After I graduated from high school in 1966 gardening ceased to be a part of my life for a while. Summer began with me kicking around the neighborhood with my friends, the ones of whom my father disapproved back when I was a child in school. Now I was a graduate and although my friends were still not welcome at our house, where I went and with whom I went there was now only my own business. There was a war going on however, and I was pretty certain that the draft board would be calling me sooner or later, so before that summer ended Matt Hanley and I took a bus downtown and joined the Army.
There was little time for gardens at boot camp, and while opportunities for tending a garden abounded at my first real duty station in Texas the impulse just wasn’t there. I was assigned to a supply company that did not have a mission to supply anything, except warm bodies for any number of really crappy details that needed to be done around Fort Hood. We would get up in the morning and get dressed, fall out into formation to be counted, harassed, and dismissed to breakfast. We were then supposed to return to our barracks and await the First Sergeant who would come through and choose “volunteers” to mow and edge the fort commander’s lawn or haul latrines into the field for the 2nd Armored Division or whatever. The challenge, of course, was to not be found.
Some of the guys had no imagination and just laid around the barracks as instructed. Those suckers were sent on some really nasty details. The First Sergeant, or “Top” as we called him, soon tired of sending the same old guys and began to seek out those of us who were less inclined to be willing players in this ridiculous game. Some guys walked to a snack bar less than a block away and drank Cokes, smoked, played music on the juke box and shucked and jived about how cool they were back home. They were low-hanging fruit. Top busted them quickly and just as quickly yielded to the urge to find the more imaginative of us shitbirds. Some he found at the fort swimming pool, some at the main PX, some at various baseball fields and the fort theater. Top loved finding a goldbrick just when the goldbrick thought that he was home free and ready to enjoy a day of freedom and goldbrickery.
But Top never found me. My nickname at that time was Weasel, because if I didn’t want to be seen I would not be seen, and Top hated me for it. I occasionally took my chances like the other guys at the swimming pool, the theater or the Main Px, but most of my time there in Texas I spent at a branch library little more than a half a block away from Top’s orderly room. My guess is that Top wasn’t the greatest reader in Texas, and the last place that he would have thought to look for an indolent yardbird like myself was in a library.
I loved that library. It was air conditioned. It was loaded with books. It had access to the books of the main library and beyond. I read everything that I could get my hands on that was written by Bradbury, Verne, Wells, Heinlein, Asimov, et. al. I would lean back in a comfortable chair, put my feet up on a metal folding chair that the GI’s running the place provided for me, and read and doze for hours on end. At length, about 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, I would emerge from my cocoon and stroll back to the barracks for an evening of heavy partying with a kaleidoscope of guys of all races and economic classes and geographical provenance.
In such a scenario playing in the dirt would have made me entirely too visible, and so I had to abstain from the pleasure that I am certain that gardening in the Texas dirt under that glorious Texas sun would have been. There was room. There were seeds. There was time. I was both in Texas and the Army, so there was no shortage of bullshit. But the thrill of reading great science fiction and eluding Top at the same time was more than I could overcome, so gardening had to take a distant back seat in the train of my life at that time.
I left Texas in September of 1967, a little more than a year after leaving home on that bus, and spent most of the next two years in Vietnam. As one might imagine, the garden was not on my list of higher priorities while I was over there, but one plant was added to my short list of consumables: marijuana. I had smoked some in Texas but the intoxicating weed became a staple for me as I self-medicated in order to ignore the reality that surrounded me, and after my two tours in ‘Nam I returned home and began to grow my own stash as an alternative to the more expensive ten-dollar bags that were readily available in the drug community.
I had a partner in this crime. Wes, my oldest friend, had developed a green thumb while I was away. How that happened I have no idea, but as soon as we reconnected we began to farm our seeds and seedlings wherever we could. Like little Johnny Appleseeds we would traipse up and down the unused canyons of Balboa Park or we would walk parallel to the shoulders of the two lane road that led from east El Cajon up the face of a hill to the appropriately named village of Crest, planting our crop. Once, after a large forest fire denuded a huge patch of the Laguna Mountains, we volunteered to help replant evergreen seedlings in the scorched area. We would plant two seedlings and two marijuana seeds, then two more seedlings and two more marijuana seeds, and so on until we had exhausted our supply of both.
Once we tried our luck closer to where we lived. On a chaparral covered hillside on the north end of Mission Gorge, not far from Wes’ mother’s house, we crawled through the dry, prickly brush and found a flat area that got good sun. We planted seedlings this time and watered them from our canteens. A few days later we returned to water again and as we approached our little garden we were greeted by the unmistakable whirr of a rattlesnake warning us to seek our fortunes elsewhere, which we did at nearly the speed of light.
All of these gardening endeavors fell short due to our inability to tend to our crop. Weed, just like tomatoes and cucumbers, needs to be cared for in order to succeed. It was therefore easiest to grow our stash as close to where we lived as possible, and that ended up being in our back yards. This presented no problem for Wes, since his mother almost never ventured into their back yard, and she wouldn’t have cared anyway. My situation was different, since Dad was in the back yard nearly every day. I planted my seeds anyway and told Dad that they were a variety of tomato. Dad bought it, and even helped me to cultivate the little devils. This was a first class stupid and self-centered act on my part. My father was a public school teacher and the repercussions from finding pot growing in his back yard could have been crushing. I am not at all proud of that little move. Pop helped to grow some dynamite weed though.
