When it’s better to have an organic plot full of experiments and mistakes than a flawless one that might never exist.
By Claire Dederer for Rodale’s Organic Life
Six years ago, my family and I moved from an urban Seattle neighborhood to a pretty farmhouse on a nearby island. The house sits in the middle of a large, flat clearing with a southern exposure. “A vegetable garden!” I exclaimed to the children the day we moved in. They were 10 and 7 years old, and they listened, rapt, as I unspooled my Technicolor organic vision.
I knew just enough to be dangerous, and I had in mind a magnificent garden. We would plant raspberry canes and delicate lettuces and artichokes with heads like thorny crowns. In the ground, beets and carrots would hide their rainbow glory; potatoes would dream under small hills. Gravel paths would divide elegant raised beds. We would use only heirloom seeds, which sounded incredibly cool though I didn’t exactly understand what made them better than regular seeds. We would build a fence against the deer. (There are so many deer where we live that sometimes I picture coming home to find one tucked in my bed, counterpane pulled up to its chin: “Hey. What’s up.”) Our fence would be built from clear cedar—I loved that phrase, redolent of insider knowledge—untreated with demon chemicals that might leach into the beds. The garden gate would be constructed from driftwood I planned to gather from the beach. Or better yet, we would gather it together as a family. We would be the kind of family that did stuff like that. I was transported by my own fantasy.
“Yeah, but when are we going to start?” asked my son, eager to get going.
“Soon!” I promised. “As soon as I...” Well, you can fill in the blank here: unpack, cook dinner, finish writing this book, help with the school auction, have a little more money, a little more time. My husband, Bruce, and I are full-time writers raising two kids; resources get stretched. The weeks and months and years slipped by, and still the garden didn’t get made.
My husband’s ancestors were Norwegian farmers and Croat fisherman, the kind of people who got stuff done without worrying too much about niceties. Bruce, in the scrappy, DIY way of his forebears, suggested we start digging and, you know, just sort of see what transpired. He salvaged wood for beds and poles for the fence. He stored these items in the garage while I remained paralyzed by my vision of perfection.
The gate would be constructed from driftwood I planned to gather from the beach. I was transported by my own fantasy.
I’m much given to such visions. Usually they are homespun and hipsterish, but they are visions of perfection nonetheless. I am a person with a willful dedication to a certain aesthetic ideal. When I say I’m critical, I’m not using psychobabble—I’ve literally made my living as a professional critic, and those of us who follow this calling are not known for our flexible standards (or happiness).
And so the gardenless years went by. Five, to be precise. The children flourished; books and articles got written; we became settled in our new town. But the corner of the yard we had set aside for the garden remained flat and empty: a place to mow.
Then, one rainy day, while I sat inside drinking coffee and doing something decidedly nongardeny on my computer, my husband wordlessly donned his Carhartts and a pair of work boots. I watched from the window as he picked up a shovel and began to dig in the area we had set aside for the garden.
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