Here’s something I love about Rodale Inc. Last month, when we had an all-employee meeting where we asked employees to submit questions to me and other Rodale executives—anonymously, of course!—this was one of the questions I received:
In one of your final “Maria’s View” articles for Organic Gardening, you wrote you were going to leave your garden fallow this summer. After years of mixed success of growing vegetables, I can’t imagine not tending mine for an entire season. No matter how much time I spend in my garden, it’s never even close to enough. So let me ask: Did you really follow through on that promise? Was it wonderful and liberating, was it hollow and horrible, or something else entirely?
So, mystery questioner, here is my answer!
I had decided to take a break from having a vegetable garden last spring because I knew I was going to be traveling a lot; my middle daughter was graduating from high school and heading off to college; and to be brutally honest, after 30 plus years of having a vegetable garden, I was tired. And maybe even a little bored. After all, I can get everything at the local farmers’ market now, right?
First, though, a note of clarification: I have a rather large yard with lots of landscaping and perennials, so I wasn’t off the hook completely from gardening. And even without vegetables to tend, I spent quite a bit of effort tackling those damn thistles. But I didn’t plant annuals to fill in the gaps, either. So overall, it really was a break.
Here is what I did plant: some parsley, basil, and herbs in a container by my kitchen door. And two tomatoes—two because one was a gift, and I was told it needed a mate. So yes, I do believe I followed through with my promise.
Was it wonderful and liberating? A little bit, yes! There’s no way I could have kept up with things, given my summer schedule. And I had moments when I sat smugly by the pool knowing that I didn’t have to harvest and make sauce with 60 pounds of tomatoes because they all ripened on the same day. And moments when I looked at my spindly container basil and told myself I was sick of eating pesto, anyway. During the three weeks when I was traveling with my daughters, I didn’t think once about what was going to waste in my vegetable garden or wonder if the weeds had taken over (I went the truly lazy route and covered the beds with a foot of straw mulch, Ruth Stout style).
Was it hollow and horrible? Truthfully, no. I really did need a break. But in that break, I relearned why I love to have a vegetable garden. Sure, the farmer’s market has great stuff—but I had to get in the car and go on a Sunday morning and carry heavy bags down the street…when I could have just walked outside in bare feet and picked what I needed when I needed it—or left it on the vine until I was ready to cook with it. With a garden, you don’t have to buy in bulk and watch it rot in the fridge or on the counter—you just have to go out and get it when it’s ready (or opt to watch it rot on the vine).
There truly is no greater pleasure for a vegetable gardener to wonder what’s for dinner, then go outside and have a look-see and make something wonderful from the bounty.
Earlier in the year, I had been having a “discussion” with a friend about organic hydroponic basil versus nonorganic basil from the supermarket or farmer’s market. I kept saying it wasn’t as good; I didn’t care if it was organic, it just wasn’t as good as “real basil.” But it wasn’t until about August that I realized that most Americans never taste real basil. Even the stuff from the farmer’s market is half dead by the time you get it home. There is NOTHING quite as strongly delicious as a giant patch of basil, all types, picked moments before a meal and eaten fresh in food made simply. And dagnabbit it, I DO miss my homemade pesto! I’m heading into winter for the first time in ages without a shelf in my freezer filled with bright green pesto for a quick weeknight meal that everyone loves.
The other thing I noticed is that because I hadn’t planted any annuals, there were a few weeks in the summer when there was nothing in the yard for the butterflies to eat. I realized that those annuals aren’t just for prettiness! They serve a purpose! All of my milkweed may have planted a bit in vain without the sweet nectar of zinnias and nicotiana for the butterflies to drink from.
However, the real moment I decided I could never go again without a vegetable garden was the when I walked into Prince Charles’ walled vegetable garden at his Highgrove Estate in England. Just opening the garden gate cured my boredom, and I found inspiration again. I’ve already started making a pile of ideas for next year’s garden!
But what may have sealed the deal was one of my all-time favorite vegetable gardeners just passed away—my father-in-law, Louie Cinquino. At 94 he’d finally gotten too old to have a vegetable garden, and he had spent this past summer in and out of the hospital and a nursing home. In retrospect, it was kind of a way of bowing down to him not to have a garden in his final year, since he couldn’t have one either; it was a way of sharing that journey a little bit with him. It seems right that he passed away in the autumn, like a garden being put to bed for the season.
But when spring comes around, it will also be my way of honoring his memory and passing the tradition on to my daughters to get back out there and grow vegetables and annuals and a variety of herbs again. In fact, I’m not even going to wait for spring because at his funeral I picked up a few of his garlic cloves and garlic needs to be planted in the fall. So I’ll be planting that garlic this weekend.
So, yes, gardening is work, but it’s the best kind of work. Yes, gardening is hard, but it makes us stronger. And yes, it was nice to take a break. But it will be even nicer to start over again.
Thank you for asking!