Real gardening returned to my life when Wes, Clarice (who was to become my wife), and I moved into an apartment in El Cajon in 1971. Across the parking lot was a large and mostly unused back yard covered with weeds and junk. Wes caught the attention of the owner one day and asked if he would mind a small corner of his yard being used as a garden. The owner agreed and soon Wes and I had dug pup, fertilized and planted a 20′ by 20′ plot, cut in two. I grew tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans, while Wes did the same and added squash and peppers.
The garden was successful, and out kitchen was full of produce, as were those of the other tenants in our building. This occurred while Wes and I were completing our two years at Grossmont Community College, where we were taking a world history class together. We were both completely invested in that class and so it is not surprising that we jokingly made little alters to various Mesopotamian agricultural deities, with Wes selecting those from Assyria and me preferring those from Sumer. None of this signified anything like a theological impulse. I had given up on God while still a teenager when He stubbornly refused to dance the way I wanted Him to whenever I whistled a tune, and my resumption of a relationship with the Great Gardener would have to wait more than a decade to be achieved.
We build shrines out of bottle caps, an old tennis shoe, a bent fork, in fact any silly little thing that we could scounge up out of our trash can or the junk that littered the barren yard. And we had a great harvest too! Of course the steer manure and slug repellant and daily watering and tender, loving care that we administered while we sat back in the garden under the warm San Diego sun, nearly naked and smoking pot while working on our homework assignments probably had something to do with the harvest as well. We moved out of that apartment before the end of the season and I don’t know what came of the garden. If anybody cared to pick up the responsibility for it, I know that they were well rewarded.
In September of 1972 I travelled north to Rohnert Park, north of the San Francisco Bay, to attend Sonoma State College. During the fall and winter I was busy with school and making new friendships, but with the arrival of spring the sap began to flow in my limbs once again and I felt the urge to get my fingers back into the dirt. On a corner of the property where the two buildings of my apartment complex came together was a large square of field grass that was mowed but otherwise ignored. I contacted the owners and inquired whether I might put a garden there. They agreed and even produced a pick, shovel, rake, and some other hand tools, and I fell quickly to work.
Initially my efforts drew little attention, but as the grass was hacked out, the dirt turned over, and squares and hills fertilized with manure purchased out of my meager G.I. Bill check, more people became interested in my project. Jan and Sheila, a couple who lived around the corner from my unit, were vegetarians and very interested in my idea. I told them to pull weeds and help me water the beds, and then to help themselves to all that they wanted. One day, while I was employing a pick in the act of expanding the plot and sweating profusely, Lisa and Esther happened to come by. Lisa and Esther were a couple who lived in Building B and had spent time in Israel on a kibbutz, and thereby came to respect the growing of one’s own food. They came down to admire “a sweating man.” I enjoyed the attention but knew that neither of these very pretty ladies had much in the way of romantic interest in men, sweating or otherwise. They were good people though, who pitched in and then helped themselves to the bounty. They remained friends until I left northern California for good.
That garden was hugely successful. Tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, carrots, onions, peppers, even eggplant (from Jan and Sheila’s contribution; I still don’t consider eggplant to be food) were some of the vegetables that poured out of the garden and into our student kitchens. I was good at eating cheaply, with beans and hamhocks and rice making much of my diet. The addition of the green stuff helped to stretch things even further.
And then came the long drought. I returned to San Diego in the summer of 1973 while the garden was producing in full force and began to do construction work with Brad, my brother. Many years, a couple of different careers, and a marriage or two would come and go before I would once again have the opportunity to reestablish my relationship with the dirt and the things that can grow in it.
That drought came to an end sometime in the late 1990’s when I could no longer stand to see my back yard barren of any edible vegetable life. At this time I lived at the edge of a low hill and my back yard sloped in two directions; one towards the road cut to the west and the other towards the creek to the north that trickles westward towards the Columbia River a few miles downstream. This double slope was ungardenable, and therefore it took several years for me to haul, by hand, sixty and twenty pound concrete blocks into my yard in order to build up five terraces of usable level ground. Over twenty yards of dirt was dumped on my driveway and rolled, one wheelbarrow at a time, into the back to fill my terraces with the dirt that would soon put food on my table.
I wanted clean dirt, but there was no way of knowing where my dirt had come from. Perhaps it came from a new cut into a hillside, or maybe from the back lot of an auto wrecker. Heck, for all I knew it came from the Love Canal. None of this mattered much to me; I had my dirt and I would make it into what I wanted, and four-way mix and steer manure and maple leaves and grass clippings; all were worked into the rock-infested clay that they had dumped in my driveway, and year after year the soil grew looser, the earthworms thicker, and the yields more plentiful. In fact today, as I write this in April of 2016, there are a few green beans and blueberries yet in the freezer that grew in last year’s good earth.
And now, at last, I have the farm that I used to dream about with my father. With the addition of a 20′ by 20′ plot at a nearby community garden to my five productive terraces in the back yard I am able to grow enough food to fill my freezer, cover my table, and give away to neighbors and friends to my heart’s content. With earplugs in place to block the street noise I will sit in the midst of my gardens all summer, pulling weeds, feeding and aerating plants, and being entertained by the pollinating work of the honey bees. I’ll watch as the tiny wasps and bigger Tachinid flies flit in and among the flowers planted especially to attract them, knowing that they are feasting on aphids and cabbage worms.
The best part of my gardening life now lies in sharing my experiences with younger gardeners, mush like my father shared his with me. Neither of my children developed a passion for the soil like I did and that’s OK. They have built there own lives and done a fine job of it. It feels good though to pass on my knowledge to people who may pass it on in their own turn. Perhaps I’m sharing a little of my Dad, who shared his father with me and so on.
Oh, and there’s not a tennis shoe or a bottle cap to be found in any of my gardens. Gloria in excelsis Deo!