Planting a backyard vegetable garden.

All things green.
June 20 2008 12:54 PM

Digging Up Dinner

A vegetable garden can supplement your table and spruce up your yard.

"My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow."
—Andrew Marvell

Garden vegetables
Garden vegetables

You might think the air would be full of the sound of Americans ripping up lawns and tearing out petunias to plant tomatoes and lettuce. This past year has seen a marked uptick in spending on vegetable seeds and plants, and the boys at the Burpee seed company couldn't be happier.

The ridiculous repetition of the seemingly inevitable word skyrocketing about gas and food prices would be funny if it weren't scary. So lots of home gardeners are congratulating themselves on saving money and cutting down on grocery store trips as they consume and share their fresh arugula and extra summer squash.

There's no form of food consumption more local than eating what grows in your yard. Not a lot of fossil fuel gets burned when you harvest a head of lettuce or pluck a cherry tomato a few yards from your door.

But, to be realistic, the people who can feed themselves and their families from their own vegetable plot and save money doing it are rare. These people are extraordinarily diligent and patient, and, what's more, they're possessed of gigantic freezers and a willingness to explore the mysteries of canning.

(By the way, home growers like those quoted in recent New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles were comparing the cost of seeds with the cost of a vegetable at the market. The cruel fact is that a packet of 100 carrot seeds does not produce 100 carrots. Nor were they figuring in the economic collateral damage—the cost of fencing, soil enrichment, necessary accessories like tomato cages, and the value of their own labor. For one man's funny, sensible, and enlightening exploration of the realities of home growing, see The $64 Tomato by William Alexander.)

Those of us who are not preternaturally diligent or adept at pickling and canning can still get plenty of pleasure and gratification from vegetable gardening. The most obvious pleasure is in harvesting fresh food that in most cases tastes much better than food from the market. (Not in every case. I am still trying to forget the truly inedible celery I grew last summer.) Eating peas or a sun-warmed strawberry while standing in the garden is bliss. My spouse likes to carry a slice of bread, a saltshaker, and a sharp knife out to the tomato patch.

But the less obvious and often overlooked pleasure in edible gardening is that the stuff is beautiful. You don't need to add flowers. A young peapod is translucent. Look closely, and you'll see that what seems to be a plain green plant can have an intriguing dark-red stem. Before its gorgeous, shiny-skinned, edible product appears, an eggplant has leaves with purple veins and a lavender flower with a tasteful yellow center.

The whole range of chili peppers is striking. The pepper of Capsicum "Black Pearl" emerges black and slowly turns red. All the red-leaf lettuces look pretty with a backdrop of ferny fennel. Even humble okra has a lovely flower; it's related to hibiscus.

There's an all-purple basil—"Dark Opal"—and Thai basil has red top leaves. Notice that the green of plain old mint looks greener when, maybe by a happy accident, it's next to a deep-red flower like the edible nasturtium "Mahogany."

Books on edible gardening always rave about Swiss chard, whose crimson ribs are striking. But to me, it tastes weirdly metallic. It's among the large number of foodstuffs that taste OK when combined with cups of minced garlic and globs of sweet butter. Paper-towel rolls might taste all right with the same treatment.

There are more and more vendors offering seeds of things you can enjoy for their rarity or oddity. This summer, there will be chervil in my garden. It's a feathery herb that tastes like tarragon but more subtle. French chefs swear by it for vinaigrette or cream sauce or with mint on new potatoes. There's a variety of chervil called "Raven's Wing," which would complement your eggplant.

Russian gardeners grow black tomatoes; can someone tell me why? Is this in any way related to the work of Dostoevsky? There is one honoring an African-American—"Paul Robeson."

There is even beauty underground—the "Chioggia" beet is striped.

The formula for all this happy vegetable connoisseurship is simple: sun, good soil, and a chair. Find a sunny place, well-drained, without big tree roots nearby. Rip up the weeds or sod. Improve the soil with well-rotted cow manure or compost.

It's fine to start small. In a 6-by-4-foot plot, you can grow two or three tomato plants, four rows of different kinds of lettuce, a row of basil, and some oregano—an instant Mediterranean recipe. You might want to frame the plot with thyme or chamomile or feverfew—flowering herbs that exude good scent as you lean across them. It's OK to crowd the lettuce and herbs. Tomatoes, though, object to having some other plant blocking their sun. (For a moving account of making every square inch count, see this story about "keyhole gardens" in Lesotho.)

No matter how small your garden, give yourself a place to sit and look at it—a folding seat from a garage sale, a plastic lawn chair, a director's chair—anywhere you can perch and admire your handiwork.

You may protest that you really don't have an appropriate place for a vegetable garden and that you're away a lot of summer weekends. No excuse. Consider the case of Earl Weaver, the manager who led the Baltimore Orioles to six Eastern Division titles, four American League pennants, and a World Series championship. He did this while growing tomatoes just outside of Memorial Stadium's outfield fences. When the irascible Weaver went on the road with his team, the tomatoes were cared for by stadium groundskeeper Pat Santarone, who tended the field for more than 20 years. So have a friend water when you're away.

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