When I was a boy my grandparents lived in a succession of small western Tennessee towns. The names of the towns were typical and prosaic—Edith, Ripley, Dyersburg—but my siblings and I had a field day when they moved to a spot called Frogjump. We’d visit in summer, and the funniest thing to us was that we found the place to be truly almost infested with frogs. I was young and nothing of a naturalist or explorer at the time, so I don’t know if it was because there were nearby creeks or ponds, but there were frogs everywhere. My grandfather was the Baptist minister, and we attended church twice every Sunday. In the cool of the settling evening after late services, the local boys occupied themselves with catching frogs and hurling them to their deaths against the stone walls of the church.
My grandmother always kept a garden, but her garden in Frogjump is the one I remember most vividly. Maybe it’s because it was more successful than others. For one thing, she got a bumper crop of cucumbers one year. I would go out with her in the afternoon and while she weeded I would lift leaves and scrounge until I found a cucumber. It was a thrill, finding the big vegetables, all dusty and covered with scratchy prickles. And it was a thrill when she’d say to me, ‘Another one! Look at you! You’re so good at finding them!’ I was good at finding them. It was my special skill, my first indication that I was going to enjoy gardening, that I was going to be good at it.
When I was older and had homes of my own, I always put in a garden. Whether large or small, I always feel best when there is something that I am growing. Which is a funny expression in itself, because nobody truly grows anything. They just initiate the process by putting seeds in likely soil, watering that soil, and waiting for sunshine and warmth to have their effect. But again, I always feel best when I am participating in that process. It’s semantics, I guess.
But what stood out mostly for me is the fact that in general, I wasn’t that good at it. I didn’t take seriously the need to prepare the soil properly. I was impatient and would plant seeds that called for warm soil weeks before it was time. I’d complain to anyone who would listen about the bad seeds I had bought, secretly knowing the seeds had probably been just fine until I had consigned them to a frosty death in early March. I didn’t fertilize much, so plants that did grow were reluctant to produce any vegetables or fruit. And weeding was a chore I never took seriously, even though if I harked back to memories of my grandmother, weeding was the activity I saw her do the most in her gardens.
I eventually learned. I had some good teachers, and I read a lot. I have had plenty of successful gardens. I have learned that gardening is one of the most seasonal of activities. We mostly think of it as spring planting and summer’s abundance. But in autumn, after everything has been picked, the process of turning the soil begins. Even in the winter months, on any day warm enough to allow, you can be out there checking on the soil, tilling it one more time, getting it ready for spring planting.
Harvesting, the actual thrill of picking ripe vegetables, occupies less of your time than any other gardening activity, although to most of us, it is the payoff. And that’s what else I have learned. To experienced gardeners, every step is part of the payoff. All the preparation of the soil, laying out rows, patiently waiting to put in the seeds or bedding plants at the proper time, each step is gratifying and understood to be part of what leads to the harvest. Picking those cucumbers is the delight of children, and of fond grandmothers who seek to encourage little boys.