In the very early days of our life together and our gardening experience, it seems that much good came to us from the houses we rented. We left our rural life in Pepperell, Massachusetts, in 1972 to spend a glorious year in Copenhagen on Fulbright appointments to the University of Copenhagen and at the Folk University. Though the city was rich in cultural experiences—the Danish Royal Opera and Ballet, the fine old architecture, fascinating museums, historic castles, excellent restaurants—our life there offered little to us as gardeners. The apartment we succeeded in renting (with great difficulty, as we were transient) was spacious and well lit, on the third floor of a rather anonymous modern building with no land, though there was a splendid view from our living room window of the Spanish embassy, with a great flowering chestnut tree in front and a pretty formal reception garden behind. We made up for our lack, as we had before on Beacon Street in Boston, with cut flowers.
Through the incredibly mandarin but somehow startlingly efficient social system of Copenhagen (“My cousin knows someone who is related to someone in the Bureau of … I’ll make a call”), we quickly secured a quite illegitimate license to shop the wholesale flower market early in the morning, and we would return with sheaves of improbable blossoms for vases—proteras and gladioli, camellias and forced branches of quince—and often with potted flowering plants—Cinerarias, Cyclamen, forced bulbs and Kalanchoes—which gave us about as much pleasure as the flowers in vases and then were for the dustbin.
Doing without, in most human passions, can lead to a powerful urge to recover what is missing. So when we returned to Boston a year later, though we savored our renewed love for that old city, we immediately secured a plot in its famous Victory Gardens in the Fenway, bordering the aptly named Muddy River. We were urban dwellers still, but we had a scrap of ground we could cultivate on fine spring mornings and radishes we could harvest hardly a month after. We had sunlight, too, which we had not seen for all our autumn and winter in Copenhagen, and the crunch of a really fresh bean, which we had missed since leaving Pepperell two years before.
Everyone we knew in the Victory Gardens was more or less mad with desire. Our neighbors were an assorted lot—a furniture salesman, a stylish young couple in real estate, two elderly spinsters of reduced means, a leather-clad man who drove a motorcycle, an aristocratic lady of German origin—but we all shared one common passion: the need to dig in the dirt and raise something. But we left the Fenway after two years and moved to a rented house in Whitingham, Vermont, while we waited to find a house of our own.
We lived there for two more years, and it was a good house, old but not much remodeled over its many years. There were some original features, beamed ceilings, a splendid fireplace, and a large glassed-in south-facing porch, the “drying porch” of old Vermont houses where winter laundry was hung and where we built staging and had wonderful flowering plants throughout the winter. There was a pleasant sunlit 1950s Betty Crocker kitchen, with a table in the middle where for once, never before or after, we used a tablecloth.
But, as before, in Pepperell, the real treasures of the property were ample land, woods, and a fine barn in which we could keep chickens and other poultry. From the land, which was ancient, well-tended pasture when we came, we fashioned an enormous vegetable garden, really enough to feed a family of twelve. But we were hungry, not just for vegetables but also for plenitude, and for the joys of the work itself. In some ways, that was the most productive vegetable garden we ever had, in part because of the virgin nature of the soil, and in part because our little plot in the Victory Gardens had allowed our passions to leak out in a trickle but not in the flood we wanted. We grew everything, and we froze food then (we do not now). We can vividly remember the day that eighteen heads of cauliflower came ripe all at once and had to be processed and frozen the night before an early departure for a family wedding.
Most vividly, we remember the spinach we grew. Spinach can be a cranky crop, demanding cool weather, full sun, lots of moisture, perfect drainage, and deep, rich, fertile earth, with a neutral soil reading, somewhere close on either side of 6.0. We did not know much of that then. So, with beginner’s luck, we appeared to happen on just the right combination, and our spinach was huge, with leaves dark and richly crinkled, on heads that were fully a foot across. Distant memory can become gilded, but it seems to us that we picked spinach from late May all the way to July, and we never remember any that was stunted or bolted or yellow or had aphids.
That is not the first experience that has given us the sense that the heavens smile on novice gardeners who have little but borrowed knowledge and their own intense enthusiasm. We have never grown such good spinach since, and certainly not in our present garden, the one we will have until we die. Contiguous both to our poultry house and our pig house, and not far from our cow pasture, it is unusually well endowed with well-rotted compost, both autumn and spring. An extensive underground drainage system gives us some rows that can be readied just at the proverbial point at which the frost leaves the ground and the soil is workable. That is actually perhaps a month or even six weeks before the last frost, but spinach, with several other crops, will germinate in cold soil and is resistant to light frost. So the day we plant spinach, along with broad beans, onions, and leeks, is a joyful day.
If we have been diligent the autumn before, rows have already been turned up to receive the great benefits of winter, which improves their tilth. Still in spring they must be composted and turned again, and then smoothed down with the back of a rake to receive the seed. There is pleasure in the work itself, and a challenge, for one must try to make the bed perfectly. And then the seed is put in. Broad beans are easy, for their flattened, thumb-sized seeds can be as neatly arrayed as a column of marching soldiers, and then gently pressed into the soft earth, preferably eye side down, so the first questing root will go in the right direction without having to wiggle itself around.
Other crops join the spinach and broad beans in this first working of the garden in springtime. Though it will be yet two weeks before we sow the peas, now in earliest April we can plant onions and leeks, arugula and mache, and radishes. There is pleasure in anticipating the early harvest this labor will yield. But the great pleasure is the earth in our hands, connected to it again after a long winter’s absence.
Copyright © 2013 by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd
Illustrations and “Pie Recollections” copyright © 2013 by Bobbi Angell
Recipes by Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta copyright © 2013 by Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta