, but I stubbornly refused—the first year anyway.
My boss at Luv Unlimited, a vintage shop in Bayview where I worked at the time, was a seasoned gardener and had given me the sage advice that “less is more,” meaning you will get a better harvest out of fewer well-placed plants than out of a larger number of plants crowded too close together. But I was excited about all the possibilities. I had sixteen tomato plants total that summer.
The Chocolate Cherry plant was on crack. I think I put too great a concentration of organic fertilizer in that spot or something, because it grew so big so fast compared to the other plants! I hadn’t anticipated that, and had delayed in getting the tomato cages on. By the time I did, it had become a five-foot tall monster of prickly soft green tentacles whose limbs I had to wrangle into the conical metal. As I tried to force the only semi-pliable plant into its cage, young unripened fruits tumbled to their death. I eventually had to break an entire branch off, which I lamented, though I later learned it’s actually preferable to remove sucker branches, however sad it may be to see baby tomatoes done away with.
The most unfortunate moment was when I had to kill the Green Zebra baby. As a result of over-crowding, some of the tomatoes got infected with early blight. My cherished Green Zebra had to be cremated rather than composted, in order to prevent the spread of blight from the compost pile into the soil, but he did leave me with a couple of gems. I saved three green tomatoes, and put them in a paper bag on my window sill to ripen slowly.
Growing things is a lot like writing. Part of it has to do with planting the seed at the right time, and then knowing the right moment to transfer the seedling outside to fend for itself. Timing is a big part of gardening, as well as progressing as a writer. You want everything to be in the best possible shape before you send it out in the world, but it’s going to have to happen sometime in order to grow.
Some days I did not want to wake up early, or was tired after work, but I knew that the garden was waiting for me and I had no choice. Those plants were depending on me. I diligently checked the soil for moisture level, pulled out unwanted weeds, and patted the dirt back down lovingly.
When a living being depends upon you for survival, it changes you. You might think I’m exaggerating. You might not think plants are that important, but to me they became so—like children. I cared deeply for them. Their survival depended upon my diligence, and our survival depends upon them. It’s a lot like a writing practice. You don’t always want to write, but you do it anyway, just like weeding. Inspiration never waits for the perfect day.
Also, sometimes you write a lot. You have explosions. And everything that comes out of that explosion seems completely brilliant when you first write it, but it’s kind of like the tomatoes: sometimes you just have to kill your babies because what’s already there becomes stronger when you do away with the excess. And that’s how I learned to finish a project.