The Kitchen Garden
By Joe George

As is usually the case in magazine writing, this article is being written months ahead of its actual publication. I’m writing about gardening for a springtime issue, but I look out my window to a blanket of snow and single-digit temperatures. But still I joyfully anticipate the spring because I know that under the snow and first layer of frozen soil there lays live vegetation. Most is dormant, of course, but it’s still there—waiting.

The life cycle of food is something that shall always amaze me. I find, for example, the simple act of standing at the edge of a cornfield awe-inspiring. When eating meat one can easily see the association with death, because something must die in order to be eaten, but with vegetables and gardening there is life and hope for the bountiful season ahead.

If a person enjoys cooking, I really feel he or she should try kitchen gardening, no matter how big or small a venture. Because there is really nothing more satisfying than picking and cooking with herbs or vegetables that you personally have planted and tended. Or even better: picking a tomato off its vine in the hot sun, and feeling its warmth and smelling its earthiness, and biting into it right in the garden from which it sprang, while its unwashed dustiness tingles your tongue.

I moved into a small old house a little over two years ago, one in desperate need of repair. Thus, much of the first summer was spent tending to the house; I had little time for gardening. My teeny back yard was in fact a tangle of waist-high weeds and other overgrowth that I eventually whacked down. Towards the beginning of that first summer, a neighbor gave me a few tomato plants because he had purchased too many. I told him that I was thankful because tomatoes are my very favorite vegetable to grow. (Tomatoes are in fact the number one choice for backyard vegetable gardens in America.)

I tilled a little one-foot by one-foot square area of earth against a fence in the sunniest corner of my yard and planted them. I basically left them unattended all summer, watering them only occasionally and allowing weeds to entangle them. But still these three plants produced at least two dozen tomatoes. In the business of that particular summer I had more or less forgotten about them and was amazed one day when I saw the bright red hue of tomatoes peeking through the weeds in my backyard. It fortifies what I’ve thought all along: vegetables are simple to grow; they grow themselves, actually. The gardener just sort of guides them.

This wasn’t the amazing part, though. In their neglect, some of the tomatoes fell from their vine and were rotten when I found them. Let them become part of the earth again, I thought. Then, during the early days of last summer, upon making my first attempt at taming my feral backyard, I noticed a few little tomato plants growing in the same spot that the others had—the tomatoes that fell and rotted had reseeded themselves. Nature takes care of itself.

These undomesticated plants for some reason only yielded a few tomatoes (no doubt due to our mostly overcast summer last year), and I’m not sure if I’m imagining it but they seemed to be the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever eaten. The point is this: herb and vegetable gardening is easy, it can be done with the smallest plot of land and with minimal attention, and gardening can be therapeutic, because there really is nothing like planting and tending a few little plants and monitoring their growth. To me it’s a tiny slice of nature in the city.

My plans for gardening this summer are big, but on a small scale. The small size of my Allentown backyard dictates my available gardening space, thus I’m planning to try some gardening alternatives, such as using buckets and window boxes for temporary gardens. And given that my even teenier front yard receives the best sunlight of the day, I plan to plant a vegetable and herb garden out front, for both practical and aesthetic reasons. The thought of six-foot cherry tomato plants resting against my front porch appeals to me. This way I’ll be able to admire my produce each time I walk out the front door, and I’ll have less grass to cut, too—not a bad exchange.

Joe George is Executive Chef at the 20th Century Club and a frequent contributor to food websites and publications.


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