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A New Garden, A New Life

susan heeger

One of the things I love most in the world is our vegetable garden. Just walking around in it makes me happy — drinking in the order and action of its raised beds with their rainbow lettuce rows, curling pea vines and kale splayed in giant topknots from knobby stems. Every morning I’m out there prowling to see what’s happened overnight, and soon I’m back, needing chard and collards for a breakfast shake. At noon, plants are stretching in the sun — can’t miss that — and by 6 or 7, it’s time to wander out and snip something for dinner.

Whatever else might be happening in my day, or in the world, the garden is always there, carrying on its unhurried, miraculous business in the bee-humming, earth-splitting Now. Being in it plugs me into that vital present, listening, smelling, belonging to it utterly, complete. So much does it move me that I’m amazed at how I ever lived without it and how utterly it has changed my world.

We made this garden four years ago, my husband and I, when our son was a high school senior, and we began to anticipate what it would mean to be alone again, the two of us. The economic recession had hit too. We saw friends losing jobs. Our own work lives were getting less predictable. We needed some all-absorbing task to perk us up, calm us down, give us a sense of our effectiveness beyond work. “Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote rather sharply in his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” and we took his words to heart.

Though we’d grown vegetables before — in pots by the kitchen door or mixed into garden beds — we’d never had a dedicated plot. We’d talked for years about taking over the space between our house and the garage, a concrete-paved court where our son had played basketball and skated. It also got the best sun on our city lot.

Susan Heeger's vegetable garden in Los Angeles.Rather than taking small steps that would allow us to measure our commitment, we had the concrete sawed up and re-laid into four permanent, raised beds, each 5 feet wide and 9 feet long, separated by gravel walks.

They looked huge in the beginning, filled with rich soil and tiny seedlings. But in a few months, we were greedy for more space. We ripped out a hedge along a nearby wall to seize more ground for tomatoes. We stopped going out to eat and rediscovered cooking, making soup stock from our greens and carrots, rémoulade with the root celery, caponata with the eggplant. Because our friends weren’t eating out much either, it seemed friendly — and easy — to invite them over to share whatever was ready in the garden. That list grew and grew, and began to include things we hadn’t known we liked: baby turnips, kohlrabi, broccoli rabe. And since “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” one winter we went with ‘Blauschokker Purple’ peas, the next with ‘Weggisser’ snaps and ‘Sugar Ann.’

Very little disappointed us, as Emerson had predicted (“With the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear”). We became worm farmers, making super soil with their castings and stronger, more prolific plants. We learned to pair certain bed-mates and not others (beets love cabbage, strawberries don’t).

But mostly, as we witnessed miracles of creation — feathery carrot sprouts, budding okra — we came to know that “the secret of fortune is joy in our hands.”

You plant the seed, you nurture it, it nurtures you. That’s it. That’s everything. The deepest mystery, the most irresistible thrill, just out there behind the house.

Susan Heeger, a contributing editor for Martha Stewart Living and the Los Angeles editor-at-large for Coastal Living, is the co-author, with urban farmer Jimmy Williams, of “From Seed to Skillet, A Guide to Growing, Tending, Harvesting, and Cooking Up Fresh, Healthful Food to Share With People You Love.” Just out from Chronicle Books, it’s on Amazon’s list of Best Books of 2010.

Photo: Susan Heeger’s vegetable garden. Credit: Eric Staudenmaier