It’s been snowing all morning and I’ve only now noticed that it’s stopped. Weather reports say it will not stick and will be replaced by rain as soon as this afternoon. In the front yard I can see the fava bean starts peering through the top of the snow, green fronds of garlic in the raised beds on the parking strip. It’s a quiet and lovely scene, though the beauty of the snow belies to some extent the decay that is so much a part of the season. Still, like many faithful gardeners I’m drawn to the window in these times to dream about spring, about all the life that lies dormant under that white blanket and about what I will plant this year.
Three years ago, I pulled up the lawn in our front yard to plant a vegetable garden. I’m sure there are far more expedient methods than the one I chose, on my knees cutting away at the sod with a sort of hatchet, day after day. When we moved to Portland, I had never gardened before and most of my early activity in the yard was far more brutish enthusiasm than brains. But there was something transcendent about all the sweat and sore muscles, about hauling the useless lawn away in a barrow, or sneaking it into the yard debris bin. A friend from Seattle gifted me Steve Solomon’s bible, “Vegetable Gardening West of the Cascades,” and I got to work enriching the newly exposed soil with compost, lime dolomite and a cover crop of crimson clover. That late spring – turning the clover into the soil and picking out and planting our summer garden – I felt the first real flush of what was possible in this space. I saw us learning how to feed ourselves.
We’ve had three summer gardens and a child since. Last year, we invited five chicks into our lives, two of whom began crowing at about four months old and who – three months later – were served fried in what I can only describe as the most realistic meal I’ve ever eaten. At this writing we have a persimmon tree, two plum trees, an apple tree, a pear tree, an Arbequina olive tree and a sprawling, old Concord grape vine on our relatively modest lot. (Approximately 800 square feet.) In three raised beds in our back yard and two raised beds on our front parking strip we’ve grown everything from lettuces to turnips, herbs to strawberries. And in the 200 square feet (give or take) that used to host only a scrubby, peaty lawn, we’ve grown tomatoes, winter and summer squash, beans, cucumbers, artichokes, peppers and eggplants of many varieties.
Still, we have so much to learn. An excess of shade and short summers challenge our yields. Aphids have caused me to give up almost altogether on some of my favorite brassicas. And while I used to spend at least a small part of every pleasant day in the yard, parenting has made that kind of liberal attention a real challenge. (Read: impossible.) But I’m only encouraged when I look outside. As an artist, it’s impossible for me not to compare gardening to a drawing or painting that’s never really finished. And delightfully so. This is the work that unfolds in seasons and years and studies and triumphs and failures. And I’m absolutely hooked.
There are far more lyrical writers and established artists considering the political, social and environmental power of the modern victory garden. (Michael Pollan and Fritz Haeg come to mind and are heroic in their leadership.) But if my voice here is part of a din, I think it’s exactly the sort of racket we need now. So while this blog will continue to be a space to share my studio work and news of its showing in the world, it will also be a humble place to consider and discuss this other art project of simplification and budding sufficiency in my home, garden and community. I hope you’ll stay tuned and share your thoughts and experiences with me.