Lauren R. Stevens: Gardening in the ideal



Every garden is two gardens, the one that exists in the planning stage in the winter and the one that exists on the ground in the summer. Now I am at the planning stage and so I conceive of a Platonic garden, an ideal unencumbered by cucumber beetles, unslimed by slugs or unburned by black-bottom tomatoes.

No deer hop the fence to feed in the planned garden. There is always sufficient moisture, even without watering, yet the sun shines brightly during the daylight hours. The carrots are not twisted and distorted by heavy, clay soil. Potatoes don’t contain rot or turn green. Weeds mind their own business elsewhere. Frost will not visit my garden in September.

Plato (426/427 B.C.-348/347 B.C.) held that what we see or touch is only the shadow of the real object, which can be apprehended through intuition. My actual garden will be a facsimile of the ideal garden I planned. There the fertile soil yields to the fork, the seeds shake from the pack one at a time, each seed reproduces its kind, the rows are straight and the all the critters working in the soil further the process.

Plato was a gardener -- at least, he owned a garden in Athens, with olive trees. It became the site for his Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

It is unlikely he received seed catalogues in the mail as most present day, northern gardeners do by March. Neither do I, having by moving shaken them off. So I plan my garden based on memories of past gardens rather than by beguiling brochure photographs. When the time comes, I will probably pick up seeds, seed potatoes and tomato plants at Whitney’s Farm Market, in Cheshire.

I draw the garden to scale on graph paper. Placing crops, I remember that tomatoes and potatoes need to go somewhere else from their previous year’s location. I don’t have olive trees in Western Massachusetts but I do have a high bush blueberry in my garden. In one instance last year the actual exceeded the plan. I planted the tomatoes around the bush. After the blueberries were by, the tomato vines took off and were supported by the bush. Companion planting that I won’t be able to arrange this year.

I eschew corn, as taking too much space and too much out of the soil. Besides, the Chenail family makes excellent sweet corn available at their farm stand in Williamstown. I leave room for several plantings of lettuce and peas -- the vines next to the fence for climbing. I determine to plant some spinach again. In my ideal garden it won’t bolt so quickly -- although I also plan for chard, as a backup.

I know the actual garden will exhibit many of the flaws to which gardens in these parts are susceptible. That need not discourage an ardent planner. Plato has Socrates saying: "It matters not, Crito, if this ideal city of which we speak has ever been or in fact will ever be, for he who has seen it will live in the manner of that city."

So with my garden. I will plant and it will come up as it imperfectly does. But having planned it, I will garden in the manner of the ideal.

At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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