Now that Boston’s 4-foot snow banks are vanishing and songbirds are showing up at the backyard feeder, I cannot help but think about a garden. The winter this year has been interminable, and my touching belief that spring will come, because it always does, makes me think about the meaning to gardeners of the myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, who was captured and taken to the underworld by Hades. To get her back, Demeter made a deal with Hades: In return for having her daughter live with her for two-thirds of the year, she agreed to allow seeds to sprout from the earth during that time, and would send Persephone back into the underworld for the remaining months, ever after known as winter.
I love that myth because it not only reminds me that I will someday see a daffodil again, but that the beauty and satisfaction of a garden comes at a steep price. Money enters into it, and I will get to that, but I am thinking more in terms of aggravation — enduring bad weather, battles against plant diseases and sap-sucking insects, and especially the ravages of small, voracious animals. So much writing about gardening is joyful, enticing the reader to expect a carefree and abundant crop of, let’s say, heirloom tomatoes. The seed catalogs, which arrive in the mail during snowstorm season, are especially guilty of leading us to expect a happy-go-lucky growing season, what with their rhapsodic prose and mouthwatering photographs of dewy vegetables at their peak. They never mention the formidable challenges that await the innocent gardener.
At war with the critters
The first hurdle, for those of us who raise plants from seed, is to get the process right. Seeds must grow in the correct medium and get just enough water — not too much — and just enough sunlight — also not too much. One year I set up an elaborate system of grow lights in the basement, planning to raise the height of the fluorescent bulb apparatus as the vegetable seedlings grew taller. For reasons still not clear to me, I forgot all about my incubating plants, and when I finally remembered them I found flats of shriveled infant plants no longer viable. Since then, I start seeds only in kitchen windows where I cannot help but notice them. Plants are nurtured along and are transplanted outdoors where they develop during a period I have come to think of as the tranquil part of the growing season. The digging and the heavy lifting are over, and this is the time when we watch our little charges thrive and set fruit.
It’s the fruit, the point of this whole enterprise that is the cause of the aforementioned aggravation. I share my backyard with rabbits, squirrels, raccoons and woodchucks, and each year they seem cagier, and I am left feeling like Elmer Fudd in constant combat with Bugs Bunny. Raccoons are choosy about what they steal, so I don’t grow certain things, like corn. Rabbits tend to nosh on leafy plants, so I have stopped trying to grow lettuce, which leaves me with beans, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants as main crops. One year I found that every plant in the garden had been bitten down to a stump. Even my dahlias, a great source of pleasure for me, had been chewed to the quick, all of this wreckage a sure sign of woodchucks who eat everything because they never learned to share. In a rage, I called up a local farm store to get advice, and the old-timer at the other end of the phone instructed me to perch on my upstairs bedroom window sill with a shotgun, and blow off the head of any woodchuck that turned up. Shocked and indignant (I have participated in my share of peace marches) I informed the old boy that I was a gardener and not a hunter and I would just have to find another solution. And so I tried. My next thought was to engage professional trappers to get rid of the beasts. In return for something like $750, a couple came by several times a week to set Have-a-Heart traps that eventually cleared out the family of woodchucks that were set free many miles away from my house.
The high price of homegrown
By that time, my tomato plants — what I love most in the vegetable garden — had looked ready to produce hundreds of fruit and I was spending my evenings reading cookbooks for tomato-based recipes, and thinking about the soups and sauces I would freeze and serve in the middle of winter. But, when I cruised the garden one morning, I discovered that every single green tomato had been picked, and I even saw the culprit at work — a huge, fat squirrel. The trappers were brought back, the fat squirrel captured, and he too was taken for a ride. This year, I am planning to set up a squirrel feeder in hopes of distracting others who may go for green tomatoes. The contraption I have in mind looks like a large gerbil wheel with places for ears of dried corn to be attached. Squirrels must run around and around in pursuit of the corn, grabbing a mouthful now and then and otherwise keeping busy and distracted. I have no idea if the device will work, but I like the notion that the squirrels too will face a challenge this year.
All of this drama, along with expensive solutions, makes my husband wonder why I put myself through so much sturm and drang each year. One time, he even put a price tag on what my few remaining tomatoes had wound up costing, but at least was kind enough not to estimate the price of my labor. Most of all, he hates to see me come to breakfast with tears in my eyes, having surveyed the latest wreckage in the garden. So, how do I explain my persistence? Only another gardener will understand the profound joy involved in growing plants, especially those that produce Brandywine tomatoes or sweet Japanese eggplants. And, on another level, I love being so fundamentally connected to the growing season with all of its challenges and many pitfalls, because growing a garden strikes me as a pretty convincing analogue to living a life.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photo: Garden preparation supplies. Credit: Barbara Haber.