A Year With No Garden

Photo by Mimi Clark

by Mimi Clark

Gardens are what transform houses into homes. Homes have gardens. Gardens announce the presence of a homemaker. Homemaking is the art of creating an escape from the complexities, the chaos, and the noise of the rest of the world, a lost art form that traditionally has been reserved for women.

The Betty Crocker Homemaker Award for Tomorrow was once an award given to a high school senior girl who, after scoring the highest on a test and a written essay, received a pin and applause at graduation. She was awarded by the fictitious ideal cook and baker, Betty Crocker, who was invented by General Mills, which refined all our grains, took out the nutrients, and fed them to animals. Women were to give up imaginative participation in cooking and baking for the Betty Crocker products and, in return, would have more satisfaction and time to do things that they enjoyed more. Somewhere in that sales pitch, half of the imaginations of a nation were stifled.

I won the homemaker award my senior year, but not for using the Betty Crocker ways. Instead, after answering all the questions on the test, I wrote an essay on how to save the world’s children. I was surprised to win because I never took a high school home economics course; everything I knew I had learned from my mother. I had run away from home just before graduation when my sister was calling me the Harwood home breaker. Five years later, I passed on the torch, so to speak, to my younger brother in law, who won the award for the blue and white striped kaftan he made in sewing class. He then got married in his creation. Soon after, the award ceased to exist.

In my mind, a house can’t be a home without something growing in the brightest daylight or under artificial lights. A garden can be as simple as a row of pots on the windowsill, a warm sunny one above the kitchen sink; like eight pots of tuberoses, small bulbs that grow into tall, white, flowering and fragrant grassy spikes. Getting them to bloom is called gardening. Getting them to bloom brings sense to life. It also can all happen under lights.

This year, I didn’t plant my big beef tomato seeds until three weeks after Town Meeting Day because my house is selling on the frost-free date for our area and I couldn’t decide whether I should bother planting anything at all. But at the last minute, something like the homemaking urge came over me and the next thing I knew, my indoor greenhouse was lighted, and I planted as space would allow.

Asparagus, onions, tomatoes, and blue poppies; move or no move these seeds were going down into the compost at the last minute and getting watered. Under fluorescent lights that I leave on 24/7, the normal pattern of light and growth is distorted in favor of more light. None of the plants I have ever tried to grow have minded not getting a break from the artificial light, but the secret is there have to be four fluorescent bulbs across for enough intensity. In my experience, the plants don’t seem to care whether they have fancy full-spectrum bulbs or warm light ones or even the plain cool industrial variety, but there have to be four across no closer than four to six inches. The plants will complain when something is wrong, they will not look great.

If they get chlorosis and turn yellow from either too much light or iron or limestone in unfiltered water from a deep well, water them with rain water. As with babies, the needs of young plants are very finite. Tomato plants for instance need a lot of calcium when they are bigger, but I prefer to collect rainwater for the seedlings when they are small because they like a slightly acidic soil, which I have come to interpret as around pH 6.8, like roses; anything lower will not ensure maximum disease resistance and cold hardiness. I alternate high-calcium alkaline well water with acidic rain water and they thrive like nobody’s business.

A year of having no garden and severe cold were trying to force me into feeling sorry for myself and perpetual self medication, but I am not yielding to the empty promises. Transitory as it has been, my instant greenhouse garden has gotten me through the coldest April. The tomatoes, asparagus, onions, tuberoses, and blue poppies all came up, thrived, and were sold just like that to Vee’s Flowers and Settlement Farm.

I am alone on a beautiful spring evening having sold my plants, having sold my home and my garden, and what do I have left? I have the source. I have my mind still full with decades of memories from experimenting passionately with plants in all kinds of places, inside and out, rented, borrowed, loaned, and owned. I still have the source to make a garden and a home somewhere else.

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