A summer of life and death

The gods must be laughing as they witness the arrogant human struggle to encourage life

As a child, Mr. Reno detested the children who called him Mr. Tomato Head. Today, he likes the nickname, and he spent all Memorial Day weekend planting nothing but tomatoes in his raised garden bed …

As a child, Mr. Reno detested the children who called him Mr. Tomato Head. Today, he likes the nickname, and he spent all Memorial Day weekend planting nothing but tomatoes in his raised garden bed …

Photo By David Robert

I have a recurring fantasy when I drive. As I motor through the desert areas of Nevada, looking at the mountain ranges in the distance, I imagine giants—Native Americans or ancient gods, in my mind—unmoving under the planet’s skin. I can see only their profiles, like looking at people resting on their backs under sheets, but I can imagine the day, in a century or millennium, when the sleeping Brobdingnagians shake off their earthy shrouds and begin tilling the soil of the desert to restore the ferny Eden that covered the land in the years before people started counting Earth revolutions.

Summer is coming on, and I find that the fantasy comes to me when I’m off the road and in my vegetable garden. As I bury my hands into the soil, my mind drifts. The utilitarian welded-wire fence that surrounds the garden (designed to keep out the dogs that are supposed to keep Peter Rabbit out) can hardly begin to entrap the world within.

I reach into the redolent soil, digging a hole for something like a Big Beef tomato that loves to be planted deep, and I pull out a double handful of this stuff I’ve created. It’s not just Nevada’s native clay-and-rock mixture; it also includes past-rotten kitchen refuse (homemade compost) combined with commercial potting mix, steer manure and gypsum, and as I look close I can identify some of the smallest components: pine needle bits, twigs, grains of sand, plant fibers, eggshells. I know that if I could get closer I would see organisms, the living apparatus of the vegetable machine. Plants, like people, eat life to survive.

The act of building a vegetable garden, particularly building a garden in a place where I intend to live for a while, is an act of resolution and commitment. With a raised-bed garden like the one in my backyard (12 feet by 12 feet, raised with 2-by-12 rough redwood planks and anchored with posts at the corners and in the middle of spans, divided neatly into nine plots by 8-by-16-inch red concrete stepping stones), the posts, which rise only a foot out of the ground, are set in holes 2 and a half feet deep. An earthquake couldn’t skew the orientation of the garden, which is squared to the sun’s path along the sky at the height of summer. This garden is part of this; it’s not going anywhere and neither am I.

Every summer, for as long as I live here, I’ll be in this garden, killing plants unfortunate enough to sprout without my permission, encouraging the life-and-death struggle beneath the surface, and triumphantly harvesting the reds, oranges and greens that nourish my family and ensure our place in the world outside the planks, welded-wire fence, back yard, cedar picket fence and property line.

Unfortunately for Mr. Reno, his neighbor hates tomatoes, and when the neighbor dropped by to nonchalantly tamper with Mr. Reno’s Big Beef bed, he mistook Mr. Reno’s head for the juicy fruit. An innocent mistake.

Photo By David Robert

I encourage living and dying in the little world. At the completion of the garden frame, my son, Hunter, and I ceremoniously installed dozens of earthworms. The earthworms will complete the death cycle of the composted materials in the soil, crapping out vitamins and digging airholes to encourage root growth and drainage. The earthworms are the Department of Public Works employees, and god help me should they ever unionize.

In my garden, I grow only things I like to eat. This year, I’ll have 36 linear feet of carrots and beets, 18 linear feet of radishes, eight pepper plants in three varieties, six tomato plants in three varieties, 72 onions in two varieties, two cucumbers, one zucchini, two Swiss chard, six spinach and nine lettuce plants in three varieties. In some cases, I have to buy six-pack starters, and my neighbors and co-workers receive the extra plants because it just seems so wasteful to add the sprouts to the compost heap.

I’m a benevolent gardener. I don’t like to use manufactured chemicals. I’m always afraid that harsh manufactured chemicals will burn the earthworms, the microbes and the fragile little root hairs. My favorite fertilizer is fish guts (or fish emulsion, as it is so delicately packaged). I mix it into my two-gallon sprinkling can and pour it over my vegetables once or twice a month if my congregation looks a little wan. I have to be careful fertilizing roots, though: I could end up with a lot of greens up top, but the below-ground payoff will be disappointing.

The fertilizer has a strong odor that my family despises but I love. To me, it smells like sex. The plants appreciate this benediction and raise their branches a bit higher, but I don’t want to read too much into this action.

I’m a wrathful gardener, too. I rip out presumptuous elm tree sprouts like an avenging angel rips sinners from the ranks of the faithful. Cheeky insects like earwigs, aphids and cutworms are handled with extreme prejudice. As with manufactured fertilizer, I disdain manmade insecticides, so a little later in the season I’ll sprinkle crumbled eggshells on the surface around my peppers and tomatoes to discourage cutworms, and I’ll spray everything every other week with a special combination of tobacco juice, mouthwash and dishwashing detergent to nauseate the insects that would encroach on my kingdom. I will stomp a cute little caterpillar like he had insulted my mom.

It’s all life and death and life in this little world, and the silent, ancient gods rest beneath the soil like shrouded statues, smaller than the ones that populate the mountain ranges of the Nevada desert. They’re silent, but they know about struggles that happen above them, inches beyond their grasp. They’re silent, but I know they know.

A fantastic anti-insect recipe

I got this recipe from a book by Jerry Baker (I think, although I haven’t been able to find it since I wrote it down). Mix one cup of lemon-scented liquid dish soap, one cup of mint-flavored mouthwash and one cup of tobacco juice mixture (made by putting four fingers’ worth of Red Man chewing tobacco in the toe of a nylon stocking, tying it closed, then boiling it in one quart of water). The mixture is then sprayed on the garden at a rate of one tablespoon to a gallon of water. I like the hose-end sprayer Dial n Spray by Ortho. This stuff will prevent but not kill aphids, so you have to get it on your plants before an infestation. It works when nothing else will.