When I was discharged from the Marine Corps I moved into a duplex apartment with my wife and two young daughters. The rear of the property was set against a wooded area of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Years before, the plot housed a horse boarding stable and the soil was rich from years of spread composted manure. The city was building a new park and playground on this property behind our house. After clearing the land, the contractor parked his bulldozer on the property. One spring evening, I was able to jump-start the bulldozer and along with my neighbor, Ted, carved out a space about 20 feet by 20 feet for our joint garden in the adjoining woods. The space was well away from the new park and it remained our garden for the next three seasons.
Ted knew a lot about gardening. We were both the same age but he had spent many years working with his father in their family garden. We planted everything in traditional rows with paths in between each row. We spent most of the early summer with hoes, cultivating weeds as I had not yet learned about mulch. I was thrilled to be a part of this “adventure” but I realized quickly I knew little about the actual work involved in tending a 400 square foot vegetable garden. I’ve since come to realize that 100 square feet is just about the limit that one person can manage within the parameters of a normal, working lifestyle.
Everything was started from seed and in the early days the rows were marked with a hundred, wooden “tongue-depressor” labels. As germination occurred I began to learn how all of the new leaves had their own “look”. I studied the shapes, texture and subtle color differences of each type of plant. We weeded and watered and Ted taught me about each plant’s performance, fruiting and needs in general.
As the summer progressed the garden became a jungle. Vegetables were all over like a strewn battlefield, the paths became unrecognizable and weeds hid the harvest. Raised beds were unheard of in those days and our garden plot became impossible to navigate through or to care for in any orderly manner. Ted and I were both working two jobs and I had started night school at Drexel. By late summer, squash, watermelons and cantaloupes could be found almost anywhere, winding their way through the tomatoes, beans, spent vines and weeds. Harvesting was more like an Easter egg hunt. I have no recollection of specific varieties but the vegetables were like prizes and exquisite.
Fifty years later, every season brings my anticipation and love of fresh grown fruit, vegetables and herbs throughout the spring, summer and fall; and every year I remember that first garden. Half a century of gardening has taught me to create more “order” in my garden but never to the degree I envision. One person, no matter how talented, could never have a garden that would match the potager of Versailles or Chateau de Villandry. My goal every year is to have my garden resemble any photograph in Louisa Jones’s “The Art of French Vegetable Gardening“. Maybe this year!
I wish you all a very happy, healthy and productive New Year. Thanks for your many comments and support.
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